Until last week, track and field star Lolo Jones was an undisputed media darling. She'd appeared in ads for P&G, McDonald's, BP and Oakley, had garnered an enviable spot in ESPN Magazine's Body Issue, was one of just three Olympians to land the coveted cover of TIME magazine's Summer Olympics Special, and was featured in a lengthy profile on HBO’s Real Sports With Brian Gumbel, where she talked about being a near-30-year-old virgin, a much-discussed disclosure that made Jones practically a household name.
Jones garnered all this attention despite a notorious fumble at the 2008 Beijing Games, where she was expected to win a medal but lost her lead after hitting a hurdle. That year, competitor Dawn Harper took home the gold while wearing borrowed spikes, as she did not have a sponsor. But it was to Jones that advertisers and the media flocked to in the aftermath — despite her loss and despite Harper’s equally compelling story and win.
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a scathing article, "For Lolo Jones, Image Is Everything," which took Jones to task for being so popular without the medals to justify the hefty endorsements and overwhelming media interest. In short, writer Jeré Longman blamed Jones for being all hype.
Perhaps the negative press, just two days before she competed for the 100-meter hurdles, affected Jones’ performance. Or maybe she really wasn’t up to par, as Longman's assessed. Either way, she finished fourth in the race.
On the Today show Wednesday morning, Jones tearfully addressed the Times’ attack. “I fought hard for my country,” she said. “It’s just such a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash as I’m already so brokenhearted [about not winning] as it is.”
Critics weren’t done with Jones just yet. Harper, who took silver in the race, and American Kellie Wells, who took bronze, headed to NBC to chat about their victories. And they brought out their claws when Jones’ name came up. “The three girls that earned their spot and they got their medals and they worked hard and did what they needed to do, prevailed,” said Wells. “And that's all that really needs to be said.”
For dramatic effect, Harper added, “Boom! Just like that!” Interviewer Michelle Beadle noted, “You can cut the tension in here with a knife.”
Understandably the women are bitt… er, upset that they didn’t receive the media attention that Jones garnered and didn’t catch the same windfall of advertising dollars. And in light of Jones’ loss, Longman from the Times seems to have a point about her not having the major accomplishments to back up the media frenzy. But Jones shouldn’t be the focus point of their frustration.
If blame must be assigned over this, take it up with a culture where a pretty face, a pristine image and a compelling personal story can sell goods more than just a hard-won victory. But don’t get mad at Jones for getting paid or popular off it, even if it doesn’t seem fair. Unfortunately, life isn’t.
Jones may not be a medalist, but she is savvy enough to take advantage of opportunities when they come her way. And she shouldn’t be hated on, neither by her teammates nor national publications, for doing so. When sponsors came knocking with endorsement deals and cover shoot offers, what was she supposed to do? Tell them “No, I’m not worthy?” Puh-lease. Would you?
"The Olympics are only once every four years, so you have to take advantage of all your opportunities, both to be an inspiration to people and help support your sponsors who help you," Jones told the Associated Press yesterday. "I don't regret doing any stories or being in magazines."
Jones figured out the game — and she plays it well. It’s a hustle not everyone’s willing to engage in, notably not Harper, who is a vocal critic of Jones’ off-track successes. Of Jones, she told the Times, “I’ve had family issues as well, but I’m not willing to say all of them just so it can be in the papers.” Perhaps she should have. Maybe she would be keeping up with Jones instead of hating on her.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk