Once a controversy, always a controversy. That's the statement US Olympian Lolo Jones should get used to hearing, because after her controversial 2012 showing at the Summer Olympics in London, she's sparked yet another barrage of complaints from sports fans everywhere.
When the competitors on the 2014 Sochi Olympics bobsled team were announced, many were surprised to see Jones on the roster. After joining the U.S. in 2012, Jones quickly ascended to the top of the sport to beat out two veteran bobsledders for the third spot on Team USA for 2014 Sochi games. This is apparently her crime.
Two years ago, during the London Olympics, Jones was famously "ripped to shreds" by the media over her wealth of publicity and focus on her beauty, when she failed to win a medal in the actual games. As a hurdler, Jones was plagued by the narrative that she'd arrested our attention for no reason — that she'd failed spectacularly. Rather than vanishing after those games drove her to tears on national television, she joined the U.S. Women's bobsled team and once again, attempted to find athletic success.
What should be an inspiring narrative has turned nasty, as bobsledding fans and sports fans in general are furious over Jones' appointment to the team and many of them have complained to the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) either directly or on Twitter. Claims that her short time in the sport means she's not qualified to compete in Sochi are rampant while the USBSF voraciously defends its newest star and her teammates have to declare "We don't hate her guts."
Sports writer Selena Roberts takes an especially vitriolic stance on Jones' latest success, pointing out the coverage NBC has provided on her redemption tale and claiming that the network had a hand in her positioning on the team.
This is the two-straw love affair that NBC needed after losing Lindsey Vonn. Lolo is the replacement star, the sex appeal sub for the injured ski queen, a hot storyline to ride down bobsled's serpentine track. NBC's convenience is another's conspiracy.
NBC has since denied the claim, adding that it's "preposterous." And to a degree, it is.
To suggest that NBC put its hand in the USBSF cookie jar in order to drum up ratings for what has consistently been the biggest programming block of the network's entire schedule is absurd — especially when you consider how little attention most Olympic broadcasts have given bobsledding in the past. The underrepresented sport itself may benefit from Jones' name, but NBC would be just fine without her.
Still, Roberts points out a segment on NBC's Nightly News in which Jones is given the spotlight over her more seasoned teammates. Naturally, this is mildly upsetting since the others have been working longer on their skills, but it's completely normal and average reaction by a news team. News organizations must find the most relevant, fetching angle on news, and in the case of the women's bobsledding team, Jones offers a unique opportunity for a redemption tale: something pop culture has pegged as the best, most engaging sports narrative possible. Is it any wonder NBC News latched on? No. Does that mean Jones shouldn't be on the team? Absolutely not.
But beyond that, the women's bobsled team has a legitimate shot at gold medal in Sochi, so while Jones might make bobsled more popular, odds are the selection committee wouldn't be superficial enough to risk the chance of screwing those odds up by adding a pretty ornament to a team that's depending on top performance. Looking through Jones' recent records, she's scored a wealth of single digit placements, while her top competitor for the Olympic spot, Katie Eberling, is largely working in double digits. It's possible that Jones placed high in easier competitions, but the bottom line is that she carries a solid record.
Figure skater Ashley Wagner faced a similar hurdle when she was selected for the U.S. figure skating team based on her past record, despite placing fourth behind Mirai Nagasu at the U.S. Championship — which traditionally serves as the selection method for Team USA. Similar accusations of unfairness flared around Wagner's selection, though she's since had time to bounce back from the controversy and is considered to be a standout in Sochi.
But the question remains, what could Jones and Wagner have done to please their critics? It's inconceivable that any athlete who's worked for years (Jones began dabbling in bobsled back in 2008) practicing a sport would refuse a spot on the Olympic team. What are they supposed to say? Thank you, but I'm concerned you've selected me for the wrong reasons, so I respectfully defer to the next available athlete? Absolutely not. Regardless of varying opinions about their worthiness, they've still devoted years upon years to their sports. They're still incredible athletes, whether or not popular opinion dictates that someone else is more incredible.
There's no way to know exactly why Jones made it on the bobsled team, just as there's no way to truly know why Wagner managed to bypass the traditional selection method for figure skating, but what's done is done. Rather than focus on petty arguments over Jones potentially being chosen because she looks good on camera or Wagner being unfairly promoted because of her popularity — opportunities no athlete in the history of sports would ever give up — let's nip this in the bud and curtail spurring any repeats of Jones' London breakdown.
It's incredibly difficult to be taken seriously a female athlete, which is the source of a great deal of the controversy surrounding Jones, but keeping our fingers on the trigger and our eye on Jones doesn't help female athletes earn legitimacy. In fact, it publicizes the notion that one can't be famous woman athlete without some other "it" factor. The vicious attack on Jones — especially now that she's worked so hard to create a new, more successful career legacy — perpetuates the exact problem it purports to solve.
Of course, while Jones can't change the fact that she's an automatic controversy magnet, what she can do is prove bring greater attention to her sport, bring home the gold medal, and prove her wealth of automatic critics completely wrong.