Tragic Details Found In Florence Griffith Joyner's Autopsy Report

American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, shortened among fans to just Flo-Jo, was a celebrated athlete in her time. On top of her other accomplishments in the mid-to-late 1980s, she set several world records and won a number of Olympic gold and silver medals (via Britannica). Setting Joyner apart was her extravagant personal style and charismatic personality, both in competition and in her media appearances. When an athlete is as successful as Joyner was in her lifetime, suspicions of cheating with performance- enhancing drugs (PEDs) often follow. Such was the case all throughout Flo-Jo's career, relating, in particular, to the use of HGH, or human growth hormone. 

Those accusations leveled at Joyner began in earnest one year after the 1988 season. During this time, Joyner displayed rapid improvement in her performance, according to The Guardian. The speculation regarding her drug use only intensified when Joyner died suddenly in 1998 at age 38. The report from the autopsy conducted after Joyner died helps answer not only what happened to the athlete, but if performance-enhancing drugs played part, and if those drugs had, in fact, taken an undue toll on her body.

Joyner emerged at the 1984 Olympic Games

Joyner, a graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, first caught the attention of track fans at the 1984 Olympic Games in her home town of Los Angeles. She won silver that year in the 200-meter, but nonetheless, was disappointed with her performance and so she retired, as Britannica notes. For this reason, it could be said Joyner's career ended before it began. But by 1987, Joyner was back at it and better than ever, or so it seemed, with a new weight training regimen and a refinement in her running technique. This hard work paid off for Joyner in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, where she set a world record and won three gold medals and a silver.

Explaining this apparent sudden improvement in her performance was a strict diet and intense exercise, according to Joyner, based on The Guardian's reporting. In 1988, though, fellow American sprinter Darrell Robinson claimed in a paid interview he bought HGH for Joyner at her request. Joyner denied these allegations and passed several drug screenings, though HGH was not tested for at the time (via The New York Times) and was not even banned by the International Olympic Committee until 1988, as The Guardian goes on to explain. To this day there are few ways to definitively prove or disprove if an athlete has taken HGH, and for this reason it's speculated to be among the most abused PEDs in athletic competition.

Over-the-counter drugs were in Joyner's system when she died

In the autopsy performed on Joyner after her death in 1998, many wondered if answers might finally be found as to whether or not the star runner had in fact cheated in competition — if the autopsy might discover heart damage, or reveal that she took PEDs up until the time that she died. As far as the toxicology report is concerned, Joyner had only acetaminophen, commonly known by the brand name Tylenol, in her system, and an allergy medication called Benadryl, according to The Washington Post. Neither drug was ruled to be a factor in her death. What, in fact, killed Joyner, based on her autopsy, was a congenital brain condition called cavernous angioma, according to World Athletics.

In instances of this rare brain condition, blood tends to pool outside areas where it normally would, particularly in the brain and in spine tissue. In Joyner's case, this caused a seizure that led Joyner to asphyxiate while she slept. CAT scans now often catch cavernous angioma, and there is no known link between the condition and PED, steroid, or HGH intake, as World Athletics also notes. It's not known if Joyner was aware she suffered from cavernous angioma before she died. When her cause of death was announced, an Orange County Coroner said (via World Athletics), "In layman's terms, she suffocated." At that time, then International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) President Primo Nebiolo added, "This report ensures that Florence Griffith Joyner will be able to rest in peace," as World Athletics also reports.

Some questions remain

According to her autopsy, Joyner's cause of death was ruled to be seizure-induced asphyxiation on account of a congenital brain condition. In the minds of some, however, there were other issues found in Joyner's report which did not put suspicions about the Olympian's alleged drug use completely to rest, according to The Guardian. One known side effect of prolonged HGH use is acromegaly, causing enlarged facial features and oversized internal organs due to a hormonal imbalance (via Mayo Clinic). Symptoms of acromegaly also include abnormal bone growth, particularly in the hands and feet.

Joyner's post-mortem report did reflect an oversized heart, among other organs, which, coupled with her intense athletic performance throughout her career, could be a sign of HGH use, although the evidence remains inconclusive. As far as cavernous angioma is concerned, roughly 25% of the population has the condition, and it's possible to live life without knowing it. Symptoms of cavernous angioma include headaches and epileptic-like seizures which can sometimes lead to suffocation, as was ruled to be Joyner's official cause of death in her autopsy report, as CBS News reports.