EUGENE, Ore. – For 33 years Florence Griffith Joyner’s 100-meter world record of 10.49 seconds has loomed over track and field like a bright star in the night sky, a giant glowing asterisk shining from a place beyond our imaginations, both brilliant and unreachable.
“That’s probably out of reach. At least for me,” said Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah just months after winning the Olympic 100 and 200 meter gold medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Griffith ’s 200 world record of 21.34, also set in 1988, seemed just as unattainable.
And then Thompson-Herah ran 21.53, the second fastest time in history, in completing her double-double at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, a sweep of the 100 and 200 titles at a second consecutive Games, and following that up three weeks later by narrowly missing the 100 world record with a 10.54 blast at the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.
“That record was so far out there that once Elaine got close to it people started to look at it and go, ‘OK, this is more possible,’” said Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic champion now a broadcaster for the BBC. “Prior to the last couple of years or so, last year for sure, the women sprinters just didn’t even think about those records. They weren’t even on their radar, but now they are.”
Both records could be in jeopardy at the World Championships which open at Hayward Field Friday.
“For those who say, ‘Nah, it will never happen,’ I will never say that,” said Gail Devers, the 1992 and 1996 Olympic 100 champion. “I remember growing up watching George Jetson talk to Mr. Spacely and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that would never happen and we have Facetime now.’
So anything is possible.”
And not just because Sunday night’s 100 final and Thursday’s 200 final will be contested at the same Hayward Field where Thompson-Herah blazed her 10.54 last August, a surface Devers called “the fastest track in the world.”
Thompson-Herah will be joined by two other Jamaicans who also appear capable of erasing FloJo from the records books – Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a three-time Olympic and nine-time World champion, and Shericka Jackson, winner of the 100 and 200 at last month’s Jamaican national championships.
“Elaine was running great races last year,” Devers said “but this year you can’t even pick a favorite among the Jamaicans.”
The 100 and 200 records are the only significant prizes that have eluded a Jamaican women’s sprinting empire that has dominated this century.
Jamaica has won 10 of 12 women’s Olympic 100 medals including all four gold medals since the 2008 Games, and 16 of 30 medals in the event since 1984. Of the 11 women’s 100 gold medals at the Olympic Games or World Championships between 2007 and 2021, nine of them have been won by Jamaicans.
Thompson-Herah and Fraser-Prye have 17 of the top 21 100 marks in history and have run 10.75 or faster a combined 18 times.
“It’s definitely a legacy for Jamaica,” said Fraser-Pryce, a two-time Olympic and four-time World 100 champion. “It speaks to the depth that we have.”
Thompson-Herah , Fraser-Pryce, and Jackson swept the Olympic 100 medals in Tokyo.
Thompson-Herah was inspired as a young girl by Fraser-Pryce leading another Jamaican sweep of an Olympic final with her first gold medal at the 2008 Games.
“It’s a special feeling because I remember in 2008,” Thompson-Herah said “that I was home, not even an athlete like myself here representing (Jamaica), and I was super excited for them to be in that history mark, it’s amazing. And we are amazing.”
Fourteen years later Fraser-Pryce arrives in Tracktown USA as the reigning World champion and at least the co-favorite with Thompson-Herah in the 100. At 35, Fraser-Pryce is the only woman likely to make Sunday’s final who was actually alive during FloJo’s record-breaking spree in 1988. She won six of the nine Olympic or World 100 titles between 2008 and 2019. Fraser-Pryce watched the 2017 Worlds on TV while in labor with the birth of her son Zyon. This season she owns the three fastest 100s in the world–10.67s in Kenya and Paris and a 10.70 in the Jamaican championship heats. She didn’t run in the final because as the defending World champion she has a wildcard spot in Oregon ‘22.
“Take Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce,” said Ato Boldon, a World champion sprinter, now an analyst with NBC. “Take her entire year, every event she’s run, every event she has not run is geared to ‘I saw my countrywoman Elaine Thompson-Herah run 10.54 on that track. If I’m ready and I dedicate my entire life to the World Championships final there in mid July, I too can run that kind of time and I think I can run faster. She’s only five-hundredths away. Am I five-hundredths better than Elaine? I think I can be’
“So she’s not running these 200s for the 200. She’s not a 200 meter threat anymore. She’s running these 200s because she knows I will get to 60 in the lead. I just need to make sure I can be on 10.4 pace for the last 40.”
Boldon not only rates Fraser-Pryce the favorite in Eugene but places her above Griffith Joyner as history’s top female 100-meter sprinter.
