Lolo Jones and Olympic heartbreak are now the very best of friends. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while sprinting to a gold medal, Jones clipped the penultimate hurdle, and fell into seventh place. This year, she fought injuries to crawl her way onto the Olympic team, and into the 100-meter hurdles final. She got off to a fast start in Tuesday night’s race at the Olympic stadium, and ran clean: Jones cleared every hurdle. But this time, she finished just one spot from the podium, in fourth, .10 seconds behind fellow American Kellie Wells. Australia’s Sally Pearson, the dominant hurdler throughout the year, won gold, running an Olympic record 12.35 seconds, followed by the 2008 gold medalist, Dawn Harper of the U.S., who finished in 12.37 seconds.
Jones ran a 12.58, her best time of the season. She has no reason to hang her head. Still, after the race, she seemed close to breaking down. “I’m crushed,” says Jones. “Every time I come here I get burned.” Jones refused to blame her injuries, which included a tethered spinal cord last summer, and a sore hamstring in the spring. “I’m really disappointed in myself,” says Jones. “I feel like I let a lot of people down … I guess all the people that were talking about me can have their night and laugh.”
Coming into these Olympics, Jones was probably the most well-known, and actively followed, U.S. track and field athlete. But did Jones deserve all that attention? After all, as the outdoor season began this spring, it became pretty obvious that Jones was far from a gold medal contender. She was on the cover of several magazines – including TIME – the subject of an ESPN documentary and national television interviews, and a Tonight Show guest after she finished third in the U.S. track and field trials. Third? Why wasn’t Harper, an ebullient, engaging personality, or Wells on Leno’s couch after that race? After all, they are “better” than Jones, right?
Jones is a test case: why are some athletes mainstream stars, despite lacking the traditional credentials of mass appeal — like medals — while other, more accomplished jocks walk down the street unrecognized? A New York Times article that ran on August 5, and received a fair amount of attention among the legion of Lolo watchers, said that Jones mounted a “sad and cynical marketing campaign” before the Olympics to capture the public’s attention. In 2009, Jones posed nude – along with many other athletes, mind you – for ESPN The Magazine’s annual “Body” issue. She admitted that she was a virgin, and has been open about her rough childhood: for example Jones’ father, who was in and out of prison, taught her how to shoplift. At one point, Jones and her family lived in the basement of a Salvation Army Church in Des Moines. Jones, says the Times, “decided she will be whatever she wants to be – vixen, virgin, victim – to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses … If there is a box to check off, Jones has checked it. Except for the small part of actually achieving success as an Olympic hurdler.”
What’s even more “cynical and sad” than any Jones marketing effort, however, is the suggestion that an athlete must win an Olympic medal to deserve attention. What, being one of the top three hurdlers in the country isn’t worthy of recognition? Never mind that Jones, in 2008, won the U.S. trials and was headed for gold until she clipped the ninth hurdle. Or that she won the 2010 indoor world championship. And that she returned from spinal cord surgery last August to make this year’s team. She’s an Olympian. If we can’t make a fuss about Jones, we can’t make a fuss about any Olympic athlete who has never stood on a podium? In other words, we can’t talk about most of them?
“And too often,” the Times writes, “the news media plays right along with her.” As someone who wrote a 3,500-word story about Jones before the Games, I must have really gotten used. I can’t speak for other organizations, but can only give an honest accounting of our experience with Jones. Her press rep contacted us at the end of last year. This is standard operating procedure: every Olympic year, PR agents for dozens of Olympic athletes pitch journalists. These athletes only see the spotlight every four years. They jockey for publicity, which helps increase their endorsement opportunities. For some athletes, this income supplements their often meager athletic earnings. It’s an open market. From what I could gather, Jones wasn’t being cynical. She was being smart.
We were drawn to her unique experience. Jones’ gaffe cost her a gold in Beijing: how does an athlete cope with such failure, when she has to wait four years for another shot? We saw Jones as a vehicle to tell a broader story about the psychology of choking, and did just that. And sure, her good looks, and charisma, were part of her appeal.
Was she so open about her heartbreaks, and sex life, because she’s a naturally honest person? Or because she wanted more media attention? Only Jones knows this for sure. I don’t think it’s in Jones’ nature to hold anything back. But she’s not naïve. She knows she’s good copy, and that the attention benefits her. But in the end, her strategy is almost irrelevant. People were drawn to her story. What’s wrong with anyone telling it?