22 JUL 1998 General News Profile of Jackie Joyner

JJK - A Profile by Giorgio reineri

JJKA profile of Jackie Joyner-Kersee
by Giorgio Reineri

Jacqueline, the daughter of Alfred and Mary Joyner, is going home. The scene is set for a great party, and a last competition to be held where she first competed, in the Mayor Brown Youth Center, when she was just nine years old. Since those days - it was back in 1971 - a lot of water has flowed between the banks of the Mississippi river, which separates St Louis from East St Louis and where the young Jacqueline played and passed her formative years. But the memory of that young lady has not faded in the minds of the people of East St Louis: for years now, Jackie Joyner-Kersee has been present there through the foundation which bears her name and which works on behalf of those children who have received as their birthright a life of poverty.

East St Louis is a ghetto of a city desperately seeking to rebuild itself. Recalling her childhood in what was one of the poorest urban areas of the United States, Jacqueline said one day: "I’ve never forgotten where I came from: it’s something which is locked in my mind. If a little girl sees the environment I grew up in and sees how my dreams and aims have come true, she will believe that her dreams and projects too can become reality."

The basis of all success, according to Jackie, are exertion and willpower. Those who have admired her competing, for more than 15 years, in stadiums around the world - from Los Angeles to Rome, from Seoul to Barcelona - can only concur: few athletes - men or women, regardless - have sacrificed so much to bring to the fore the talents hidden in body and spirit.

There has never been any doubt in anyone’s mind about the exceptional athletic qualities of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. And if one day, on the back of the wave of scandal thrown up by the Ben Johnson affair, some may have tried to cast aspersions on the honest sweat of Jackie, they must recognise, today, how unjust and unworthy of the journalist’s profession those accusations were.

Jacqueline has been both an explorer of, and missionary for, sport.

An explorer, because she has stubbornly sought to surpass the limits imposed by the human mind. Accordingly, in the heptathlon, she pushed herself to achieve a total of 7291 points in the Olympics in Seoul, thanks to an incredible sequence of results: 12.96 in the 100m hurdles, 1.86m in the high jump, 15.80m in the shot put, 22.56 in the 200m, 7.27m in the long jump, 45.66m in the javelin and 2:08.51 in the 800m. This was her first gold medal and followed Los Angeles in 1984, where she missed gold by a minuscule 5 point difference (but Jackie said she was happy anyway: just as the Olympic title slipped between her fingers, her brother Al confirmed his gold medal in the triple jump). But the excellent level of her performance - which confirmed her world championship title won in Rome the year before - did nothing to sate her appetite for success, rather it stimulated her competitive spirit still further. In the long jump - where she faced another extraordinary champion, Heike Drechsler - she laid gold on gold, with a magnificent bound of 7.40m.

A missionary, because she has always honoured those values in sport of which so many speak and so few do anything to pass them on to the future generations. Silently, by example, she has carried out this mission by being herself an honest symbol for all youngsters and, most especially, for young women.

Jackie said one day: "I don’t believe that being an athlete means being unfeminine. I do believe that it gives a special form of grace."

The truth of this statement can be found in this strong, tenacious woman, capable of bettering many men on the track, throwing and jumping, as we discover her tenderness: that greatest of all feminine traits. Tenderness springs from her heart and shines from her eyes. Big, laughing eyes which light up a face which is sometimes drawn with fatigue, but never troubled by an unpleasant expression, even in the tensest moments of competition.

She tells how, when she was born, on 3 March 1962 in East St Louis, she was named Jacqueline after the beautiful and much-loved Mrs Kennedy. Her grandmother, taken by the arrival of this tender little niece, prophesied: "One day this little girl will be the First Lady of something". Reality may well have surpassed that loving prophecy as Jacqueline has become not only the most celebrated athlete in the United States, if not in the world, but also a symbol of innumerable feminine talents.

He greatest talent is perhaps that of inspiring in others the wish to imitate her. It was through imitation that her brother Al took up athletics, through emulation that brother and sister progressed together - though Jackie was the first, at the age of fourteen, to tell her parents that she would compete in the Olympics one day. She had barely started to compete in combined events when, in 1978, she won the first of four consecutive National Junior Pentathlon Championships. And in 1979, in the Pan American Junior Games, she won the long jump; still in the long jump, she finished eighth in the 1980 US Olympic Trials.

Sport was important, but study filled the other part of Jacqueline’s life. At Lincoln High School, they remember the name Joyner as being that of one of the best pupils: in 1980, her diploma grades were among the top ten in the school and she was awarded a basketball scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Jackie was incredibly versatile: she was capable of running, jumping and throwing and, at the same time, of playing basketball and volleyball. For four years she was one of the five pillars of the basketball team and still today is among the top ten "Lady Bruins" for the assists, rebounds and baskets scored.

Those years were decisive for the career and training of Jackie. In UCLA she met a coach called Bob Kersee, an introverted man of great ability. The two complemented each other perfectly: Jackie was tender and outgoing where the other appeared cold and concentrated on his work. In fact, Bob Kersee knew that without discipline and application meticulous to the point of exasperation, no great result would ever be achieved. Those were the years of Eastern European domination of the stadiums: a domination broken by Jackie Joyner in the one event, the heptathlon, which seemed purpose-built for the Soviets and East Germans.

I clearly recall various conversation held around the world with Bob Kersee. And I recall his theory, which was proved to be true: American women were not inferior to the Europeans, they just coupled a lack of discipline to the fear that training would destroy their femininity.

This latter was one fear which Bob was able to personally give the lie to: in 1986 he took the hand of Jackie, who became Mrs Joyner-Kersee.

The triumphs arrived en masse: in that same year, Jackie’s talent was rewarded with the most prestigious sports awards that America had to offer: the Jesse Owens Award, the Sullivan Memorial Trophy and nomination as Athlete of the Year by track & Field News. In 1987, in Rome, she won world championship gold in the heptathlon and the long jump; and then, between injuries and rapid recoveries, another world champion’s title in Tokyo ’91; the Olympic title in the heptathlon in Barcelona and the bronze medal in the long jump. Finally: gold yet again in the 1993 world championships in Stuttgart and, to close, bronze in the long jump in her fourth and final Olympics, in Atlanta in 1996.

Has Jackie Joyner-Kersee been the greatest athlete of all time? Quite possible, when we consider that the performances - and the spread - of sport today cannot be compared with those of the past. But riddles of this sort are of little consequence: Babe Didrickson and Helen Stephens were extraordinary in their day (so extraordinary that Stephens was invited by Hitler to spend a weekend at the Berchtesgarten: an invitation which was refused); Fanny Blanckers-Koen, Wilma Rudolph and Irene Szewinska in another time and Sheila Young exceptional with her victories in ice skating and cycling.

What is most intriguing is the manner of winning and the use which is made of the victories afterwards. Jackie Joyner-Kersee won with the grace and enthusiasm of Eleanora Sears, the great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, who in the cultivated and wealthy society of Boston, affirmed at the beginning of the century, the right of women - all women - to take part in sports.

Seventy years later, Jackie Joyner-Kersee decided to exercise that right in the difficult and often tragic reality of East St Louis, just one of so many suburban hotspots in the world.

It is in this proud affirmation of freedom and will that lies the greatness of Jacqueline, a woman capable of shedding a ray of hope on humankind’s painful journey along the via Dolorosa of life.

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