By now our readers undoubtedly are aware of the hit piece New York Times writer Jere Longman unleashed on former LSU All-American and current Olympic trackster Lolo Jones over the weekend.
If not, here’s a sample from the piece, in which Longman – who attended LSU – implied that Jones’ athletic talents are meager and her fame is a product of her looks…
Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.
Women have struggled for decades to be appreciated as athletes. For the first time at these Games, every competing nation has sent a female participant. But 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. And, too often, the news media have played right along with her.
In 2009, Jones posed nude for ESPN the Magazine. This year, she appeared on the cover of Outside magazine seeming to wear a bathing suit made of nothing but strategically placed ribbon. At the same time, she has proclaimed herself to be a 30-year-old virgin and a Christian. And oh, by the way, a big fan of Tim Tebow.
The piece was poorly received in lots of circles. Deadspin.com’s Isaac Rauch perhaps summed up the reaction most articulately.
Longman’s attack on Jones was most peculiar in that he’s not just an LSU graduate but a 2005 inductee into the Manship School of Journalism’s Hall Of Fame on campus. Strange, then, that he would single out a fellow LSU grad for a rather perplexing attack on what he perceives as mediocre achievements – Jones holds the American record in the 110-meter high hurdles – combining with sex appeal to fuel a career in product endorsement.
And to bolster his case, Longman finds an “expert” on Olympic sports from the University of…where?
“It reminds me of Anna Kournikova,” said Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.
This was a reference to the former Russian tennis player whose looks received far more attention than her relatively meager skills.
“It’s really a sad commentary on the industry Lolo is in,” Forsyth said. “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.”
Anna Kournikova was, of course, a good example of an athlete who was able to market herself into a category of fame which outstripped her athletic achievements – but on the other hand, Kournikova was one of the top five players in women’s tennis at one point.
Certainly that’s an achievement which pales in comparison to a sinecure at the University of Western Ontario, which ranks just outside of the top 10 universities in Canada.
As for Jones, she placed fourth in the U.S. Olympic finals yesterday – which would arguably validate Longman’s characterization of her chances as having “only a slim chance of winning an Olympic medal in the 100-meter hurdles and almost no possibility of winning gold.” Jones was 1/10th of a second shy of the bronze and .23 seconds shy of the gold.
Which isn’t terrible for someone who had surgery on her spine last fall.
Quoted in Longman’s piece was Dawn Harper, the American hurdler who earned the silver medal yesterday…
Harper, the 2008 Olympic hurdles champion, grew up in tattered East St. Louis, Ill. That city’s famous Olympic athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, was her mentor. In Beijing, Harper had no shoe endorsement, so she ran and won in a pair of borrowed spikes. But all anyone asks about is Jones.
At one point, it was frustrating, Harper said, adding that she resolved the matter through prayer.
“I don’t care what anyone else is getting; I’m excited to be here,” she said. “At the end of the day, you can talk about all that, but you’ve still got to mention my name.”
Yet Harper acknowledged being startled by the extent to which Jones has revealed details about her own dissolute childhood in Des Moines. Her father spent time in prison. Her family lived for a period in a Salvation Army basement. She had a brief and desperate career as a child shoplifter.
“I’ve had family issues as well, but I’m not willing to say all of them just so it can be in the papers,” Harper said. “I don’t want that for myself or my family.”
There certainly appears to be animus behind the relationship between Harper and Jones, as this rather unseemly interview with NBC this morning indicates.
Beadle: You thought you weren’t getting enough respect … Why is that?
Harper: I feel I had a pretty good story — knee surgery two months before Olympic trials in 2008, to make the team but 0.007, not have a contract … working three jobs, living in a frat house, trying to make it work. Coming off running in someone else’s shoes getting the gold medal. Uhhh, I’d say I was pretty interesting. I just felt as if I worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible, and to come way with the gold medal, and to honestly seem as if, because their favorite didn’t win all of sudden it’s just like, ‘Were going to push your story aside, and still gonna push this one.’ That hurt. It did. It hurt my feelings. But I feel as if I showed I can deal with the pressure, I came back, and I think you kinda got to respect it a little bit now.
Beadle [to Harper and Kellie Wells]: You guys kinda hang out together … Is there fighting amongst the team — we’re talking about Lolo Jones if you can’t figure this out — is there an awkward situation or now that it’s over we’ve all just moved on?
Wells: Well, I think that, on the podium tonight, the three girls that earned their spot and they got their medals and they worked hard and did what they needed to do, prevailed. And that’s all that really needs to be said.
Harper: BOOM! Just like that.
Beadle: You can cut the tension in here with a knife.
And the Wells/Harper interview pales in comparison to the attacks the Twitterverse has leveled on Jones since the race.
In any event, as classless and ugly – even if it’s justified due to bad behavior behind the scenes we don’t know about – as that performance might have been, Jones at least has some support today. LSU Sports Information Director Michael Bonnette has her back on Twitter…
— Michael Bonnette (@LSUBonnette) August 8, 2012
— Michael Bonnette (@LSUBonnette) August 8, 2012
The responses to Bonnette’s tweets by LSU fans are also predictably supportive, and of course Longman is hardly spared some rough treatment.
On the whole, the disappointing outcome for Jones in what looks like her final Olympics probably doesn’t amount to much. At the end of the day, regardless of Longman’s sniping – and he’s certainly sniped before about the “poor” message LSU’s football popularity has delivered about the school – Jones has a bright future as a media figure of some sort. She’s telegenic and well-spoken, and she’s got charisma. Certainly she appears to have more going for her than Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, who bested her for medals yesterday; that dreadful interview with NBC spoke volumes.
But at age 30, Jones is probably at the back end of her track career. And while she’ll certainly reap a large share of love and appreciation from the LSU community, it’s unfortunate that she’s going to be remembered as the hurdler the New York Times trashed in print two days before she competed for her country in the Olympics.