“It pains me to say that because FloJo was a friend and a Bruin,” said Boldon. “So when I say my GOAT in the 100 is Shelly-Ann, the truth is I’m enough of a numbers guy where I can look at the numbers and go, oh, this is not close. I don’t want to hear anything about FloJo’s the greatest.
“It was one single year. No one can deny the FloJo greatness, the FloJo times, the FloJo world records all happened in one year and that’s not how we judge greatness in sports. Tom Brady is not the greatest or the consensus greatest because he won one ring or he dominated a year or two, Neither are Jordan or Gretzky. It is a persistent greatness That is my measuring stick and for me, I cannot put the world record-holder into that spot not because she’s American but because it wasn’t prolonged.”
Thompson-Herah put herself in the GOAT conversation after becoming the first person to successfully defend the Olympic 100 and 200 titles. Only four other women have even won the 100 and 200 gold medals in a single day, Griffith Joyner being the only other woman since the 1956 Games.
“I think what is lost sometimes with Elaine is it’s very, very difficult to go to an Olympic Games and double up and win the 100 and 200 and then come back four years later and do it again,” Johnson said.
Perhaps no other star in international track and field has a public profile so disproportionately lower than her achievements than Thompson-Herah. She is the anti-Sha’Carri.
“I don’t think the average track fan even knows what Elaine’s voice sounds like,” said Ato Boldon, a World champion sprinter, now an analyst with NBC. “She’s not that vocal. She’s not that big on social media. She’s not somebody with a huge presence. If Sha’Carri Richardson had done that double at the Olympics, I feel like there would have been headlines written all over the United States.”
Which is why it was somewhat surprising that Thompson-Herah, who usually lets her races do her talking, has changed her tune on whether FloJo’s records are within her reach.
“My aim is to break both the world record in the 100 and 200, my job is to inspire the next generation, my job is to inspire,” she said. “I definitely (think I can), because I ran 10.5 and I think I have so much more in me. It’s possible.”
Many in the sport believe Thompson-Herah already owns the fastest legal 100 in history with her 10.54 at the Pre Classic last August.
Griffith Joyner’s world record set in the 1988 Olympic Trials quarterfinals in Indianapolis has been considered suspect from the moment she crossed the finish line. The wind gauge read 0.0 for the race even though wind readings for horizontal jumps at the same time were well over the allowable limit for record purposes of 2.0 meters-per-second.
“I don’t know, I was there,” Devers said. “I was in that race.
“I’ve heard different things about it. It was windy, it wasn’t windy. I don’t know. I’m that person if I’m looking at a record and I look in the record book and if that’s the time that stands, that’s what it is.”
The IAAF, the sport’s global governing body, since renamed World Athletics, and other organizations commissioned studies of the race and determined that Griffith Joyner was aided by a tailwind between 5-7 mph. But the IAAF did not erase the world record. The Association of Track and Field Statisticians beginning in 1997 has listed the mark as “probably strongly wind-assisted, but recognized as a world record.”
The fastest non-winded aided time in history was Griffith Joyner’s 10.61 clocking in the 1988 Trials final the following day. A mark Thompson-Herah matched in the Tokyo Olympic final despite running into a headwind and celebrating well ahead of the finish line.
Track & Field News, the self-proclaimed Bible of the sport, on its records page states that it “believes the 10.49 was illegally wind-aided and should never have been accepted as the WR. We believe the real fastest is 10.54 by Elaine Thompson-Herah” in Eugene.
“No, I don’t,” Boldon said when asked if he thought Griffith Joyner’s 10.49 was wind legal. “I always thought, ‘Oh, a lot of people were jealous.’ A lot of people had other opinions as to why she ran that fast. I started about 10, 12 years ago to ask, to talk to people who were there.
And everybody, not 99 percent of the people, everybody who was there said that there is no way that wind-gauge could have been 0.0. If it was minus point one or point three. That would have indicated alright, the wind gauge is functioning. The factor that the wind gauge says 0.0 is all you need to know. And I look at the people at Track & Field News who kind of align up with me facts and figures and stuff. Look at 10.49 has an asterisk next to it and it says likely wind-aided and I agree with that.”Johnson was asked if he considered Griffith Joyner’s 100 mark the world record or was wind-aided.
“I think both,” Johnson said. “I think that there was something going on there with the wind gauge because there’s a lot of evidence that there was (wind)
“All these years later that record is still in the books. It is what it is at this point. You just can’t go back now, it’s been too long.
“You want to break 10.49. If you want to break the world record you want to cross the finish line, look at the clock and know that you beat the record that everybody considers the world record or that has been standing for so long as the world record.”