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The Spoils Of Victory
Kenny Moore
April 10, 1989
For Florence Griffith Joyner, Olympic prowess and smashing looks have been lucrative, but at the cost of her running
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April 10, 1989

The Spoils Of Victory

For Florence Griffith Joyner, Olympic prowess and smashing looks have been lucrative, but at the cost of her running

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Last summer Florence Griffith Joyner was eking out $18,000 a year by filing invoices for Anheuser-Busch, Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., and braiding the hair of friends. Then at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in July, coated with purple Lycra except for one leg left artfully bare, she obliterated Evelyn Ash-ford's 100-meter world record of 10.76 with a time of 10.49.

Not long afterward, at the Lumley Castle Hotel near Gateshead, England, Griffith Joyner and her husband, Al, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, met with Gordon Baskin. their new personal manager. Baskin, 65, is a small man with a voice of oil and sweet reason. Now he looked as if he had on saddlebags, so overflowing were his suit pockets with balled-up phone messages.

"The offers are rolling in to run, to do commercials," Baskin told them. "If you race in the European meets in late August and do spot endorsements along the way, why, in two-and-a-half weeks you can make several hundred thousand dollars. But if you do, you'll cut into your Olympic focus. So, which is it to be?"

"That gold," said Al without hesitation, "is fool's gold."

"Let's go home and train," said his wife.

Six weeks later in Seoul, Griffith Joyner won the Olympic 100 and 200 meters (the latter in a world record 21.34), ran on the U.S.'s winning 4 X 100-meter relay team and anchored the U.S. to silver behind the Soviet Union in the 4 X 400 relay. With that last, unexpected effort—she was not scheduled to enter the event—Griffith Joyner surpassed Wilma Rudolph and Valerie Brisco to become the most decorated female sprinter in U.S. Olympic history. Then she and Al unleashed Baskin to make them rich.

"I gave them a cautious estimate of how much they might make by the end of 1989," says Baskin, who, instead of parting with the actual figures, resorts to elliptical teasers. "That amount was exceeded a full year early." Baskin will add only that the Joyners are set for life.

We'll get to the recent, hectic living of that life in a second, but obviously this continuing jackpot would not have been possible had Griffith Joyner not touched a chord in a great many people. She was not the most publicized athlete who competed in Seoul—poor pilloried Ben Johnson was—but she seems to have emerged covered with commercially useful fame. Her midrace rejoicing, her exotic beauty and her elaborate stylishness fired more imaginations than did the thoughtful balance of Matt Biondi (who has yet to strike a major endorsement deal), the puppylike normalcy of Janet Evans (who has forsaken commerce for school), the courageous control of Greg Louganis or even the unfailing sweetness of Griffith Joyner's sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

No black female athlete has ever been in Griffith Joyner's position. None has come close to the endorsement millions thrust on Mark Spitz in 1972, Bruce Jenner in 1976 or Mary Lou Retton in 1984. Rudolph won the three sprint golds in Rome in 1960, was leggy and attractive and had overcome polio in her youth. Yet she found no commercial avenue at all. Twenty-four years, a civil rights revolution and a women's movement later, Ashford and Brisco did little better after the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Yet Griffith Joyner has connected with such a wide audience that she seems a cultural phenomenon. The lesson seems to be that pure sporting attainment is not enough to make a black woman a star; athletic achievement must be accompanied by something else. Over the years the idea that sport is un-feminine was only slowly worn down, first by comely tennis players, swimmers, gymnasts and—almost by sequined definition—figure skaters. Later, runners and basketball players expanded the range of sports that didn't necessarily kill femininity. Aerobics helped. Yet as 1988 began, plenty of that old tension between traditional demure ladyhood and high performance remained imbedded in the American consciousness. Then Griffith Joyner painted her nails, put on a white lace body stocking and won the Olympic trials 200 in 21.85.

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