Flo-Jo Dies at 38 and Her Sport Is Left to Live in Fear; as the Suspicions Linger over Drugs, Athletes Face Up to Prospect of Health Dangers

Article excerpt


FLORENCE Griffith-Joyner, the world's fastest woman, died yesterday at 38 and left sport to face the awful possibility that she is the latest victim of the curse of drugs.

For years now elite performers have been dying young or suffering severe ill-health because of the effects of performance-enhancing substances.

Many have been East Germans forced to take them by a state-sponsored system which demanded success and was willing to sacrifice its young people for that end.

Detlef Gerstenberg, an Olympic hammer finalist, died aged 35 in 1995 with extensive liver damage; Heidi Krieger, a discus thrower, had to have a sex-change operation to become a man after testosterone transformed her hormonally; and Petra Schneider, a 1980 Olympic swimming champion, is suing her coaches for severe heart and liver damage inflicted by the drugs they gave her.

But it is not only the East Germans.

Jeff Teale, a British Olympic shot putter in the 1960s and 1970s, who admitted when his career was over that he took steroids, died recently in his early 50s, the connection not certain but possible.

Almost 20 cyclists and several biathletes have died of heart failure since 1987 when a drug called EPO came on the market. It improves the carriage of oxygen in the blood but, when abused, can have the effect of making the blood so thick that the heart gives out. No inquests have directly attributed an early death to sporting drugs but one on a 20-year-old bodybuilder from South London heard how he was taking huge quantities to aid him.

The effects of long-term abuse can be devastating. An official East German report conducted by doctors, which was found in the files of its security service after unification, reported the side-effects of drugs being given to athletes as liver damage, ovarian cysts, damage to the foetus, acne, deepening of the voice and, in three cases, death.

Many believed that the athlete everybody called Flo-Jo took drugs. The evidence was circumstantial but significant.

Her voice deepened noticeably between her two Olympics in 1984 and 1988.

Her muscles assumed the defined, vein-popping size noticed by doctors in those taking drugs. And her performance improved by around five per cent, the sort of margin East German doctors claimed for drugs.

Attention was focused on her when she won three Olympic golds at 100m, 200m and in the 4x100m relay in the same week that Olympic 100m champion Ben Johnson was forced to return his medal in Seoul after a positive drug test. …