The day before I sat down to interview Lolo Jones, I saw her in a New York City subway station.
There she was, or at least there was an image of her, plastered to the side of the tiled wall. She was frozen in her first stride after powering out of the starting blocks, her eyes covered by a pair of gleaming Oakley sunglasses. Just as the train began pulling out of the station, I caught the ad's tagline: Beyond Reason. The print soon became a blur of colors and faded from view.
Lolo Jones doesn't have an Olympic gold medal. But she wants one, so much so that in a few months, at the age of 30, she will resume her grueling training schedule, with an eye toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A gold medal in the 100 meter hurdles -- or really, any Olympic medal at all -- would provide a measure of redemption for Jones, who famously clipped the ninth hurdle at the 2008 Beijing Games, and then, perhaps even more famously, finished fourth a few weeks ago in London amid a media firestorm created by a New York Times article suggesting she has marketing deals disproportionate to her athletic achievements.
Jones told espnW she never read the Times article -- she knew from her friends and Twitter followers it was not a flattering portrayal, and she didn't want to give the website the hit -- but she did see Deadspin's breakdown of the story. In the days that followed, Jones was repeatedly pitted against U.S. teammates Dawn Harper, who took silver in London, and Kellie Wells, who earned bronze. The swirling controversy was hardly a media creation, though, as Harper and Wells made thinly veiled criticisms of Jones and the brand she has created.
Not exactly the kind of distraction you want on the eve of the Olympic competition. "I had to focus on running, so at first I pushed everything else to the background," Jones said. "But I was being asked about it in every postrace interview. At that point, I had to deal with it up front."
Every four years, the Olympics create a swell of attention. The spotlight is blinding, and then it's gone. Now Jones' story, too, is receding from the public consciousness, a relic from yesterday's news cycle. But that shouldn't be the case. Not if you're a female athlete, or a fan of female athletes, or someone who thinks our culture still has a lot of work to do when it comes to how we view women.
Because when we get right down to it, this story is about the cannibalization of female athletes. All too often, women are being encouraged to steal from one another what little exposure they're given, instead of asking the more important question: How can we increase the amount of exposure?
Put simply, there are fewer marketing dollars for female athletes than their male counterparts, less pie to go around, and Lolo Jones happens to be one of the small number of women who've been able to make their brands stick. This should be a cause for celebration for all female athletes, that a hurdler -- not a basketball player, not a soccer or tennis star, but a hurdler -- has become a household name. Before Jones burst onto the scene, the amount of sponsorship dollars bestowed upon female hurdlers was minimal. She created a market for herself where there was none.
Jones is one of the best female hurdlers in the world, yet there are a lot of people who seem to think we should take away her piece of the pie, which she earned through a lot of hard work, and redistribute it to Harper and Wells. Because for some reason, beyond reason, our culture has created an unachievable standard for our female athletes. If you're pretty, you're expected to prove yourself by becoming an Olympic gold medalist or world No. 1 (and not in doubles tennis; please, that's just not good enough for all the Anna Kournikova detractors), or else we'll call you a fraud and rip away your piece of the small pie. If you're not pretty enough (and by whose standards, exactly?), too bad -- there's no money left.
Does Jones ever wonder why she has received more deals and exposure than, say, Harper or Wells?
"I have my own reasoning," Jones said. "It's hard in track, because we're not given lessons in how to market ourselves. So, OK, I always try to put myself in their position [her rivals'], and in 2008, heading into Beijing, I was pretty frustrated. I had the fastest time in the world going into the Olympics, and I had the top-five fastest times that would have won those Olympics. But I didn't have any magazine covers and I didn't have any huge publicity. And I didn't get one extra Olympic sponsor. I was like, 'I don't get it.'"
To put this quote in perspective, Jones isn't talking about marketing deals that would have allowed her to buy a Lamborghini and a house in Hawaii; she's talking about what it was like trying to find enough sponsors to pay rent and buy milk in the years between Olympics.
"It wasn't until these Olympics, before London, that I realized how it all works," Jones continued. "I didn't have a marketing agent, I wasn't doing social media, I wasn't aware of all of the other things involved in getting these deals -- because it's not necessarily only about performance. And nobody is sitting us down and telling us, 'Hey, two years out from the Olympics, you really should think about hiring a marketing agent, and one year out, you should have pretty much all of your Olympic sponsorships done.' Nobody tells us that, but I learned that this time before London."
Jones received a random call, two years before London, from the Legacy Agency, a marketing firm based in New York City. She told the agent she didn't understand why she would need his help, that she already had a track agent. He explained the difference. "I didn't know the whole process," Jones said. "I'll say this of Dawn and Kellie, I know that they didn't have marketing agents. So if they want to blame me for getting the deals because I'm pretty, or other various things, I think when it comes down to it, I was also the only one who had a marketing person."
And here's where Jones gets to the heart of the problem. "There's definitely a whole double standard," she said. "I don't understand it. A guy can be sexy and good-looking, and it totally just enhances his credibility as an athlete."
Jones offered the example of U.S. teammate David Oliver, who took the silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles in Beijing, and then, in advance of London, secured a number of marketing deals, including this commercial with Coca-Cola. But Oliver failed to make this year's Olympic team. "He's very good-looking," Jones pointed out. "He was on magazine covers, and on some of them he was shirtless. And nobody ripped him apart when he didn't make the team. I made the team and finished fourth, and I was ripped to shreds because I had marketing deals. If a female is good-looking, it totally decreases her credibility. Now she's not a good athlete -- she's only good in these track meets because she's good-looking."
Jones has 330,000 followers on Twitter, a number she built by taking her account seriously, as part of her brand. Harper has just under 6,000 followers. Should we take 150,000 of Jones' followers and redistribute them to Harper, to even things out? Or, instead, should Harper look out into the sea of tweeters and develop a game plan to reel them in? It's a huge world out there, not just on Twitter. Shouldn't there be enough room for both Lolo Jones and Dawn Harper to have successful brands? It doesn't have to be a seesaw; they don't have to fight each other for the same piece of pie.
"I don't know," Jones said, pausing and releasing a deep breath. "The depths of what happened at this Olympics, it's crazy."
Really, it's beyond reason.