So here we are, sliding into another track season, ready to see how many more records Florence Griffith Joyner can smash; to see if America's most phenomenal athlete of this decade, relatively speaking, can have a really good day and beat Carl Lewis and then take on something more her size, like a cheetah.

But by now it's starting to sink in. Flo-Jo won't have the track world to kick around anymore. She will not be exercising the female prerogative. She will not change her mind. What she said in February will stand forevermore.She's through. She's broken her last tape. She's a retiree. She's going to try to get by on the $4 million or so - per year - she figures to make on windfall endorsements from her merely incredible, in womankind terms, season of 1988.

It was a meteoric rise. Before 1988, the only people who knew Florence Griffith Joyner from Florence Henderson were the kind who subscribe to Track & Field News and could recite verbatim the seven events in the heptathlon. Hers had been a rather nondescript career, with a silver medal from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as her crown jewel.

Then came the U.S. Olympic Trials last July, and there came Flo-Jo, who wasn't known as Flo-Jo until then.

She had these long funky fingernails, and these funky running outfits, and every time she ran she was breaking records. She wiped .27 of a second off Evelyn Ashford's 100-meter world record, from 10.76 to 10.49, which was roughly the equivalent of what the gasoline engine did to the steam engine.

When she ran, people's mouths dropped. Somebody figured out that she could beat the national champion in about a third of the countries around the world - the national MALE champion. Somebody else figured out that she would have beaten O.J. Simpson for the 1966 NCAA 100-yard-dash title.

She had every woman in the world chasing her. If she ran, she won. She set world records at 100- and 200-meters, and she won three gold medals in Seoul. She was named Athlete of the Year by most of the organizations that name Athletes of the Year, including the Jesse Owens Foundation, the USOC, The Athletics Congress, and the AAU.

Then, at the prime-time age of 28, she quit.

She explained that it was more grueling than she thought, picking up all those awards and eating all that banquet food, not to mention taking care of all the endorsement deals. She said she had to choose one or the other, and she'd choose the spoils.

She said it with a straight face, as if no other active athlete in the world has to juggle business with business; as if the Michael Jordans and Orel Herschisers and Steffi Grafs don't have a few irons in the fire too; as if that isn't why agents were invented.

While she was saying what she was saying, others were saying other things. In Toronto, Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson's coach, was suggesting to a Canadian commission investigating drug abuse that his guy wasn't the only steroid user in 1988.

He showed a chart of the incredible rise in the women's 100- and 200-meter records to illustrate his point, although he didn't mention Flo-Jo by name.

In Philadelphia, Carl Lewis told a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania that he knew, "from some very reliable sources," that Flo-Jo used male-hormone steroids in 1988.

And in Washington, D.C., at a steroid-investigation meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, before- and after-pictures from a West German track magazine were presented as evidence of the kind of dramatic steroid-induced changes that can occur in a human body. The pictures, with the head cropped off, were of Ms. Joyner's body, in 1985 and 1988. No one on the committee believed they were of the same person, or that the second photo was a woman.

Griffith Joyner has denied any and all charges.

It's true. She passed the drug tests in Seoul, the same tests Ben Johnson flunked. She must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

But, still, she's going a long way out of her way to duck another race. She's avoiding the one true and acid test: The Do It Again test. Do it again in 1989, when drug-testing, by both urine and now blood samples, will be more strict than ever.

What she's doing is largely unprecedented. Athletes who have great moments, or seasons, always return. Did Cassius Clay retire after he decked Sonny Liston? Did Roger Bannister call it a career after his sub-four-minute mile? Did John Stockton quit after his all-time assists season last year? The only ones who are supposed to be able to do this and get away with it are race horses and mountain climbers.

Everybody else should have to do it again. Or, should WANT to do it again. Flo-Jo won every hand they dealt her, and now she's leaving early, as a winner. You don't have to have played many poker games to know that that's not going out like a man - even if you came in like one.