Olympic triumph may be the gold standard for exhilarating moments of unsurpassed athletic glory. But just as compelling are those heartrending moments—the slip off the balance beam, the wipeout around the last curve of the ice oval, the crash on the closing triple-toe loop or the final flight off a mogul—when it all goes terribly wrong, moments that have become encapsulated in our sports jargon as “the agony of defeat.”
The loss endured by hurdler Lolo Jones at the 2008 Olympics was, by any standard, one of those “agonies.” Jones had arrived in Beijing as one of the most celebrated American athletes of the games, a one-name superstar—just “Lolo”—just like her fellow Olympians LeBron and Kobe. But while favored for a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles, Jones owed her Beijing star turn more to the media’s infatuation with her looks—she claims African, European and Native American ancestry—than to her prowess on the track.
Still, a gold medal would have confirmed her stature as Olympic royalty. And in the 100-meter final, Jones appeared perfectly poised to claim it. She was a full stride ahead of the field when she clipped the penultimate hurdle, losing her racing rhythm and stumbling to a tearful, seventh-place finish. As her American teammate Dawn Harper celebrated an upset victory, Jones clasped her head, dazed and bewildered, the proverbial deer in the headlights.
There would be no golden redemption for Jones four years later at the London Olympics, not even a consolation medal. Still, she delivered a respectable performance, finishing fourth, right behind her American teammates: Harper, who took silver, and Kellie Wells, who took the bronze. Although this time Jones may have had nothing to hang her head about, her Olympic career appeared finished—and without a happy ending.
But just two months later, Jones was back training, with her sights set on another Olympics, this time in an entirely different discipline and season. The American bobsled team had long been impressed by the explosive starts of track athletes and, for more than three decades, had been luring them to their icy track, where they would excel as pushers on the back end of sleds.
Intrigued by the challenge, Jones bulked up, donned the sport’s weighty gear and took the plunge. And last month, a little more than a year after her first competitive run, Jones was named to the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, one of five African Americans among the six female sledders. She will begin competition tomorrow as brakeman, or push athlete, for driver Jazmine Fenlator on the U.S.’ third two-woman sled.
Jones will join a small roster of elite athletes who have competed in both Summer and Winter Olympics. Her Olympic rebirth, another shot at redemption, has all the earmarks of one of Sochi’s feel-good—“the third time is the charm”—Olympic sagas. But that isn’t exactly how it has been viewed. In many ways, Jones’ Olympic odyssey has emerged as a cautionary tale about the tangled web of celebrity, media, marketing, gender, race and sexuality. Which makes it as bumpy and treacherous as any terrain Jones has traversed.
Jones had left Beijing an object of enormous sympathy and, despite the disappointment, remained an A-list sports celebrity. But by the time she arrived in London four years later, she found herself a target of some resentment and ridicule that, at times, bordered on outright contempt.
Just days before she was to race at the 2012 Games, the New York Times ran a Jones profile headlined, “For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image.” The story excoriated Jones for a public persona that was “based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty” and deplored her “sad and cynical marketing campaign” to sell herself and the products she endorsed. (In a subsequent column, the public editor of the Times criticized the piece as unfairly harsh.)
Why such vitriol? After all, Jones was hardly the first female Olympic athlete to pose nude or seminude for major publications, a stance that, depending on one’s point of view, is either a celebration of the athletic body or a debasement of women’s sports. And many celebrities have adopted a gushing, confessional style lacking in boundaries. Jones was hardly the first to share, with her 1.8 million Twitter followers, the most intimate details of her life, from her hardscrabble upbringing to her Christian struggle to remain a virgin until marriage.