Five-Ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: Lolo Jones

Lolo Jones
Give it to me straight: Am I a jerk?

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Nominee: Lolo Jones

Home country: United States of America.

Known for: Hurdling, bobsledding, being Lolo Jones.

Why she might be a jerk: Lolo Jones perhaps first came to your attention in 2008, when her tragic personal backstory—she grew up poor and occasionally homeless before conquering adversity to become an All-American hurdler at Louisiana State—made her one of the top human interest stories of the Beijing Games. Or maybe you first heard about her around the London Olympics in 2012, when some people complained that Jones was cynically exploiting her past to win attention that she never would have merited by her athletic accomplishments alone. (She failed to reach the podium in both London and Beijing.) In a 2012 New York Times piece, Jeré Longman suggested that Jones—an enthusiastic and public virgin and Christian who nevertheless posed nude for ESPN the Magazine; a middling athlete who was receiving star-level coverage—was a world-class sellout. “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,” wrote Longman. To Longman and others, Jones’ choices seemed crass, and offensive.

After Jones failed to medal in London, it looked like her time in the public eye was over. Not so fast! In 2012 Jones was recruited to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. Lolo and behold, Jones made the team for the Sochi Games, and the old questions recurred: Was Jones chosen because of her skill, or her marketability? Some of the American bobsledders whom Jones beat out for an Olympic slot were also upset; one, Emily Azevedo, told USA Today that “I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass.”

Ah, yes, Jones’ social media presence. It’s large and occasionally controversial. In July she posted a video to Vine in which she appeared to criticize the paltry training paychecks that American bobsledders received. (This did not endear her to her new teammates.) Jones also maintains an intermittently insensitive Twitter account on which she has been accused of mocking her fans’ relaxer-free hair, Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, and the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.

Why she might not be a jerk: In his Times piece, Longman acknowledged that the public judges male and female athletes by a double standard. This double standard has a lot to do with our disdain for Lolo Jones. Nobody cares if Michael Phelps shills for Subway or takes his shirt off for a magazine. So why does it rankle when Lolo Jones makes similar choices? The difference, I suppose, is that Michael Phelps is a much-decorated athlete, while Lolo Jones hasn’t won a single Olympic medal, and that it is grating to see Jones be treated like a star performer when she is anything but.

Then again, Lolo Jones was a very, very good hurdler. She was favored to win gold at the Beijing Olympics and probably would have if she hadn’t clipped one of the last hurdles. She also finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2012 at age 30, which might have been seen as an inspirational story if everyone didn’t hate her so much. Then again again, there are a lot of athletes who’ve outperformed Jones in the Olympics who aren’t nearly as famous. (For instance, Dawn Harper, who beat Jones to win gold in 2008.)

And yet it isn’t Lolo Jones’ fault that people want her to endorse their products or pose for their magazines. If Jones declined these opportunities, it’s not as though the corporations seeking her services would rethink their marketing strategies and refrain from using attractive athletes as spokespeople. They’d just find some other attractive athlete to make famous.

Should we blame Jones for accepting these opportunities when they arise? Should we blame her for leveraging her looks into checks that her athletic abilities can’t cash? Maybe. But why should we blame Jones for choosing to make some money during the brief window of opportunity when she’s marketable? And why should we blame her for profiting off of her tragic backstory? It’s her backstory! She lived it. She’s free to do whatever she wants with it—exploit it, bury it, whatever.

As for the bobsled stuff, Jones certainly isn’t the first track star to transition to bobsled in hopes of additional Olympic glory. It’s not her fault that bobsledding is apparently the sort of sport where someone who has never done it before can become an Olympic-caliber performer in a year. And if it’s the case that the U.S. bobsled team selected her as a cynical ploy to get media attention, that’s not really her fault either. If you think she symbolizes everything that’s wrong with how we view female athletes, then I wouldn’t argue with you. But in that case, she’s a symptom of that problem, not the cause.

As for her social media indiscretions, yeah, Lolo Jones should probably stay away from Twitter. But, then, shouldn’t we all?

Jerk Score: I’ll give Jones 1 out of 3 for style, because if she really wanted to exploit her poor childhood, she would compete in an outfit made of rags, à la Oliver Twist. 1.5 out of 3 for technical merit, because a true jerk would also be posting insensitive comments on Facebook, Google Plus, and Pinterest. 2.5 out of 3 for consistency, because she just keeps on coming back for the Olympics, regardless of whether or not anybody actually wants to see her there. And 0 out of 1 for “Did she do anything that 9 out of 10 Olympians wouldn’t also do if given the opportunity?” 5 out of 10 for Lolo Jones, who, while certainly overexposed, probably isn’t much of a jerk at all.

Previously in Olympics Jerk Watch: The Australian Skier Who Allegedly Made Millions Peddling Malware; The Swede Known as the “John McEnroe” of CurlingThe Tongan Who Changed His Name to Get Money from a German Underwear Company.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.