Florence Griffith Joyner earned two more medals Saturday, a gold and a silver, and hugs from three of her teammates, which might have been her most gratifying reward of the Olympics.
Despite flirting with disaster when she almost collided with Evelyn Ashford on the final handoff in the 400-meter relay, Ashford managed to save the day for the U.S. women by running down a Soviet and an East German, the legendary Marlies Goehr, in the final 100 meters for the gold medal.
A little more than an hour later at the Olympic Stadium, Joyner anchored the U.S. women’s 1,600-meter relay team to a silver medal.
Thus, Joyner, who earlier won the 100 and the 200, failed to become the first woman track and field athlete since Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands in 1948 to win four gold medals in the same Olympics. But Joyner did become the only other woman in track and field history to win four medals in the same Olympics.
Even though she hadn’t run the 400 meters this year before Saturday, Joyner was selected for the 1,600-meter relay team. U.S. Coach Terry Crawford, from the University of Texas, believed that was the United States’ only chance to win against the heavily favored Soviets.
The decision elicited complaints from some quartermilers, who didn’t believe the sprinter should have been given preference over them, and the issue still hadn’t been decided by late Friday night.
But when the women stepped onto the track for the final Saturday afternoon, they seemed to be a team. Valerie Brisco, who ran the third leg, even coached Joyner, who had never run a 1,600-meter relay in a major international competition.
“I knew that she was nervous before the race,” said Brisco, who won three gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Brisco was almost the heroine. After the first two legs, run by Denean Howard Hill of Sylmar and Diane Dixon of Brooklyn, the United States was in second place behind the Soviets. But Brisco almost overtook Maria Piniguina on the third leg and handed the baton to Joyner with only a slight deficit to make up.
Considering that she hasn’t trained for the 400, Joyner ran remarkably. Her time of 48.1 seconds was the best by any of the U.S. women, but she wasn’t as fast as the Soviets’ anchor, Olga Bryzguina, who won the 400-meter gold medal earlier this week.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union beat the previous world record of 3:15.92 set by East Germany in 1984. The Soviets ran 3:15.18, just ahead of the Americans’ 3:15.51. East Germany was third in 3:18.29.
When Joyner finished her leg, the other three U.S. runners returned to the track and hugged her.
“It’s a business,” Brisco said. “We had to get the baton around, all personal things aside.”
Even though she is 28, Joyner emerged just this year as the world’s fastest woman and recently has been the most celebrated U.S. track and field athlete. That has created tension on the U.S. team, and persons close to Joyner say that she has been ostracized.
After the victory earlier Saturday in the 400-meter relay, none of the other U.S. women congratulated Joyner.
That relay was decided between two of the fastest women of all time, Ashford and Goehr. When Ashford set her first world record in 1983, it was Goehr’s mark that she broke.
Ashford became the Olympic champion the next year, but it wasn’t until she beat Goehr two weeks later in Zurich, Switzerland, that Ashford was confirmed as the world’s premier woman sprinter.
She also set a world record that night of 10.76, which wasn’t broken until two months ago, when Joyner ran 10.49 in the U.S. Olympic trials.
Ashford almost was out of it before she started in this race because of a near-collision with Joyner. Running the third leg, Joyner was even with East Germany’s Ingrid Lange when they reached the zone for the baton exchange.
Whether Joyner ran up Ashford’s back or Ashford didn’t begin to run soon enough, they bumped into each other, making the handoff difficult. That is where Ashford’s relay experience paid off. She also was a member of the gold-medal, 400-meter relay team in 1984.
“I felt like I didn’t get out very good,” Ashford said later.
She didn’t panic but calmly grasped the baton and made her move. In third place behind East Germany’s Goehr and the Soviet Union’s Natalia Pomochtchnikova when she started, Ashford ran both of them down. Pomochtchnikova pulled up, apparently straining a leg muscle, but still managed to finish third behind Goehr.
The United States won in 41.98 seconds. East Germany was second in 42.09 and the Soviet Union third in 42.75.
When it was over, Ashford dramatically wiped her brow in relief.
“Our main concern was passing the stick,” she said.
Only 24 hours earlier, as it prepared for the first round, the U.S. 400-meter team was in disarray. The women’s sprint coach, Fred Thompson of the New York Atoms, didn’t decide until the last minute which women would run the second and third legs.
Thompson had made an urgent call to Joyner at her hotel that morning, even though he had told her after she won the 200 meters the night before that she could have the day off. She hurriedly made preparations to get to the track before Thompson told her to forget it. He said he would find someone else.
He found Dannette Young, who went to the track just in case she was needed, even though she had been told not to expect to run. The U.S. women qualified easily for Saturday morning’s semifinals, but Ashford warned that the team wouldn’t get any further unless it got its act together.
It did that Saturday.