Flo Jo had dash, but Joyner-Kersee nails own niche in long run

Ken Rosenthal

January 08, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

WASHINGTON -- They are linked forever by their gold medals and the Joyner name. The difference is, Florence Griffith Joyner represents track and field past, while Jackie Joyner-Kersee continues to define track and field present.

Flo Jo, 31, was one of a kind -- those one-legged outfits, those nails! -- but she retired after winning three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics. JJK, 29, intends to compete in Barcelona this summer and Atlanta in 1996, winning the heptathlon and long jump over and over again.

Flo Jo gave us a brief shining moment, JJK gives us a long storied career. None of this mattered in Seoul, where one sister-in-law clearly overshadowed the other. But maybe this summer America catches on. Maybe this summer JJK gets her due.

She is merely the world's greatest woman athlete, but the average sports fan doesn't recognize her walking down the street. At the moment, JJK still isn't as famous as Flo Jo, the glamorous woman who married her brother Al. But slowly that is changing, changing for good.

"She's amazed by how many people recognize her," her husband and coach, Bob Kersee, said yesterday at a news conference for the Feb. 9 Mobil 1 Invitational Track and Field Meet at George Mason University, where Jackie will run the 60-meter high hurdles.

"Everyone knows her name. When we get on a flight and she plunks down her credit card, everyone knows who Jackie Joyner-Kersee is. And now, coming up an escalator in a shopping mall, people pass her, turn around and come back for an autograph."

"A lot of people see me in my athletic wear and assume I weigabout 200 pounds," said JJK, who is 5 feet 10 and 155. "When they see me they say, 'you're tall, but you're petite.' The most common thing people say is, 'You look like Jackie-Joyner Kersee.' I say, 'Oh, really?' "

JJK related all this with a smile. Her celebrity is such that shcan still enjoy it, and as she explained, "I've come a long way." Kersee added, "I'm happy with her place in the public eye." But the fact is, JJK deserves better. She should be big, big, big.

Her list of sponsors reads like a corporate Who's Who -McDonald's, Xerox, IBM, etc. -- but she rarely appears in television commercials, surfacing in public appearances and print advertisements instead. For a black woman, the opportunities are limited. But that's only one explanation.

Track and field remains a fringe sport in this country, except in Olympic years. What's more, JJK's specialty -- the heptathlon -- is a competition spanning two days and seven events. Not enough sizzle for a nation with an attention span better suited to Flo Jo's sprints.

Yet, this goes beyond even that. It goes back to Flo Jo, and aissue that should no longer matter in women's sports. The issue is looks. To hear some people tell it after Seoul, Jackie was an ugly duckling next to her sister-in-law with the high cheekbones and winning smile.

The notion is not just irrelevant, it's inaccurate. "I just had tunderstand who I am, know who I am, not let people hurt me," JJK said. "People wrote bad things about me that had never been written before. I couldn't understand why.

"This friend of mine, an elderly woman [from her native East St. Louis, Ill.], said, 'Jackie, you've been doing this a long time. Don't let people say you're an ugly person. You're not.' They made Florence the glamorous one. I was just this aggressive woman. She said, 'You're beautiful too, you've got to remember that.' "

Flo Jo retired to pursue potentially lucrative careers in writing and acting, but has yet to regain her grip over the public. According to both Kersees, JJK never harbored any resentment or jealousy. At one time Bob coached both women. Their rivalry, he said, was overblown.

Whatever, the question is now moot. JJK's main concern is recovering from the sprained ankle and hamstring pull she suffered at the World Championships in Tokyo last September. She won the long jump, but withdrew from the heptathlon, in which she was the defending champion and world record-holder.

"It was disappointing in one sense, enlightening in another," JJK said. "Falling short really was a blessing in disguise. This jTC situation puts things in perspective. People see I'm a human being. I can get injured. I understand, but it makes me hungrier. It makes practice a lot more intense."

She posts notes on her refrigerator and bathroom mirror as reminders of her next goal -- 7,300 points in the heptathlon, nine points above her current record. She works to improve her media skills, organizes youth programs, operates JJK Associates, a marketing-management company dedicated to community work.

"Barcelona is probably the period at the end of the sentence," her husband Bob said, knowing her first Olympic medal was a silver in the heptathlon in 1984. "But it's hard for me to say 'period.' You don't know Jackie. It could be a comma. You don't know when it's going to finish. I see her as an Arnold Palmer of women's athletics."

In that case, forget the period, forget the comma.

Just keep adding exclamation points.

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