Lolo Jones is an American track athlete who finished fourth in yesterday’s 100 meter hurdles at the London Olympics. She’s also become a subject of much discussion by people interested in fame, sexism, careerism and double standards in the media. And as so often is the case, most people are talking past each other and missing that a fairly non-controversial observation has become a misguided cause célèbre.
What sparked the outrage was an article last Sunday by the New York Times’ sportswriter Jere Longman, titled “For Lolo Jones, Everything is Image.”
Judging from this year’s performances, Lolo Jones seems to have only a slim chance of winning an Olympic medal in the 100-meter hurdles and almost no possibility of winning gold.
Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.
Women have struggled for decades to be appreciated as athletes. For the first time at these Games, every competing nation has sent a female participant. But Jones is not assured enough with her hurdling or her compelling story of perseverance. So she has played into the persistent, demeaning notion that women are worthy as athletes only if they have sex appeal. And, too often, the news media have played right along with her.
Longmann was wrong about Jones’ chances. Jones was leading the 100 meter hurdles in the 2008 Olympics, but she hit a hurdle and finished seventh. Despite that defeat, Track and Field News—which is justified in calling itself The Bible of the Sport—rated Jones the world’s top female hurdler for 2008. Jones hasn’t been a flash in the pan, either: she ranked in the top ten every year from 2006 through 2010. And yesterday she not only (barely) made the final, she ran well and finished fourth, behind Australian Sally Pearson’s Olympic record and the silver and bronze performances of her fellow Americans Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells.
But it’s not because of her accomplishments on the track that Lolo Jones is probably the most famous US track and field athlete. In addition to posing nude in ESPN the Magazine and clad scantily for Outdoor magazine, and speaking in detail and dramatically of her awful home life as a child, Jones has gotten attention for saying she’s a 30 year old virgin and a fan of Tim Tebow. Tebow, you may know, was a Heisman Trophy winner as the best player in college football, but was also famous for being highly demonstrative about his evangelical Christian beliefs and opposition to abortion. He was not expected to be a good professional quarterback, but for a while last season he quarterbacked the Denver Broncos to several victories. Tebow’s contribution to those wins wasn’t as great as that of the Broncos’ defense, and his performances faded as the season went on. But he achieved fame way out of whack with what he was doing on the football field. And many of his conservative fans dismissed any arguments that Tebow was at best an average quarterback by accusing the critics of being motivated by hatred or jealousy or politics.
Watching some liberals in my twitter feed defend Lolo Jones looks a lot like conservatives who know little about football defending Tebow, not as a person, but as a quarterback.
Lolo Jones has won two world indoor championships. But the world indoor championships are far less competitive or prestigious than the outdoor world championships or the Olympics. If you compare it to college football, it’s about as impressive as quarterbacking a team to a win in one of the middling, bowl games, such as the Florida Citrus Bowl. Outdoors, where reputations are made Jones has never medaled in a major competition.
Longmann quoted a Canadian academic who compared Jones to the tennis player Anna Kournikova, which he explained “was a reference to the former Russian tennis player whose looks received far more attention than her relatively meager skills.” He’s right that Kournikova got more attention for her looks than her tennis accomplishments. But the thing is, she was nevertheless one hell of a tennis player! She never won a singles title, but at one point she was ranked 8th in the world, and she did win Grand Slam doubles titles.
The comparison breaks down, though, when you consider that Kournikova got disproportionate attention for a successful but not top player, but the most successful players, such as Steffi Graf, Martina Hinges and Venus and Serena Williams, were well know and highly paid. Lolo Jones is not only better known than more accomplished athletes, for many Americans she’s the only track athlete they know.
Longman’s article was poorly written, but there’s an important truth buried in it. Lolo Jones is famous because of sensationalism, and if fame were based on achievement, there are many athletes far more deserving than her of public attention, such as sprinters Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross, who between them have 18 Olympic and World Championship gold medals (and neither of whom, for purposes of marketing and endorsements, could be deemed unattractive in comparison to Jones).
If Lolo Jones is like Anna Kournakova, Felix and Richards-Ross are like Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis. But only if the only tennis player anyone could name was Anna Kournakova, and if a sizeable chunk of the public believed Kournakova was as good at tennis player as Graf or Hingis.
If people want something to be mad about, Longman is a piddling target. We live in a society in which fame and celebrity are gained by often shallow or dubious means, and achievement too often gets minimal or no acclaim. Longman’s article was hack-ish, but for me the bigger problem is superb athletes with outstanding careers such as Felix and Richards-Ross make a good living as professional athletes but get no attention, while a decent athlete who is nowhere near as accomplished as Felix and Richards-Ross can become the most famous athlete in her sport because she fell, she is telegenic, is willing to discuss her awful childhood, and is supremely talented at marketing her celebrity. I’m not all that irritated with Longman for being kind of a jerk in pointing out that if only one track athlete is going to be widely known that it’s unjust that it’s Lolo Jones. I’m irritated that Lolo Jones is the only widely known US track athlete, and the reasons she’s known and other more deserving athletes are not.