(The Root) — So there was U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones nearly in tears on the Today show one day after she finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles at the London Olympics. But Jones wasn't just upset about failing to medal in an event that she'd trained for most of her life. What made Jones angry was having to defend herself against the devastating New York Times article that said — and I'm paraphrasing here — she was a very pretty loser who has used her good looks to get more attention than she deserves.
One of the more interesting aspects of these "social media" games has been watching how swiftly the couch jockeys have taken to Twitter and Facebook to criticize athletes — particularly black female athletes. There were barbed comments about Gabby Douglas' hair and her "unpatriotic" leotard, and disapproving statements about Serena Williams and her Crip walk. Even British weightlifter Zoe Smith had to shoot down Twitter trolls after they attacked her for looking too manly.
But Jones' takedown was particularly brutal because it was done with the megaphone of the New York Times. Sportswriter Jeré Longman accused the biracial Jones of using her "exotic beauty on a sad and cynical marketing campaign" to gain attention for herself and the products she endorses.
Even fellow teammates Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, who had equally compelling stories and who actually won medals, grew weary of all the attention Jones was getting. Longman went on to note that "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."
In case Longman hadn't noticed, hurdling and having a compelling story don't always pay the bills. CNNMoney reported that "only 50 percent of American track-and-field athletes who are ranked in the top 10 in the nation in their event earn more than $15,000 a year in income from the sport," based on a survey conducted by the USA Track and Field Foundation. And given the short shelf life that comes with competing on the world's stage every four years, Jones has every right to get as much as she can as long as she can.
The bottom line is, Jones can't help how she looks. Her parents are to blame for that. And she certainly can't help that advertisers are willing to throw endorsement dollars her way based on those looks. We as a society bear much of the blame for holding a narrow standard of beauty in such high regard. Jones just used her God-given abilities to reap the benefits of a system she neither created nor controls.
Longman even called Jones out for flaunting her virginity and revealing too much about her troubled childhood. But perhaps Jones' real crime, as pointed out by the Jezebel website, was being a female Olympic athlete the wrong way. Even though, for the first time in Olympic history, each team had a woman competing, female athletes still face challenges in how they're treated and how the media covers them.
But where Longman really twisted in the dagger was on Jones' competitive record. One source in the story compared Jones to Anna Kournikova, the bombshell ex-tennis player who was better-known for her looks than for winning tournaments. Longman noted that Jones "barely made the Olympic team with a third-place finish at the United States trials."
It should be noted that "barely made the Olympic team" is kind of like being "a little bit pregnant." She did make the team, strictly on talent and without the aid of a swimsuit competition. The Olympic trials are not a beauty contest. It should also be noted (but wasn't in the Times story) that Jones had to battle back from spinal-cord surgery in a less than a year's time just to be able to run in those trials.
In Beijing in 2008, Jones was a heel's-length away from winning gold (after clipping the second-to-last hurdle, she placed seventh). How many of us ever come that close to being the best in the world at what we do? This time in London, she came in fourth. No, she didn't win a medal, but she's still faster than Jeré Longman. (On Thursday, New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane weighed in on the controversy, calling Longman's piece "too harsh.")
Like so many Olympic athletes, Jones sweated and trained for years, all for the chance to represent her country, with limited opportunity for pay and glory. She and all Olympic athletes deserve to be an endless source of inspiration.
"Maybe there's a little girl who doesn't think she can be an Olympic athlete, and she sees all the things I struggled through to get here," Jones told Savannah Guthrie in that Today-show interview. "I just really hope that my story will give somebody hope. Yeah, I didn't walk away with a medal or run away with a medal, but I think there's lessons to be learned when you win and there [are] lessons to be learned when you lose."
What's so sad and cynical about that?
Genetta M. Adams is a contributor to The Root.