American hurdler Lolo Jones occupies that usually enviable spot where marketing appeal and athletic achievement intersect. Unfortunately for Jones, when the former outstrips the latter, the backlash from media backbiters indulging their petty cynicism can be ruthless.
Jones’s hardscrabble upbringing and her tragic failure four years ago in Beijing, where she tripped over the penultimate hurdle while in position to win gold in the 100m hurdles, had made her a figure of sympathy and rooting interest for the American public heading into these games. Her Christianity, her high-profile self-identification as a virgin, and her striking good looks made Tim Tebow comparisons inevitable, and just as inevitably, there was a media counterattack.
Prior to Jones’s fourth-place finish in the 100m hurdles in London, the New York Times unleashed a scathing piece that derided her as a marketing creation who was exploiting her looks and her backstory of poverty in a “sad and cynical” campaign of self-promotion. “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,” snarked the piece’s author, Jere Longman, who went on to compare Jones to tennis player Anna Kournikova, the media’s whipping girl in the category of style over substance.
Naturally, Jones was stung by the coverage, making an emotional appearance on the Today Show the morning after her loss and offering a passionate self-defense. “I have the American record. I am the American record holder indoors, I have two world indoor titles,” she said. “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. I fought hard for my country and I think it’s just a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I’m already so brokenhearted as it is.”
As is so often the case with cynical media overreach, the Times’s stunt has backfired. Dispassionate observers, even those who might be otherwise inclined to join the Times in deriding Jones’s religion and patriotism, are coming to her defense. Isaac Rauch of the sneering sports website Deadspin offered this observation: “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.”
No, like Kournikova, Jones is merely a world-class athlete who has failed to check the right boxes to satisfy the Times’s sensibilities.
As this episode has made clear: They might not be champions, but both Jones and Kournikova are far better at their craft than Longman is at his.