This morning's New York Times sports section has an article about Lolo Jones, the virgin hurdler you're probably somewhat aware of (if not, see here), titled, "For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image." The thrust of the article is that the attention the media has lavished on Jones is not commensurate with her achievement, and (this part is key) Lolo Jones is somehow at fault for that. Basically, that Lolo Jones is a #fraud.
The piece says that Jones's popularity "was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign." Jones, suggests the article, wants attention for herself and the products she endorses, and this desire sets her apart from other famous athletes...somehow.
The article situates Jones within centuries of struggle for acceptance of women athletes, and pretty explicitly calls her a traitor to her gender for garnering attention with sex appeal. The New York Times points out her pose for the ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue, three years ago, and her cover for Outside magazine, where Jones could be seen "seeming to wear a bathing suit made of nothing but strategically placed ribbon." They link to the cover. It's a big ribbon. At the same time, says the article, "she has proclaimed herself to be a 30-year-old virgin and a Christian," as if the cover of Outside magazine was a close-up of her punctured hymen, or her ESPN The Magazine pose showed her shooting up inside a flaming pentagram.
The piece goes on to explain that she's unlikely to medal in London. There are other Americans with a chance, including Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells.
Yet, Harper and Wells remain in shadow while Jones stands in the spotlight.
"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."
The spotlight is a revealing metaphor. I was once put in charge of an actual spotlight for an eighth grade musical (I don't sing) and let me tell you: those people on stage have no control over the spotlight. They don't shine it on themselves and they don't control where it goes. I sneezed during one performance and, looking for a tissue, shuttled through every one of the many colors available to a spotlight operator, ultimately settling on "off" and leaving the poor girl on stage shrouded in darkness. The relationship between athlete and media spotlight is no different—maybe the media descends upon you if you aggressively push a given narrative, but ultimately every outlet controls what it covers and what it doesn't. Lolo Jones isn't an assignment editor.
Also, thanks for explaining who Anna Kournikova is.
In that quote up there, the expert they talk to says she doesn'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." That's true. She does not know. The New York Times could have written a piece on the difficulty of staring into the abyss of obscurity when you're an athlete whose skills are only nationally relevant once every four years. Maybe the pressure of looming irrelevance (and for many, a plunge back in the world of 9-5 banality) makes you do uncharacteristic or contradictory things. Could that explain Jones's public profile at all? I don't know—the article goes right into implying that Jones is pimping her backstory to stay relevant:
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."
If they're saying that Lolo Jones's (apparently considerable) misfortunes were some sort of marketing scheme, or act as one now, that's quite an accusation. People have undoubtedly leveraged thorny personal histories into sympathetic media coverage, but the premise behind that media coverage is, generally speaking, that people with thorny backstories deserve some sympathy, and that all personal history serves as context for future achievements. Why not Jones? Because she's not as good at hurdling as she was four years ago? When she was 26?
And then, the strange little jab that precedes the article's conclusion:
In recent days, Jones has been criticized for what many have called an insensitive Twitter remark in the wake of the mass shooting in a theater in Aurora, Colo. After the United States lost the gold medal to Italy in the team archery competition, Jones wrote, "When's da Gun shooting competition?"
She clarified her remark, saying she was referring to American pre-eminence in hunting, which she had done with Southerners. (Jones attended Louisiana State in a state known as the Sportsman's Paradise.)
Huh. This is the first I've heard of that tweet. Deadspin tends to be pretty on top of the head-scratchers athletes and other public figures send out on Twitter every day. On the morning of the Aurora shooting, we noticed this mystifying salutation from the NRA—that was insensitive. On Friday, three or four different tipsters immediately alerted us when IU basketball coach Tom Crean inadvertantly made a direct message public. We usually know when someone fucks up. How could something like this, from noted virgin and currently relevant athlete Lolo Jones, go unnoticed by us and our readers?
Because it was a week after Aurora, and in context, it seems pretty clear what she was talking about:
USA Men's Archery lost the gold medal to Italy but that's ok, we are Americans... When's da Gun shooting competition?— Lolo Jones (@lolojones) July 28, 2012
As for the "many" that have "criticized" Jones in recent days, the few outlets that even covered the damn thing (this New York Times piece is the fourth Google result) cite a very amorphous backlash to the tweet, and comment sections beneath the articles, fickle beasts though comment sections be, are very much united in support of Jones.
In sum: Lolo Jones "proclaims herself" a virgin and a Christian, but has posed for two magazine covers over the course of three years that might be titillating if you don't have the internet. As it has with many other athletes, the media has allocated attention to her because she's more interesting than most of her peers. She's comfortable talking about a troubled childhood in public; other athletes aren't. She sent out a tweet which the Times edited and took out of context to make her look bad. She's not as a good hurdler as she was four years ago.
"If Jones can remain composed and improve her technique and speed, she can also write a great and improbable story of Olympic redemption," wraps up the Times. If she can "improve her technique and speed" (should be easy), she'll be personally redeemed. If she can go back to being a good hurdler, she's not a cynical, insensitive attention whore. Right. Looks like a lot is riding on this one. Good luck, Lolo! Round one of women's 100 meter hurdles starts at 5:05 a.m. (EDT), Monday morning.
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