Sunday, May 27, 2018

Gary Shelton at the Games: Don't blame fourth-place Lolo Jones for being marketable


How do you sell her now?

How do you package fourth place? How do you market a pedestrian time? How do you place products in hands that did not grip a medal?

Lolo Jones, personality and performer, stood at the finish line, her shoulders slumped, her tears flowing. A few meters away, an Australian named Sally Pearson had just dropped to the track, amazed that she had won gold in the 100-meter hurdles Tuesday. Two other Americans — Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells — were draping flags around their shoulders and celebrating.

Jones watched for a minute and then walked slowly away. It was not her night. Again.

In fact, it has not been Jones' week. The American turned 30 on Sunday. Her critics seemed everywhere, especially in the New York Times, proclaiming that her fame off the track had grown out of proportion to her lack of success on it.

And now this: fourth place. More heartbreak. More tears.

Soon, perhaps, more critics.

"I can at least lift my head a little higher," she said. "When I tell my kids when their mom ran at the Olympics, it won't be a bittersweet memory. At least this time, it was a clean race. I would have liked a better result.

"It just felt hard this whole year. It's my season best (time, 12.58 seconds), so it's the best I could do for this year. Obviously, I'm crushed."

In some ways, perhaps an ordinary finish was to be expected. Jones had spinal surgery last year, and her recent times did not approach those of four years ago, when in the Olympic final she clipped a hurdle while leading and finished seventh. Those Games ended with her weeping, too.

Since then, Jones has become one of the most popular athletes on the United States team. She has posed, and she has pitched, and she has been on the late-night talk shows. When she announced that she was a virgin at age 29, her popularity soared. The female Tim Tebow, some said.

Then came the backlash. Suddenly, it wasn't so cool to be Lolo. The New York Times. Time magazine. The Sporting News.

There were comparisons to Anna Kournikova, the most famous of the pay-me-because-I'm-pretty-crowd. That was harsh because Kournikova never came close to winning anything major. But the message was the same, low and hard, and it seemed to blindside Jones.

"I heard it was quite bad," Jones said after the race. "I don't understand why (the New York Times) would want to rip a U.S. athlete two days before she competes. It was kind of difficult this year. You never know where these attacks come from.

"I'm really disappointed in myself, and I feel like I let a lot of people down. I guess all the people who were talking about me … they can have their night and laugh at me, I guess."

It is not new that celebrity seems to favor attractive athletes instead of accomplished ones. But let's face it: Sponsors aren't spending their money to reward the better athletes. They're trying to find the right one to sell their goods. It might not be fair, but it also didn't start with Jones.

Said the New York Times: "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."

Said the Sporting News: "If she wasn't H-O-T, she might as well be a rower from Burma."

Here's the money question, however: What was Jones supposed to do? Turn the money down? Refer the sponsors to Harper, to Wells, to any more accomplished Olympian?

Remember, we are talking about a woman who grew up in the basement of a Salvation Army, a woman who shoplifted as a child because she had nothing to eat, a woman whose father was in prison. Of course she took the money. Who wouldn't? If anything, perhaps we should praise her agent for putting so many products into her hands.

It is anyone's guess whether another disappointment at the Olympics will mean death to Jones' status as a saleswoman. She is still going to be attractive and charismatic. But sponsors seem to notice fourth place, too. If Jones had won, she would have been on every channel on your television. Now? Who knows?

Jones never had a chance in the event, not really. She barely qualified for the final, and once there, she never challenged. She seemed to lack the burst she had four years ago.

"I was just hoping I could squeak away a medal," she said.

There is always 2016, of course. Jones has long thought about Rio being her finale. After the race, she didn't sound as sure.

"It's just that having two bittersweet Olympics, it's like, man, I don't know. Like every time I come here, I get burned," Jones said.

After this, perhaps it will be Harper, a delightfully funny woman who captured the silver, who sells the cereal. Perhaps it will be Wells, a friendly sort with a splotch of blue in her hair and bronze around her, who sells cars. There should be enough products to go around.

And, yes, perhaps some businesses will still want Jones. Television has a lot of pitchmen who never won Olympic medals, either.

Don't blame Jones for that. Blame the sponsors.

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