Controversy surrounds Lolo Jones, but this one’s not on her
Last Sunday world-class hurdler and 2012 Summer Olympic media darling Lolo Jones was named to the U.S. bobsled team for next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, a mild surprise given her performance on the World Cup circuit but an inevitable choice when the squad’s selection criteria are both stats-based and subjective.
To arrive at is final roster USA Bobsled had to sift through a glut of qualified candidates, some of whom with better on-track credentials than Jones but none approaching her profile. In a Winter Olympics that won’t include well-known American athletes like Apolo Anton Ohno (retired) and Lindsey Vonn (injured), Jones’ competence and Q-score make her inclusion a no-brainer, even if decision-makers disguise it as “team chemistry.”
The decision prompted swift and predictable criticism, most notably from Sports on Earth’s Selena Roberts, who quotes the family of one of the world-class bobsledders left off the team and hints that Jones’ inclusion stemmed from NBC’s meddling in the selection process.
Disappointment with Jones’ presence in Sochi is understandable, but if you’re upset with her or NBC maybe your resentment is better directed at USA Bobsled.
Or at yourself.
In the aftermath of the team selection and criticism of it, USA Bobsled and NBC both denied the network directly influenced the composition of the squad. And it didn’t have to.
Right now Jones is one of a handful athletes in mainstream North American sport recognizable by their first name only.
Yes, her notoriety owes more to marketing than to anything she’s ever achieved in an Olympic games. Somebody found my blog last week by googling “What has Lolo Jones accomplished besides controversy?” But regardless of the reason the end result is that her presence makes women’s bobsled a prime time sport, and NBC doesn’t need to call USA Bobsled to remind them of that. They watched the London games. They knew it already.
If bobsled were more like track we wouldn’t have any of these discussions. We would have trials with spots in the Olympics for the top three finishers, and spots on the couch for everybody else. But if the selection process factors in intangibles Lolo Jones will always make the cut because her presence is instant marketing. Don’t blame Jones for exploiting the loophole USA Bobsled created.
Still, when understanding this decision and the broader Lolo Jones phenomenon it helps to separate the athlete from the marketing entity.
Before most folks cared who Lolo Jones was, she was one of the best of the best in the world at her job. Yes, she hit a hurdle while leading the 100-metre hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics but she was leading the 100-metre hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics. She ran fast times before that race and more fast times after it. She has won a U.S. outdoor title, four national indoor titles and a pair of gold medals at the World Indoor Championships. Marketing and promotion don’t do that for you. Talent and hard work and luck and execution do.
Understand, Jones is still a relentless self-promoter and, for better and for worse, hits social media about as hard as any athlete around. Last year she prompted a lot of criticism when she posted a video on Vine detailing her earnings as a bobsledder — $741.84, a pittance by pro sports standards. But while that post is undoubtedly tone-deaf to the financial struggle many winter sport athletes face, it also says something about Jones the competitor.
After the London Games Jones was better positioned than any other American athlete to parlay her profile into off-the-field paydays.
Dancing With the Stars.
Her own reality show.
A long-term career in which she’s famous simply for being famous.
Instead she’s still grinding in a sport that, even with the profile she brings to it, is pretty unglamourous and offers even less chance of a gold medal payoff than hurdling did.
Truth is Jones had a much brighter spotlight on the track, where Roberts’ column dismisses her as a “flop” because she finished fourth in the London Olympic final.
Interesting way to characterize that result given how the 2012 season had unfolded for Jones. She narrowly qualified for the U.S. team that summer, and was a step slower than the hurdler who led the world four years previous. People who followed the sport understood finishing anywhere in the top five would qualify as success for her.
The only way you call fourth place in London a flop is if you believed Jones was the clear-cut gold medal favourite in that race. And the only way you believed that is if you bought into the hype surrounding her while ignoring her performances that season.
In fairness, it was everywhere that summer but if you swallowed the propaganda without checking the stats that’s not Jones’ fault or NBC’s.
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