The problem was that Jones’ abilities on the track had diminished. By 2012 Jones, at 30 years old, was no longer a champion and not even regarded as a medal contender. Though she barely made the U.S. team, she still commanded outsized attention from the mainstream media, obscuring more accomplished athletes.
If the media deserved much of the blame for that, Jones, with her palpable hunger for the limelight, was, at the very least, complicit. There were African Americans who complained that the media venerated the light-skinned Jones for her athleticism and beauty while the actual Beijing gold-medal winner, Harper, who would outperform Jones again in London, was largely ignored.
Jones’ ascension to the Olympic bobsled team was once again a reminder of her unique celebrity—and of its perils. On a Sochi squad with Steve Holcomb, a Vancouver gold medalist and a contender for gold in both the two-man and four-man bobsled; two women who will become the first black drivers in U.S. Olympic history; and another track star, Lauryn Williams, who won Olympic gold and silver medals, it is Jones who has commanded all the headlines and whose face has been featured most prominently on TV. Many wondered if a Lolo by any other name would have made the final cut. Emily Azevedo, a Vancouver Olympian who wasn’t chosen for Sochi, groused to USA Today, “I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass.”
Several team members leaped to Jones’ defense. And while they may honestly believe that her selection was merited, they also recognize that Jones’ presence in Sochi—with her looks and soap opera yarn—is a gift to NBC, one that figures to be reciprocated with more attention for bobsled than it typically receives. For athletes competing in an obscure sport that barely catches the camera’s eye every four years, attention is the next-best thing to victory. And if they don’t understand that, then Jones can surely teach them.
Mark Starr, a former national sports correspondent for Newsweek magazine, has covered 11 consecutive Olympics, including six Winter Games.