I do not normally get involved in other peoples’ drama but with the past couple days of tweets, articles, and television interviews of Dawn Harper, Kellie Wells, and Lolo Jones, I have been encouraged to say my “peace”. Let me also just give you a couple of my credentials that I feel validate my commentary. Until Tuesday I was the Olympic record holder in the 100 hurdles. I have also fallen over the 9th hurdle in a World Championship Final. I have been involved in track & field in many ways for 25 years, one of those ways as an athlete representative. I think that should be enough for the sake of this blog, don’t you? In any case, I am writing it so read or not up to you.
The heartbreak of Lolo Jones in 2008, the favorite to win falling over the 9th hurdle captured the worldwide audience and she immediately became a media and Olympic darling. Add to it, her story of growing up in poverty and we were all hooked. Oh wait! This is the Olympics and we have an Olympic champion! What was her name again? Enter Dawn Harper “the girl who won because Lolo fell”. Put yourself in her shoes for just a moment. Olympic sport athletes dream most of their lives of being Olympic Champions: you work, cry, fight, and train your way to the top and to make it, there should be a glorious experience where you celebrate and receive, maybe a little praise for your achievement. Well for Harper, that achievement was over shadowed by Jones’ fall. From the first press conference Harper was asked mostly about Jones and this would continue for 4 years. Imagine media asking you, the Olympic Champion, about another athlete every time you stepped into a press conference. Now; this is not Lolo’s fault she does not control the media. She is merely the face that they want to see, the story that captivates their audience.
Quickly for those who do not understand track & field specifically hurdles, let me explain something. The hurdles are a technical event like the high jump for example. You must clear a bar(s) only difference is you do this going top speed with competitors on each side. Hitting a hurdle equals poor technical execution. If a high jumper does not clear a bar people do not say, “If he didn’t knock the bar off he would have won”. Hurdles are the same thing: it does not matter IF, it only matters THAT. Jones would agree, as she has admitted that she failed to execute and cannot win that way.
Now that Jones has the media attention she literally runs with it. She has sponsors galore competing in Red Bull headbands, Oakley glasses, and Asics shoes, all paying sponsors to name a few. Found herself in Magazines, most notably ESPN’s the Body Issue where she posed nude. She made herself available for events from the Espy’s to Red Bull parties to the X Games! In addition she became a twitter star with her funny and sometimes-controversial tweets. So, let me say this: Great job Lolo! I for one believe that she capitalized off of her story, track success, and failure in the right way. If you want fame and fortune then go after it and that’s what she did. No one should be mad at her for that because most people given the opportunity would do the same. Some people are more private and do not want that attention but no judgment should be cast either way.
Question: If the role in Beijing were reversed between Harper and Jones who would be famous right now? Dawn for falling or Lolo for winning the Gold? Be honest…
In the next 4 years of post Beijing competition Harper and other hurdlers, including but not limited to Kellie Wells, would have more successful outdoor seasons than Jones. Dawn would even add a World Championship Bronze medal to her resume. To her credit Jones won 2010 Indoor Worlds Championships and set a new American Record at 60-meter hurdles. This achievement receives little attention because indoors is often considered as practice for outdoors, many athletes train through this season so are not always at their best or do not compete at all. Never the less she holds the American record! Jones continued to receive all the attention without making 1 outdoor national team after the 2008 Olympics but remains the most popular hurdler, which is where the issues arise. Some may call the “issues” jealousy.
Fast forward to 2012 Olympic year, Lolo’s redemption year! She is featured on ESPNU and gets massive publicity for her story (Which is truly inspiring) also is featured on Real Sports; gets huge attention because she reveals that she is a 29 year old virgin. BOOM! There it is – this is the moment when she truly becomes endeared to the World. This beautiful Christian girl who suffered devastation in front of millions, grew up partially homeless, has an infectious sense of humor, is a virgin? Now that is called perfect timing. All that, as well as the fact that her injuries were made public knowledge time and again made her the one the World wanted to see make the Olympic Team and have her redemption.
Jones was not picked to make the US Team this year but placed a surprising 3rd at US Trials. At this point Wells, Harper and every other American hurdler have been dealing with Jones basically being the only relevant US hurdler. At an Olympic Trials press conference (Jones was not in attendance) the media asked questions like “Does it bother you that Lolo is on the cover of Outside Magazine?” “Does it make you want to beat her more?” They can take a quote here and a quote there and BAM we got a story. In addition, a fellow athlete publicly tweets an article to Jones with the comment “IT’S ON!” This athlete should be focusing on his race but instead wants to watch drama unfold for hurdlers who are already forced to face issues with the “Lolo Jones fame” and Lolo is under enough pressure to prove hersef worthy of the media attention.
Lolo is a good hurdler, she was ranked #1 in the World (08) and during current Olympic games she comes out in 4th place! Not too shabby if you ask me. She has gained respect of many and proved she can perform under pressure. This finish comes after the New York Times article that basically says she is overrated. Over the past 4 years Jones had not given critics much of a reason to believe she would make the Olympic Team. It is not their job to believe in her, it’s her job. What Jones needs to understand is that there is a price for fortune and fame She sought it and “it” she received. One “bad” article compared to 100 “good” should not be a major source of concern. I understand she is angry and hurt. I would be too. But lashing out at the media who helped “make” her seems a bit much. Everyone loves her, with over 290,000 twitter followers and tons of additional non-twitter fans. They believe in her, her family and friends believe in her so I think one article shouldn’t make her feel less than she is.
As an athlete who has been in media situations I believe that Harper and Wells did not mean to come off as “haters”. Can we blame them for answering the questions posed to them? They could ignore the questions referring to Jones maybe that would help. I don’t know, what I do know is that 3 talented and successful women have been torn down, Harper and Wells made out to be a duo of bitter, jealous women teaming up against Jones who has been looked upon as the victim of their hate and been “ripped apart” for her marketing choices and had her athletic ability questioned. The “duo” understands that they cannot do anything about the exposure that Lolo receives and don’t blame her for it. People have twisted, edited, and expanded on their comments and made them out to be spiteful. We should not view them as “haters” but as humans who may be frustrated after 4 years of dealing with feeling left out or less relevant then Jones in an event that they sweat, cry, and bleed for just like Jones and every other Olympic athlete, so maybe their tone or laughter seems disrespectful. Jones does not have an Olympic Medal or any International 100 hurdles medals, critics have the right to say she is over rated, that is freedom of speech just like they have the right to write articles and say how inspiring and beautiful she is. And Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells have the right to celebrate their Olympic medals without people saying they are bashing Lolo. The media has a job to do the more controversy, the better. I have been part of the media and am thankful we have them but athletes need to be smart about how they respond when the spotlight is on them.