Lolo Jones, Dawn Harper, Kellie Wells: Controversy or Media Hype?

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I do not normally get involved in other peoples' drama but with the past couple days filled with tweets, articles, and television interviews about Dawn Harper, Kellie Wells, and Lolo Jones, I have been encouraged to say my "piece". Let me also just give you some 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 post. In any case, whether or not you read it is up to you.

The heartbreak of Lolo Jones in 2008, the favorite to win before falling over the 9th hurdle in Beijing, captured audiences worldwide 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 was the Olympics and we had an Olympic champion!  What was her name again?  Enter Dawn Harper “the girl who won because Lolo fell”.  

Put yourself in Harper's shoes for just a moment.  Olympic sport athletes dream most of their lives of being Olympic Champions: they work, cry, fight, and train their way to the top and to make it.  It should be a glorious experience where they celebrate and receive maybe a little praise for their achievement.  Well for Harper, that achievement was overshadowed by Jones’ fall.  From the first press conference, the gold medalist was asked mostly about Jones and this continued for four years.  Imagine the 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 they want to see, the story that captivates audiences, the personality that sells magazines.

USA hurdlers via zumapress

Quickly, for those who do not understand track & field, and specifically hurdles, let me explain something.  The hurdles are a technical event like the high jump.  Athletes must clear a bar(s) - the only difference is they do so 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 she/he didn’t knock the bar off she/he would have won”.  Hurdles are the same: 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.  

Once Jones had the media attention she literally ran with it.  She has sponsors galore and competes in Red Bull headbands, Oakley glasses, and Asics shoes - just some of her paying sponsors.  She 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, as well as her track success and failure in the right way.  If one wants fame and fortune then go after it and that’s what Jones did.  No one should be mad at her for that because given the opportunity most people would do the same.  Some people may be more private and do not want public attention but no judgment should be cast either way. 

Question: If the roles in Beijing were reversed between Harper and Jones who would be famous right now?  Harper for falling on the last hurdle or Jones for winning the gold?  Be honest…

In the four years of post-Beijing competition Harper and other hurdlers, including but not limited to Kellie Wells, would go on to have more successful outdoor seasons than Jones.  Harper would even add a World Championship Bronze medal to her resume.  To her credit, Jones won 2010 Indoor World Championships and set a new American Record at 60-meter hurdles.  This achievement receives little attention because indoor competitions are often considered practice for outdoor and many athletes train through this season so they are not always at their best or do not compete at all.  Nevertheless Jones holds the American indoor record.  Then Jones continued to receive the majority of attention without making one outdoor national team after the 2008 Olympics. She may not have the best credentials, but she remained the most popular hurdler, which is where the issues arise. Some may call the “issues” jealousy. 

Fast forward to 2012 which was billed as Jones’ redemption year.  She was featured on ESPNU and got massive publicity for her story (which is truly inspiring). She was also featured on Real Sports getting huge attention because she revealed that she is a 29 year old virgin.  BOOM!  There it was -  the moment she truly endeared herself to the world.This beautiful Christian girl who suffered devastation in front of millions, grew up partially homeless, has an infectious sense of humor, and 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 redeem herself.

Jones was not picked to make the US Team this year but she placed a surprising 3rd at the US Trials. At this point Wells, Harper and every other American hurdler had been dealing with the hype that Jones was 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?” The media can take a quote here and a quote there and BAM there's 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 Jones is under enough pressure to prove herself worthy of all the media attention.  

Lolo Jones is a good hurdler - she was ranked #1 in the World (2008) and during the current Olympic Games she finished in 4th place!  Not too shabby if you ask me.  She has gained the respect of many and proved she can perform under pressure.  Her finish came after a New York Times article that basically stated she is overrated. 

Over the past four years Jones has 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 to compete and win.  What Jones needs to understand is that there is a price to be paid for fortune and fame.  She sought it and “it” she received.  One “bad” article compared to 100 “good” pieces of press 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 seems to love 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 negative article shouldn’t make her feel less than she is.  

As an athlete who has been in many 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 have helped.  I don’t know. What I do know is that three talented and successful women have been torn down as a result of recent media events.  Harper and Wells have been made out to be a duo of bitter, jealous women teaming up against Jones who has been cast as the victim of their hate. She's allegedly 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 Jones receives and they 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 four years of dealing with feeling left out or less relevant then Jones in an event in which they sweat, cry, and bleed just like Jones and every other Olympic athlete.  Maybe their tone or laughter seems unintentionally disrespectful.  Jones, however, does not have an Olympic medal or any other international 100 hurdles medals so critics have the right to say she is over-rated - that is freedom of speech just like journalists 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 Gold medals without people saying they are bashing Jones.  The media has a job and the more controversy they can create, the better.  I have been part of the media and am thankful the media exists but all athletes need to be smart about how they respond when the spotlight is on them. At the same time, the public needs to be smart and understand when a situation is being manipulated by the media.

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