WHEN WINDY Jorgensen was a grade-schooler, she had a FloJo doll, complete with brightly colored leotards and long, sparkling fingernails. By junior high school her walls were covered with pictures of Florence Griffith Joyner, hair flying, arms straining, thigh muscles bulging.
It was the '80s, and suddenly it wasn't just OK for women to be big-time athletes, it was waaaaay cool.The death of Griffith Joyner this week marked the passing of one of the greatest track stars in history. But more than that, it marked the death of one of those rare athletes who set the agenda for an entire generation. With FloJo, it wasn't just about substance and it wasn't just about style. It was about both. She won AND looked good doing it. When she finished a race, you had to wonder if the first two things on her mind were, "Did I break a record?" followed by, "Did I smear my lipstick?"
In an era when Title IX was just taking hold in a serious way, she made sure she and her sport got their due respect.
"I even struggled with that. My older sister told my parents that they shouldn't let me run. It wasn't cool," says Jorgensen, the former BYU all-America sprinter. "But not after (FloJo). When that era was over, nobody bothered me about running."
Griffith Joyner's death raised suspicions of steroid use. She went from an average competitor whose career was dying to the fastest woman in the world, almost overnight. Nevertheless, she never tested positive for illegal drugs.
In any case, she made history. She was to women's sports what Muhammad Ali was to boxing: style, with the game to back it up. She could set a world record and head for a fashion shoot right after crossing the finish line. When she ran, you could spot her from the cheap seats. She was the one that looked like she just came from the salon.
While detecting her gender wasn't a problem, making sense of her times was another matter. They were astounding. She actually ran the 100 meters faster than O.J. Simpson. You can look it up.
With FloJo, every meet was a fashion show. The medals stand was her runway. She would match a purple leotard with a teal bikini bottom or race with one leg bare. She grew her fingernails several
inches long and painted them red, white, blue and, naturally, gold. She had everything young girls love: pretty hair, long nails and bright colors.
Oh, and times that would blow the doors off a Ferrari.
No longer did pre-teen and teenage girls have to settle for watching and imitating the men. Nor did they need to conjure up images of hairy Eastern European women throwing the shot and hammer. It was beauty and grace and power and speed, all in one glittering package.
After Griffith Joyner arrived, Jorgensen got a velvet track suit with a cowhide print on the bottom. Not exactly your standard high school issue, but who cared? It had FloJo written all over it.
"She showed you could be feminine and still be an athlete," says Jorgensen. "She kept the feminine qualities, which the European sprinters didn't do."
Indeed, Griffith Joyner was different. While Billy Jean King made a mark in 1973 by beating Bobby Riggs in a tennis match, that event was a staged circus. It was a big step on the road to equality, but it wasn't on a balanced playing field. She beat a man nearly twice her age and who had never been a top player. FloJo simply made her statement by beating all the competition, and doing it with style points. Meanwhile, high school and college coaches taped her races and reverently played them back for their teams.
King was a strong figure, but masculine. The little princess-types who watched King on television weren't sure what to think. But in FloJo they had their own flowing-haired princess to follow.
Her enduring legacy may not be the records she smashed, but the way she got people watching track and field. She showed us that speed is speed, no matter the gender.
Had there been no FloJo to bring women's sports quickly ahead, track might still be a minor event. Perhaps today there wouldn't be a WNBA and certainly no women's hockey team. She showed that women's athletics were not only acceptable but desirable.
If time does show she used performance-enhancing drugs, it would be a sad revelation. Clearly, it would diminish her greatness. But it wouldn't change the fact that she got our attention. Because winning is one thing, but winning with style is a hard combination to ignore.