Here’s the thing about Lolo Jones


First, a disclaimer: If you follow this blog or know me personally you know I’m more than a passive observer of any 100-metre hurdles race at the world class level.

I make that fact clear only to make this one clear: my thoughts on this particular topic are mine and mine alone. The opinions expressed below do not reflect those of Perdita Felicien or any other Canadian track and field athlete I might know personally, so love this post or hate it please direct feedback my way and leave Perdita et al out of it.

Anyway, I’m not about to say anything unfair about Lolo Jones, or rip her for the simple sake of doing so. She has become a heavily discussed yet terribly sensitive topic over the last few months, transforming nearly overnight from a successful but largely unknown hurdler into the most polarizing figure in North American sport not named Tim Tebow or Floyd Mayweather.

The debate boiled over in a big way the morning after the women’s 100 metre hurdles final in London, when NBC, which has led the Lolo Jones cheerleading for a season and a half, featured fourth-place finisher Jones on the Today show (funny, no such love for Tyson Gay, who just missed a medal in the Men’s 100). While Jones welled up when discussing her perceived mistreatment by the media, the two Americans who won medals in that race, Kellie Wells and Dawn Harper, were relegated to a quick hit on NBC Sports Network, where interviewer Michelle Beadle didn’t even disguise her desire to tap into the undercurrent of resentment flowing between the hurdlers who medalled and the one who didn’t.

Reaction rippled quickly through Twitter and mainstream media, and I’ve fielded queries from several people wondering just how anything aside from a positive drug test could cause this much controversy at any Olympic Games.

I had this conversation over email with my Toronto Star colleague Cathal Kelly, and much of what I’m about to tell you I’ve already told him.

To understand how this situation became so incendiary you have to understand how Lolo Jones the accomplished but mainstream anonymous sprint hurdler became Lolo Jones the undisputed media darling of the lead-up to the London Games.

And to understand that, you have to understand the following about Lolo Jones and whoever is marketing her.

They played the virgin card as well as it could possibly be played.

Think about this:

Four years ago she was still stunningly beautiful, and heading into the Beijing games she was the pre-race favourite by a wide margin — and still couldn’t get arrested if she tried. I’m no doctor but I’m pretty sure she was a virgin back then too. That’s how these things tend to work. I could be wrong, but I digress.

Back then, however, none of us knew the details of her sex life.

This year, right in time for the start of outdoor track season, Lolo reveals her virginity to the world in an interview with HBO’s Real Sports.

But she’s not just a run-of-the mill virgin. Smart money says there are several athletes among the pre-teen prodigies populating sports like gymnastics and swimming who aren’t yet sexually active, so it’s not like Jones was the only virgin at the Olympics.

Jones stands out because she’s an enchantingly pretty adult virgin.

And not just that — she’s a smoking hot virgin who admits she struggles mightily with temptation. She said not having sex is more difficult than making the Olympics… which is a pretty damn difficult feat in itself.

Jones emphasizes maintaining her virginity is a moral choice, and I believe her. But in stressing virginity while publishing racy photos of herself on outlets from Lockerz to ESPN Magazine, while also stressing that her life is a minefield of sexual temptation Jones manages to sell chasity and sex simultaneously, while at the same time hitching her virgin wagon to Tim Tebow’s.

And she did it all with a three-month lead-up to the one fleeting period every four years that Americans give a damn about track and field.

That’s either a marketing masterstroke or one hell of a coincidence. Either way, it set Jones’ profile skyrocketing at a crucial time.

U.S. track and field athletes won 29 medals in London, but how many of those medal contenders landed on both Jay Leno and the cover of Time magazine in the months preceding the games?

Besides Jones, I mean.

Exactly.

Now, the way team Lolo has sold her sexuality is can be problematic on more levels than I’ll get into in this post, but I will say two things.

1. When you court attention as relentlessly and shamelessly as Jones has you have to brace for backlash, especially on social media, where people are pricks.

2. We need to separate social media slander from thoughtful criticism of the mixed message the focus on Jones sends to young women.

We tell them we value merit over physical beauty, yet anoint Lolo the Olympic favourite and protagonist even though  American teammates Wells and Harper have been beating her all season.

Conversely, we can tell girls true winners overcome obstacles, and that we value perseverance and a winning spirit over results achieved without struggle and sacrifice.

And that would be fine, except the same American teammates who have been outclassing Jones on the track have backstories that are equally compelling.  Bronze medalist Wells overcame a childhood filled with sexual abuse, and silver medalist Harper grew up in one of the bleakest ghettos in the United States — East St. Louis, Ill., where the entire town is on the wrong side of the tracks. In 2008 she recovered from knee surgery, qualified for the Olympic games using borrowed shoes and won the gold medal in Beijing.

So remind me again what makes Jones different and therefore more worthy of attention than her American teammates?

Aside from colour complexes, and the implied but glaring mainstream marketing advantage the biracial Jones’ “exotic beauty”  imparts over her also beautiful but unambiguously Black teammates, it boils down to one thing.

Lolo sold sex.

More precisely, she sold the idea of sex.

