Every four years, the Olympic Games offer an opportunity for the world to bear witness to jaw-dropping feats of human athleticism and true grit. But while ogling the long, long jumps and high, high dives, those mechanically precise butterfly strokes and precarious balance beam routines, is completely captivating, for avid beauty observers, it’s often more than just the athletic acts themselves that remain etched in our collective memories. Yes, we remember Oksana Baiul’s balletic 1994 gold-medal performance but oh those amazing, teased side-swept fringe (the mall bang, as it were, also a favorite of fellow early 90s figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Tonya Harding). Or Kerri Strug’s heroic vault in 1996 whilst injured shepherding her team to gold, but also her feathered pixie that seemed to follow in the sartorial footsteps of Mary Lou Retton’s short chop from a decade earlier. And this year gymnast Gabby Douglas’ powerhouse performance on the uneven bars was thrilling, but so too was the goth eggplant lipstick she was sporting mid-swing; same goes for Simone Biles and that silvery glittery accent liner along her inner eye corners.
But in the annals of Olympic beauty greats, no one compares to Florence Griffith-Joyner, aka Flo-Jo, the American runner who dominated the 1988 Seoul Olympics, dazzling audiences both with her eye-popping speed and personal style, a brilliant flash of colorful one-legged spandex bodysuit, a lioness mane of black curls and those famously long, gorgeously garish nails. Born and raised in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, the seventh of eleven children, Flo-Jo’s love of running was established early on—she started racing at age seven and by 14 had won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games. She would briefly attend California State University (she left to help support her family working as a hair and nail technician, hence her dexterity in that arena) before transferring to UCLA where her track stardom soared, and by 1982, she’d become a NCAA champion in the 200-meter. It was that race that would earn Flo-Jo her first Olympic medal (a silver) in 1984. When she returned to the Olympic stage in 1988 (after marrying athlete Al Joyner, an acclaimed high jumper, and training hard under coach Bob Kersee, husband of fellow runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee), Flo-Jo went for the gold and earned it, three times over. She would also earn the title of the world’s fastest woman, setting astounding records (10.49 seconds in the 100m and 21.34 seconds in the 200 meter) that remain unsurpassed nearly twenty years later, though rumors still abound that her wins were assisted by performance-enhancing drugs (she never failed a drug test and the accusations were always vehemently denied by her, and her family and coaches).
Naysayers aside, Flo-Jo’s legacy in sport is hugely significant, setting the pace for generations of female runners to follow. And her beauty and style influence looms just as large: a very early adopter of intricate nail art (her signature look incorporated red, white, blue and gold polishes and the American flag design) and a wildly creative designer (she dreamt up all her own competition ensembles since high school), she embraced an anything-goes approach, never shying away from a statement look on or off the track (one story reportedly had her wearing a pet boa constrictor in lieu of a feather boa while out shopping). Flo-Jo’s life would be cut tragically short by an epileptic seizure at only 38, but her wild beauty and fashion ways will never be forgotten. As then-president Bill Clinton said when she died in 1998: “We were dazzled by her speed, humbled by her talent, and captivated by her style.”