The day Jackie Joyner-Kersee was called ‘the greatest athlete who ever lived’
Joyner-Kersee took back-to-back gold medals in the heptathlon at the 1992 Olympics
After Jackie Joyner-Kersee completed the two-day, seven-event heptathlon, 10,000 fans sitting in Montjuic Stadium watched as she sauntered around the track one last time.
A thick cloud shrouded the stadium and hung in the warm Barcelona air, just as fans who were preparing for an evening party that started at dark hung around the venue to watch as Joyner-Kersee made history.
In her hands as she made the traditional victory lap was an American flag. With her gold-medal performance, Joyner-Kersee joined Wyomia Tyus as the only American women to win back-to-back gold medals in the same event.
Joyner-Kersee’s victory also made her the first athlete to win consecutive gold medals in the heptathlon, and her score of 7,044 points gave her a 199-point victory over 24-year-old Russian Irina Belova at the Barcelona Olympics on Aug. 2, 1992.
Her final point total at the 1992 Games didn’t top the world-record 7,291 points she scored at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. World record aside, Joyner-Kersee remained the only woman to ever score more than 7,000 points.
At the end of her victory lap, Joyner-Kersee hugged her husband and trainer, Bobby Kersee, and let tears stream down her cheeks as she waved at fans in thanks for their support. Bruce Jenner walked up to her after the moment subsided.
The former world-record holder in the decathlon, the male counterpart to the heptathlon, and 1976 gold medalist had one profound thing to tell Joyner-Kersee.
“You have proved to the world that you are the greatest athlete who ever lived, male or female,” Jenner, the last American to win he decathlon, said. “You have done what no one has ever done.”
In order for Joyner-Kersee to defend her title in Barcelona, she needed to overcome several hurdles, including the event that had left her with a torn hamstring at December’s World Championships in Tokyo — the 200 meters.
To add to her anxiety, the 200 was the final event of the first day. She took first place in 23.12 seconds.
“My fear of the 200 started back in December,” she said. “I would flash back to it.”
Joyner-Kersee’s performance in the long jump gave her a 239-point lead over Belova.
“Joy and relief,” Joyner-Kersee said. “It was tough, mentally. I spent two days trying to psych myself up, not psych myself out.”
The rest of the field seemed to miss that memo though. The other heptathlon competitors decided that in order to usurp Joyner-Kersee, they needed to get in her head.
It started with opponents brushing against Joyner-Kersee’s legs as she waited for her field events. The following day, reigning world champion Sabine Braun of Germany bumped into Joyner-Kersee, both commencing the dance of not conceding ground.
“In a two-day event, you have a lot of mind games, people trying to intimidate you,” Joyner-Kersee said.
Said Braun: “The slight collision we had in the long jump came from both of us trying our best to win. I hope she isn’t insinuating that I was the one playing the mind games or trying to intimidate her.”
The fact of the matter is Braun was attempting to intimidate Joyner-Kersee, and it ended up backfiring on her. After four events on the first day, Joyner-Kersee led Braun by only 127 points. But after the standoff, Joyner absolutely flexed on her German counterpart, jumping 23 feet, 3 1/2 inches, which was best in the meet and good for 1,206 points. Braun, whose personal record was 22-1, jumped only 19-9 for 856 points.
“Anyone who thinks they’re going to get Jackie messed up is making a mistake,” said Kersee. “She’s a nice person, but you can’t break Jackie. She’s a competitor.”
Before the 800-meter race, Kersee told Joyner-Kersee: “Two-twenty wins the gold, 2:14 for 7,000 points.”
His wife wasn’t interested in hitting the mark — she wanted to shatter it. So when she ran a 2:11.78, she sent the message to the rest of the field that she was not here to play games with them.
At the conclusion of winning the heptathlon and having a moment to process her historic feat, Joyner-Kersee turned her attention to Atlanta in 1996.
“I’d love the chance to end my career on American soil,” she said. “It’s all a matter of balance in my life.”