She let men see a beautiful woman in suggestive photos, told us she’s never had intercourse, admitted her grip on virginity is tenuous at times, then invited the entire (male) world to use their imaginations.

Which is actually fine with me. It’s her body and her image and she’s free to use them as she pleases. Plus, Olympic sport athletes enjoy such a brief moment in the spotlight that shrewd self-promotion demands capitalizing on any opportunities an athlete can encounter or create.

I’m past the point of knocking anybody’s hustle.

But for Jones and her team not to realize her grandstanding would generate a little justified resentment is naive. Anybody chasing fame needs to realize the famous are rarely universally loved.

And for media outlets to act like Jones’ track record and backstory alone made her the focus of such intense attention is disingenuous.

When you’ve been hustled, just admit.

Follow Morgan Campbell on Twitter

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Comments
11 Responses to “Here’s the thing about Lolo Jones”
  1. Zach says:

    if she wins, it validates the hype, if she doesn’t, she’s still an exotic and beautiful virgin who is now a victim- feeling the scorn born out of colorism and a kind of sexual objectification that would make spike lee proud. not much seperating news from twitter when you consider what trends is what is going to get covered. CNN doing a story about ugly comments about Gabbys hair? thats a story? that twitters got jokes? lame. its about your brand, like it or not, and making it out of east st.louis has no value to anyone who hasn’t been to east st.louis. and also because we’ve heard that story. overcoming something, having a backstory etc. is not enough. its gotta be a doozy, and you have to be equally appealing either physically or actually great at that thing you’re telling us you’re great at. so, she wasn’t great, but so long as google hits are as important as they are in the monetizing of an athlete or personality, then all that matters is the hype. That point is only slightly mitigated by the clear Win /Lose component of Olympic competition. because to be sure- thats the only arena where Lolo loses.

  2. Rick says:

    I agree with your article except for a few points:
    -Lolo did not start the Tim Tebow thing, Nick Mangold of the Jets did. This is mentioned in the article you cited there. Yes, she could have not responded to Nick, but he did kind of call her out by trying to set her up with Tebow.

    -She was not unknown leading up to Beijing, considering that she was one of the favorites to win, as you mentioned. Her unfortunate final gave her a little more publicity though. I do agree that to a good portion of the population she was unknown prior to a few months ago, but it’s not like track/olympics fans had no idea who she was until recently. I would wager that if last year you asked someone which woman hit the hurdle in Beijing, they might not remember the name, but would remember who she was.

    I do agree with what you’re saying regarding the media and their treatment of the hurdlers. I just want to point out that plenty of people were Lolo fans before she said she was a virgin and before the media buildup that occurred this year. It’s no crime to prefer one hurdler over another, though if one developed the preference recently, it was probably affected by the skewed media coverage, in which case that is a shame.

  3. Roberto DaCosta says:

    Point taken, I just don’t think your point was that worthy of the effort you put into writing this piece and emphasizing this one issue. I honestly clicked this link hoping to get a greater perspective related to how Lolo’s ‘exotic’ looks brought such clearly biased reporting to the coverage of the sport (which you kind of hinted at); or how in many ways she was never truly in control of her image…. just a 2nd officer on the ship ‘Lolo’ captained by the media and other corporate interests who saw value in the ‘Lolo’ brand and chose to take her out for a spin (no disrespectful objectification of woman intended). Still a good read tho.

    • Great point, Roberto. Basically the intent in this post was to separate the constants from the variables when examine just how Jones became the most-talked-about U.S. athlete heading into the London Games. I definitely think her racial ambiguity and “exotic beauty” position her to fit into standards of beauty that ignore the good looks of Wells, Harper and other track athletes of the African Diaspora. I’m also positive race and skin tone played a role in the post-race casting of Wells and Harper as petty and bitter bullies, while NBC portrayed Jones as innocent victim of her vindictive teammates and the insensitive press. But as I pointed out in the post, the exotic good looks that contributed to her fame in 2012 were also present in 2008, when fewer people knew or cared who she was. They’re a constant. The variable that changed this equation is how she has chosen to portray her sex life, which is why I chose to focus on sexuality here while still pointing out that colour complexes are also at work. Thanks for the comment, though. Much appreciated.

  4. gryph says:

    she said represent my country in the best way ‘positive, i mean possible’

  5. wspj says:

    This is a brilliantly observation-filled article. A+

  6. “court attention as relentlessly and shamelessly as Jones has”

    Jones is an athlete. Athletes are entertainers. Attention is the currency of her profession.

    There’s nothing wrong with it.

    • Hashim…how about: ” you have to brace for backlash, especially on social media, where people are pricks…”

      or

      “I’m past the point of knocking anybody’s hustle.

      But for Jones and her team not to realize her grandstanding would generate a little justified resentment is naive. Anybody chasing fame needs to realize the famous are rarely universally loved.”

      Never said courting attention was wrong. But to do it the way she did and not expect any criticism just isn’t realistic. If Jones didn’t realize that her handlers should have made her aware… ESPECIALLY when you’re using sexuality as your hook. It’s not like backlash wasn’t foreseeable.

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