The first week of the London Olympic Games is in the books, and from Usain Bolt to Sanya Richards-Ross, the stars of track and field have lived up to their billing. Now as we enter into the second week on the track, arguably the Games’ most recognizably contentious star takes the stage. That star is 100-meter hurdler Lolo Jones, who finds herself in a peculiar position: a beautiful and talented track athlete who is the American face of Olympic track and field without holding any hardware to justify her earning millions in endorsements.
And that is why, today, The New York Times is praying and praying for Lolo’s downfall.
In a Sunday sports piece, Jerè Longman asks if Lolo is worthy of all the magazine covers, commercials, and TV specials — none of which were more infamous than her HBO feature where she proclaimed that she’s a long-suffering virgin who needs a Christian squire to slide on her glass slipper and unlock her chastity belt.
After asking this question, Longman suggests Lolo is a fraud, as much a media creation as her male Christian counterpart, Tim Tebow, whose marginal-at-best quarterbacking skills but classic Paul Bunyan looks and Evangelical spirit have landed him multi-million dollar endorsements and a back-up gig for the New York Jets.
Longman thinks that Lolo’s “exotic” looks (she’s from that exotic faraway land of Iowa) and story of redemption supersedes her hurdling prowess. Currently, in her specialty, measured in time, Lolo is only 21st in the world but leads every American track athlete in magazine covers. Additionally, Longman points to the fact that posing nude for ESPN The Magazine and Outside magazine, Lolo walks a fine line between her piety and her sexualized image (but , seriously Longman, this is America and sex sells, and again, just last week, Sportscenter resembled a Chippendales male review after Tebow ran though the rain shirtless!).
Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, says Lolo may be just cashing in on a misogynistic sports entertainment landscape that values female athletes for their ability to sell beauty instead of brawn:
“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.”
Admittedly, Longman concedes that track and field is a sport that Americans don’t pay complete attention to in between Olympic years — unless one breaks a record, which Lolo has yet to do — thus the race to cash-in is intense for Olympic stars, most of whom can be seen attaching their smiles and reputations to seemingly contradictory sponsors like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola or arguably down right sinister corporations such as DOW, BP, and the myriad of credit card companies.
Sadly, Longman’s piece basically knocks Lolo’s hustle, but his criticism is always valid in a sports culture obsessed with a contrived iconolatry — athletes who value team (or country during the Olympics) and selflessness and eschew the quick buck. Deviating from this narrative creates disdain in die-hard and casual fans alike, but this parlor trick ultimately drives viewership and in turn produces cash.
LeBron James proved how much excitement and dollars could be generated from casual spectators wanting to see the failure of an athlete who many felt had been crowned before anything had been won.
Lolo is the woman everyone loves to hate, a 30-year-old hurdler probably in her last Olympic appearance and who America has been tailor made for “ordinary” audiences, meaning white America has its story. Since everything in America can be broken in black and white and dollars and sense, looking on the peripheral, black America has its own story that, in this particular case, mostly has to do with skin color.
Dark-n-lovely 2008 Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper has been grumbling that the media eclipses her well-deserved shine with Lolo’s endearing, bi-racial rags-to-riches story.
Speaking for white America, (not really, but for the purposes of my argument, he is) Jezebel’s Doug Barry feels that Dawn’s personality is boring and therefore she’s not high on Mad Men marketers list of athletes, irrespective of her accomplishments and somewhat similar rags-to-better rags story:
“A tight-lipped competitor such as Dawn Harper may be a more stoic and enviable athletic personality, but such an athlete offers nothing for the ordinary person to relate to”
On the surface Barry is right — Dawn is a regular God-fearing track athlete (if you notice, track is the most openly religious sport … almost everyone credits God for their ability), and she’s not shaking her ass in music videos nor did she throw up a black gloved fist during her 2008 medal ceremony, a la John Carlos and Tommie Smith — yep, she’s hella boring!
But when we, as black folks, hear that “ordinary” people — codeword for white — can’t relate, we know critics are out of excuses for excluding a multitude of black athletes into the mainstream. White folks, by in large, have no problem buying products endorsed by athletes of color, regardless of skin-tone (Serena and Venus Williams are highest earning female athletes ever) but it seems marketers can only make room for one black female athlete per sport, which makes Harper’s complaints legitimate but nevertheless specious.
What most critics ignore is that the people behind Lolo understand, appreciate, and are capitalizing off of the moment, which they know may never come around again, especially for a woman athlete, so if Harper is not willing to do what our misogynistic Madison Ave. executives require of women to make money — selling ass on magazine covers, making no intelligent statements, and staying “dolled-up” — she’ll continue to relatively starve. Conversely, complexities abound, as there are always other stories that capture America’s attention, which unfortunately, Harper doesn’t fit either.
By in large in white America, considering most of them hate to admit any racial biases, marketers allow them to redirect their inclinations toward their love for the redemptive underdog story, and Harper is the defending Olympic champ. On the other hand, Lolo’s, like LeBron’s, wins doubly off her redemptive, made-it-out-the-hood story because of her perceived sense of entitlement, which we know boils white America’s sentiments, but keeps them glued to the TV.
But in black America, contrary to what folks may think, we aren’t all that fond of entitlement either, though, in Lolo’s case, some black folks think her entitlement comes in the form of the fact that she is light-skinned AND pretty, but mostly because she’s fair.
Ever since 1988, when Florence Griffith-Joyner sprinted into American living rooms with her stunning looks and flowing long weave, outshining her sister-n-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who is unarguably one of the greatest Olympians ever, we’ve seen countless track stars try to recreate Flo-Jo’s buzz to no avail. Lolo is the closet we’ve gotten to Flo-Jo’s crossover appeal.
Conversely, if a pretty dark-skinned woman was receiving all of Lolo’s attention with the same relatively small success, first, it would be understandably surprising, but most of all, few would have any issue with her cashing-in on her looks. It would be an “it’s about time moment” but what black folks don’t always understand is that they are being baited into a racial game that is all about the dollars, and marketers know, more often than not, blacks vote light-skinned with their pocketbooks and time.
Marketers may force-feed Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Lolo Jones down our throats but we reinforce their gamble with our money, tweets, posts, pins, and tumbles. These women don’t exist in a vacuum; they need the full-force of our support, and when it comes to beauty, black folks don’t vote dark. Seemingly, the only time a dark-skinned woman breaks through the mainstream is when she is achieving success with her brains or talent, or she is being lambasted for her African features, similar to the Gabby Douglas Twitter fiasco.
Now we are all mad at Lolo, but why? when, at a fundamental level, all she’s trying to do is win at the game of life, as it’s presently constructed. She wasn’t gifted her Olympic spot; she earned it on the track. Going broke to give a few critics and fans comfort in her character will lead her down similar paths that athletes who don’t realize what sports really is nowadays: entertainment. America eats its young and needs a fresh face constantly, and for women in particular, this reality is always prevalent. So hopefully Jerè Longman can fix his face and find it in his heart to root for an American athlete regardless of however many banal commercials she appears in over the next week or so. It’ll all be over sooner than you think.