Olympics 2020 is Giving Female Athletes Respect They Long Deserved
COMMENTARY

August 8, 2021 by Mary Sanchez
22 Jul 1988: Florence Griffith-Joyner runs down the track during the Olympic Trials.(Getty Images/TNS)

“Flo-Jo” won’t get out of my head.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the trials that led up to it, have been a ritual of replayed taped events, and the occasional, live event watched at sleep-deprivation hours.

Each female athlete’s performance, their achievements on the track and in life, has me mesmerized.

Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Olympic record in the 100 m, along with the triumphant medal sweep of her Jamaican teammates.

Allyson Felix, one of six mothers on the U.S. Olympic track and field team, deftly proving that motherhood definitely does coincide with top athletic performance.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson, coming off an injured Achilles tendon, then dropping to the track mid-stride with an injury to her other leg, and still, she insisted on crossing the finish line, well after everyone else finished.

So many laudable women.

And yet, “Flo-Jo” won’t get out of my head.

To younger generations, the name Florence Griffith-Joyner will soon garner increasingly less recognition. Video footage of her from the 1980′s is already often fuzzy, of a different era, not today’s high-definition clips.

But it’s Flo-Jo’s records that these other fabulous women are finally busting, three decades later. Flo-Jo’s sassy style that many of them are mirroring. And most importantly, there are the personal struggles, some of race and class similar to what she faced, that they now have the clarity, the support, to share.

Griffith-Joyner deserved the respect, the acknowledgment of human frailties that female athletes today are receiving in abundance.

Griffith-Joyner was hailed for her beauty, but never heralded as the GOAT.

Instead, she was accused of being a cheater. A sports writer correctly noted that an “invisible asterisk” would always accompany her name. The reason was that her records were so astounding, her acceleration toward the finish line so powerful, that people doubted it was a natural ability.

And she was boldly unique; often competing in one-legged bodysuits that she designed and with her hair, long nails and full-makeup perfectly done.

I saw her once in person. It was in Indianapolis, at the 1988 Olympic trials, site of her world record in the 100 m (10.49), a time that’s long been questioned as wind-aided, despite official rulings at the time that it was not. Generally, I’m not star struck, but I recall staring at her from a few feet away, enthralled.

She’d run for three golds and one silver at the Seoul Olympics, setting the Olympic record in the 100 m (10.62); a feat finally surpassed by Thompson-Herah who ran it in 10.61.

Griffith-Joyner never tested positive for drugs. But she retired just as random testing began, accelerating doubts about her achievements.

She died at 38 in 1998, of an epileptic seizure in her sleep, a tragedy that reignited the questions of her records. An autopsy found nothing in her system.

Some still claimed, without medical evidence, that the fatal condition was surely brought on by prior drug use. Family said it was a congenital issue, a lesion on her brain. She’d had seizures previously.

Another track athlete claimed, but never brought any proof forward, that he’d discussed performance-enhancing drugs with Griffith-Joyner and had sold her human growth hormone. He later had his own struggles with depression and a suicide attempt, which he thankfully lived through and then rebuilt his life.

The seventh of 11 children, Griffith-Joyner quit college and running at one point, working as a bank teller to help support the family.

Her stardom was multiplied by the fact that she was married to Olympic medalist Al Joyner; which made her the sister-in-law to track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee; all stellar athletes/coaches.

But the stain on her name would not wash out. I’ve long wondered what the whispers did to Griffith-Joyner’s spirit, her sense of self.

If we’re going to raise new generations of female athletes who are encouraged to voice their personal doubts and mental health difficulties to the world, the replies must become more substantial.

“You go girl!” is not going to cut it. Nor will a smile-inducing emoji. Or rapt attention, conciliatory support, offered only to female athletes at peak of performance levels.

As with any shift in societal norms, nothing changes overnight or without pushback. Simone Biles was initially labeled weak and selfish by some unenlightened souls after she pulled herself from Olympic competition. She schooled those folks, and many others to the physical dangers inherent with gymnastics.

Biles, in an interview while still in Tokyo, listed a few of the stellar people who had reached out to her in support; including Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Oprah.

Oprah isn’t going to be calling the high school female athlete who struggles with depression.

Positive support, outreach, a connection with a therapist, needs to be within the reach of all athletes, no matter their level. So many unhealthy behaviors, like eating disorders, are still strongly associated with women in sports.

There will be those who believe the open discussion about mental health and emoting about private struggles will cultivate a generation demanding of their participation ribbons. The opposite might come to pass.

We might just gain new generations of athletes of a range of abilities, legions of women as daring and assured off the track as they are on it.

©2021 Mary Sanchez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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