How Closely Do We Look at Our Heroes?

The death earlier this week of three-time Olympic gold medal winner Florence Griffith Joyner - the fastest woman in track history - got friends and family to reminiscing about the time FloJo, as a small child, was out on the Mojave Desert. She became fascinated with the idea of catching a jack rabbit, and, by golly, she did.

Incredible.

It sure is but the tale has zero chance of being true, as anyone who has ever dealt with jack rabbits knows. Nothing with the disadvantage of having only two legs has or ever will catch one.

This tale has all the authenticity of a Paul Bunyan movie, written by Jack in the Beanstalk, starring Cinderella.

Yet, it is of no moment, really. If there are those who want to swear it is true, fine. No harm, no foul.

But FloJo's death raises several far more serious questions revolving around truth - including speculation about cause of death, her rumored performance-enhancing drug history, and her world-record time in the 100 meters.

Yet, does the public really want to know?

There is increasing anxiety among many about how much information we truly need to know, want to know, and should know. After all, we've been Lewinskyed.

In the case of FloJo - whose enormous athletic ability was accompanied by her stunning beauty, dazzling outfits, and long fingernails - an international track federation executive told Associated Press she had "serious heart problems in recent months." But one of her brothers says she'd showed no signs of such difficulties lately. Other medical experts allege that it could be another case of the side affects of drugs - perhaps in the steroid family. An autopsy is being performed, but results of these examinations are uneven at best, routinely not detailed, and downright wrong at worst.

Do we want to know what happened? Should the question even be raised?

Sometimes when FloJo would compete, she would look soft and far from peak condition. Then, in short order, her body would be chiseled and her performance breathtaking. Nobody else got such quick results from intensified training.

So was it steroids or other drugs?

She always denied it vigorously. She never failed a drug test. In fact, because rumors have always swirled about FloJo, she was put through extensive drug screens at Seoul. "We never found anything," says the Olympic medical chief. Still, a leading German drug expert, Werner Franke, says he has no doubt the death was caused by steroid abuse.

Is it any of our business?

And in 1988, at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, FloJo blazed a totally unbelievable world mark of 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters, light-years faster than her previous best of 10.89. The problem was the wind was blowing far above the speed allowed for records. Yet, when the race was over, the wind speed was flashed as 0.0. This was absurd. But, officials gave her the time and a record that has 0.0 chance of ever being bested.

It's impossible to ever beat a myth and not fair to be compelled to compete against one.

There has always been feeling that Joyner should have rejected the mark - in the interest of fair sports - or that officials should have subsequently gotten their wits about them and done the right thing. After all, she ran legitimate 100 meters in 10.61, 10.62 and 10.70, all substantially slower but each still easily a world record.

But in this case, do we want a new investigation that, if properly done, will ensure that Joyner will be stripped of that mythical time? Or do we just want to live and let live?

The problem is we are talking about what information we want to have and what we don't. That further requires deciding who will be the information gate-keeper. If the president were to appoint a five-person commission - say the Commission on What Americans Should Know - the populace would revolt.

And therein lies the problem. Democracy is messy by nature. The difficulty is sometimes we want to know if there was drug use - say in the case of a pilot in a plane crash - and sometimes we don't - say in the case of FloJo.

We cannot have it both ways.

Truth is a very good thing. It's just hard to take sometimes. We celebrate it, except when it discloses something we wish it didn't about us, those we care about, or events close to us.

And so it is with legendary FloJo, who thrilled us in Seoul with athletic performances in the 100 and 200 meters and in the 400-meter relay. Shall we remember her always as the fastest woman ever - so fast she caught a jack rabbit as a child - or do we want to know on down the track that what she did was, perhaps, just another sad triumph of chemistry?

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is: looneyd@csps.com

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