With her cascading brown locks, bright shining eyes and a body built for the skintight suits of American amateur sport, Lolo Jones is every bit the femme fatale. That alone is nothing special. A quick glance at your television during this or any Olympiad shows you the same is true of a lot of young women in the prime of their athletic lives.
It doesn't explain her omnipresent shadow lurking over a third Olympic Games. In fact, you probably shouldn't even know the name Lolo Jones. How many fourth- and seventh-place finishers can you recall from Games gone by?
And yet, almost certainly, you know exactly who Jones is. She's arguably the most famous female athlete on the entire American team. She's practically an NBC staple at this point, the network's go-to girl when the Peacock needs a jolt of good old American star power.
Not because she's good. She's failed, sometimes spectacularly, in each high-profile opportunity and was the final woman chosen for the American bobsled team. The cameras aren't in her face because Jones is a transcendent athlete. This is America in 2014. Unfortunately, we aren't ready for women in sports to make it big purely on merit, apparently.
No, the cameras are there because Lolo Jones is a virgin. An attractive, 31-year-old virgin. And so, six years after she burst into our collective consciousness at the 2008 Summer Games, there she remains—her 15 minutes of fame extended.
That wasn't fair to Dawn Harper. Don't remember Harper? She was the Olympian who won the 2008 100-meter hurdles race Jones bombed out of, the American who earned gold. She beat Jones twice in the Olympics and yet the cameras raced to Jones both times.
"I worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible," Harper told NBC's Michelle Beadle. "...Because their favorite didn't win, all of a sudden, it's just like, 'We're going to push your story aside and still going to push this one.' That hurt. It did. It hurt my feelings.”
But Dawn Harper wasn't a television presence, and the media didn't make a public spectacle of her sex life. Harper is forgotten. Jones remains.
It wasn't fair to Kellie Wells either. She and Harper both finished ahead of Jones in London back in 2012. Two Americans stood on the medal stand representing our country. Only Jones, the loser, represented us in the media, a fact Jere Longman decried in The New York Times:
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.
Lolo Jones looks pretty good in Team USA's skintight bobsled suit. She looked spectacular in her runner's outfit in the Summer Olympics too. Those two facts—combined with her 388,000-plus Twitter followers—mean, once again, she's a storyline, this time in a sport she fully admits she would have nothing to do with had she managed to succeed in her chosen profession.
"If I won a freakin' medal—if I won any medal—I would not be a bobsledder," she told HBO's Real Sports. "Absolutely not. Are you kidding me? No. No!"
Despite that disdain for her own game, Jones is getting the bulk of the attention in Sochi, even though she's the low woman on the athletic totem pole. Deadspin's Barry Petchesky argues that's a good thing. Anything that brings eyeballs, attention and charitable donations to a sport short on cash can't be all bad:
I don't know enough about bobsled to say whether Jones was the right choice, but she was surely the most famous. Telegenic, marketable, controversial, and, yes, a ratings draw. Speaking as a casual fan—and Olympic season is when casual fans are indulged, and outright catered to—I do care more about the bobsled team because Lolo Jones is on it.
But who's really profiting from the increased media coverage? Veteran brakeman Curt Tomasevicz isn't so sure it's the bobsled team.
"We're returning gold medalists and not getting much PR because all the bobsled attention is on Lolo," he told USA Today. "It brings a lot of attention to the sport which can be a good thing, but I'm not just sure who is benefiting from that attention."
It's an opinion shared by Sports on Earth's Selena Roberts, who suggested Jones made the team over Katie Eberling because NBC needed a star to replace injured beauty Lindsey Vonn. It was a hot take to be certain, but one validated early and often by NBC's continuing, and fawning, Jones coverage. Roberts wrote that NBC's Today Show:
...engaged in the power of this sex-appeal differential, introducing the bobsled segment by saying, "We're going to talk to Lolo and her teammates in a minute."
That remark was morning-show hooey. It was all Lolo.
And so here we are. In a sport where the pilots, and not the brakemen like Jones, are traditionally the stars, it's become the Lolo show.
Jones has to eat meal after meal to bulk up for the Games.
Finally, mercifully, it will all be over soon. While Team USA is in prime medal contention after the first two heats on Tuesday—Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams sit in first place and Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans in third—Jones and driver Jazmine Fenlator are a distant 11th.
On Wednesday, Jones will almost certainly fail to medal in her third Olympic opportunity. Then we can finally let her fade into obscurity with other Olympic also-rans.
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