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.
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.