Lolo Jones has been garnering a lot of attention at the Olympics and, according to the New York Times' Jeré Longman, this is not okay. Jones hasn't even won anything, so why should anyone bother paying any attention to her? Oh, because, thrusting Jones to the forefront of the Olympic stage is a "sad and cynical marketing campaign" that is exploiting Jones' "exotic beauty" in order to momentarily capture the public's fascination and score Jones some more endorsements.
Here are the facts: Jones' chances of medaling, nevermind winning, are slim. Writes Longman,
She barely made the 2012 Olympic team with a third-place finish at the United States trials. Nineteen hurdlers internationally have posted faster times this year than Jones's best, 12.74 seconds, including the other two Americans in the field. Not all of those faster hurdlers will compete in London, but enough of them will to seemingly minimize Jones's chances.
Of course, there's always room for a surprise because this is sports and when bodies are in frenetic motion around a large, composite rubber ovoid, anything can happen. Jones, Longman points out, was leading in the 100-meter hurdles in Beijing before hitting the ninth — the ninth! — of ten hurdles and subsequently coming in a disappointing seventh place.
More attention will be lavished on Jones when she competes Monday than on any of the other favorites, including Australia's Sally Pearson and reigning champion Dawn Harper from the United States. Kellie Wells is another American and another candidate for a medal, but nobody seems to care about her because everyone's attention is on Jones. Her sex appeal — Longman notes that Jones posed ESPN the Magazine's "body issue" and appeared nearly nude on the cover of Outside magazine — will eclipse the real athletic achievement of her teammates and competitors. Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, likens Jones' Olympic mediocrity and marketing success to that of another famously attractive and underwhelming athlete — Anna Kournikova. Laments Forsyth,
It's really a sad commentary on the industry Lolo is in. Limited opportunities are there for women to gain a foothold unless they sell themselves as sex kittens or virgins for sale. I don't know if this is Lolo being Lolo or part of a marketing scheme to remain relevant in an Olympic industry where if you are not the Olympic champion, you are nothing.
Even Jones' fellow American runner Harper is dismayed by all the attention Jones has received, seemingly for nothing. At press conferences, Harper realized that all anyone cared about was Jones, which is crazy because Harper didn't even have a shoe endorsement, ran with borrowed spikes, and won in Beijing. Harper says she resolved her issues with the Jones-centric media through prayer, but at one point you might expect her to stop a press conference, and exclaim, "I feel like I'm on crazy pills! Lolo Jones isn't that good, you guys."
When describing the physical prowess of Olympic athletes, criticism is relative. Jones may not be the favorite in the field of Olympic runners, but she qualified for the Olympics, which means that, especially in an age when people train year-round for these sports to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, her bid for an Olympic medal isn't just a dalliance, nor is it strictly part of a larger marketing platform. Jones is running to win. Her frankness — Jones has talked openly about her rough childhood and has revealed (a revelation Longman seems to question) that, at 30 (today is her birthday, btw), she's still a virgin — has bothered some other runners, but Lolo Jones is hardly the first male or female athlete to spout off about everything under the sun when given a microphone. As for her marketing campaign, what examples of sexualization or exploitation can we find beyond the "Body Issue" and a magazine cover? Jones wasn't the only athlete to pose nude for the ESPN spread, but, since she hasn't achieved much, her inclusion in the issue is cast as offensively and strictly sexual.
Longman's objection to Lolo Jones' high profile is that Jones' exposure far outweighs her achievement, but the same can be said about a lot of athletes. Tim Tebow (whom Jones reportedly like likes) is routinely derided by retired quarterbacks on every network, yet his name is everywhere. With such a small window of time to capitalize on Olympic appearances, Jones can't really be faulted for taking advantage of marketing opportunities — advertising, after all, is strictly about image.
There are two other qualities about Jones, however, that Longman glosses right over, qualities that contribute to her public appeal: she almost won in Beijing and the way she lost was pretty heartbreaking, and she's disarmingly honest. A tight-lipped competitor such as Dawn Harper may be a more stoic and enviable athletic personality, but such an athlete offers nothing for the ordinary person to relate to. Success "on the field" is completely different from marketability, which makes the argument that Jones shouldn't have as large a media footprint as she does a little silly — not every incredible athlete will connect with consumers, and sometimes charisma (in any form) is more valuable to advertisers than achievement.
For Lolo Jones, Image Is Everything [NY Times]