Lolo Jones at the crossroads

Lolo Jones. (London Telegraph photo)

Lolo Jones is an elite athlete. Despite not winning medals in her last two Olympics, she placed fourth in the 100-meter hurdles at this year’s games. That means she’s ranked No. 4 in the world in that event, which is no small feat. She’s legit.

Lolo Jones is a marketing machine. She’s appeared on television commercials, magazine covers, TV programs and on the red carpet. She’s one of the best endorsers Madison Avenue could ever hope for, with the looks, personality and backstory to grab people’s attention. Medal or not, she’s pure gold.

Lolo Jones is a principled, moral woman. Despite the temptation that faces her daily, she has saved herself for marriage, maintaining her virginity until she meets and marries her husband. Given the reported promiscuity that abounds at Olympic Village, kudos to her for not giving in.

(runlolorun.com photo)

Lolo Jones is hot. Uber hot. I mean, did you see the nude photo of her published in ESPN the Magazine back in ’09? Or that provocative cover for Outside Magazine? Put her high on the list of one of America’s sexiest Olympians ever.

Lolo Jones is upset. She’s upset that she didn’t medal at this year’s games, but she’s particularly angered by the media coverage she received just prior to her biggest race, and then the additional coverage she got after her fourth-place finish did not match up to the lofty expectations that came along with her sizable public profile.

Lolo Jones opens up about how she perceived her treatment by the media. (NBC image)

In speaking to NBC after her last race, she had this to say of a critical New York Times article profiling her:

“I think it was crazy just because it was two days before I competed, and then the fact that it was from a U.S. media. They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and … they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking.”

“They didn’t even do their research, calling me the Anna Kournikova of track. I have the American record. I am the American record holder indoors, I have two world indoor titles. Just because I don’t boast about these things, I don’t think I should be ripped apart by media. I laid it out there, fought hard for my country and it’s just a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I’m already so brokenhearted as it is.”

No one likes a harsh critique, particularly right before a big event. But it brings up the next thing about her which is key to understand.

Lolo Jones is a public figure. All that success on the track, all those endorsements, all those public appearances and magazine shoots, and, of course, earning a spot on the Olympic team came to a head at the games. It’s difficult to name many American athletes not named Michael Phelps or not on the men’s basketball team who had more name recognition than Jones. And it’s not like she just rose up to prominence recently. This has been years in the making. Whether Jones realized it or not, she wasn’t just racing against her competition, she wasn’t just competing against her faster and less-publicized (and more envious) teammates. She was engaged in a high-risk, high-reward game in which the payoff would be huge had she won, but would crumble under her feet otherwise.

Had Joe Namath made his famous guarantee and then lost Super Bowl III, the letdown and criticism would have been similar.

And that’s the danger of being a public figure. Everything you do is magnified, good and bad. All the many, many benefits of being famous come with a price: you will be scrutinized at every turn by a media that as busy trying to feed a hungry public that devours information about it stars like starving lion. Maybe it’s not fair, but it part of the tradeoff. The megabucks you receive from all those endorsement deals have strings attached. And that’s nothing new.

Alas, the storm will pass. Sort of. Because long after the public and the media has moved on, this charismatic athlete still has to live her life, bask in her glories and live with her disappointments. Which leads us to what’s next.

Lolo Jones is at a crossroads. She is as talented now as she was a week ago, an athlete in the prime of her life. But at 30 years old, she at the edge of that prime, and the next Olympics doesn’t happen for another four years. She’ll be 34 by then, and barring an aberration of aging, she’ll be well on her way to a slow physical decline that afflicts all sprinters and short-distance performers who rely on fast-twitch muscles to propel them to victory. That’s not to say she can’t find a second athletic life – distance athletes can actually improve for several years past their 30th birthday. But I digress.

What’s important now is for Jones to redefine who she is. There are so many facets to how we’ve come to know her, and at times they are contradictory. It’s safe to say she had help in this public persona confusion. I have a hard time believing the girl who abstains from intercourse woke up one day and decided to pose nude or nearly nude for two national magazines. Something tells me there was some convincing to be done. But as is the case with all personal decisions, what you do is ultimately on your own shoulders.

The choices are out there. She could continue on her current path and join swimmer Ryan Lochte in jumping at every opportunity for publicity and money that her agent can throw her way. Trade on her name and fame for as long as possible, milk it for everything it’s worth. There’s still plenty of money to be made, at least in the next few months or so.

Or she could simplify. Notice I didn’t say fade away. That’s different. But there’s a huge opportunity in front of her, to remake herself (or at least the image of herself) that is sustainable and more in line with who Lolo Jones truly is.

As to what that looks like, I don’t know. Only she does. But even public figures can take the opportunity to “control the message.” Who is Lolo Jones? What will she become? Only she can answer that, and that will only happen if and when she makes it so.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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