It’s been a rough week for Olympic 100-meter hurdler Lolo Jones, and there’s a local connection to her pain. Jones first gained notoriety at the Beijing games in 2008. Just two leaps and a few feet away from a gold medal, Jones hit the second-to-last hurdle, fell to seventh place, and her heartbreak played out on an international stage. Heading into the London games, her ready-for-prime-time story was framed as one of redemption, a world-class athlete who’s waited four years to erase the memory of her epic fail.
An article in last weekend’s New York Times, titled “For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image,” repositioned her as someone very different. She was criticized for being overexposed, hogging the limelight and overshadowing the rest of the U.S. Track and Field team. She was taken to task for talking too much in newspaper articles and on television, where nothing seemed off-limits: her jailed absentee father, her teenage shoplifting, her virginity. She had the nerve to show off her pretty face and chiseled physique on magazine covers and in photo spreads. All of this attention, the Times said, for a woman who was a long shot to medal, and whose career it compared to Anna Kournikova, the gorgeous tennis star ESPN ranked among the “25 Biggest Sports Flops” of the past quarter century.
From there, the week only got worse for Jones. On Tuesday, she placed fourth in the 100-meter hurdles finals, missing bronze by one-tenth of a second. Yesterday, on the Today show, she broke into tears—not while discussing her second Olympic letdown, but over her reaction to the Times story. “I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart,” she said, struggling with her words. “It was just heartbreaking.”
As it turns out, the Times story was written by former Inquirer reporter Jere Longman. I’ve spoken to Longman in the past for various assignments, and I’ve enjoyed his sports writing over the years. His work has a point of view, but it’s always fair. Not this time, though. Jones wasn’t the only one who felt she was ambushed: On talk radio, WIP’s Rhea Hughes called it a “hatchet job,” and in a blog for the Times, an editor with the paper described Longman’s story as “quite harsh and left me, along with others, wondering why the tone was so strong.”
I wondered the same thing. As Jones herself pointed out, she’s no Kournikova, whose most recent gig was as the un-ironic host of The Biggest Loser. Jones has won U.S. and world championships, and although she didn’t win at the Olympics again this year, she got buried by Longman days before her narrow loss in the finals. He also glossed over a few details that explain why, in part, she wasn’t a gold-medal favorite, including a string of injuries and a spinal-cord surgery just one year ago. Instead, he ripped her for using her sex appeal in a way that’s “demeaning” to female athletes, as if the two-time Olympian cared more about fashion than being fast. (It’s worth noting that in ESPN’s “Body Issue” this year, women who posed nude include 100-meter silver medalist Carmalita Jeter, USA Basketball star Candace Parker, and soccer gold medalist Abby Wambach; Longman didn’t accuse them of degrading their peers.)
Longman erred by reducing Jones to a woman who’s riding high on a crass PR campaign based on little accomplishment. If Olympic gold is your only standard for a runner’s success, then yes, she’s done nothing. But no one in the sport would agree with that. Jones earned her way into two Olympic finals with her speed and technique, not her looks or endorsements. I’ll admit, I remembered Jones well from Beijing for three reasons—the great name, that gut-wrenching stumble and her hotness. If I were 100-meter hurdles silver medalist Dawn Harper, who also won gold in China, I’d be a little salty about all the attention Jones is getting, too. But Harper can take solace in the fact that she’s a two-time medalist who won’t be remembered best for a fall.
As for Longman, I called him to ask about his rough treatment of Jones, her reaction, and whether he thought that maybe, just maybe, his story may have weighed on her during Tuesday’s final. After all, the difference between a medal and nothing is an eye blink, a moment of lost focus or an ounce of strength unsummoned. I reached Longman by phone yesterday at the Olympic Stadium in London. Our connection was terrible, and he was barely audible above the noise. Longman was cordial, but had nothing more to say about Jones or his story. “I want to let the column speak for itself,” he said.
In a way, Longman’s lack of explanation spoke volumes—he isn’t apologizing, despite Jones’s performance, which I’d guess exceeded his low expectations. But his “no comment” was disappointing. As journalists, we move on after a story is published; often, though, our subjects do not. When the tables are turned, and something we’ve written begs for comment, it’s our obligation to offer one. To fall silent when the microphone or the notepad is pointed in our direction is hypocritical, contrary to what we do for a living. The Times and Longman have already begun the process of moving on. I doubt hearing from Longman would help Jones do the same, but it might be a start.