Lolo Jones, again center of attention, seeks medal as bobsledder

Posted: February 03, 2014

Lolo Jones, as photogenic as she is physically gifted, may be the perfect representative of the Olympics' schizophrenic nature.

If the Games' two personalities, that of an international sporting competition and a TV-entertainment spectacle, are increasingly indistinguishable, then so is Jones' role within them.

After two Summer Olympics disappointments as a hurdler, Jones will return to the five-ring spotlight as a bobsledder when the 2014 Winter Games begin Friday in Sochi.

And because she occupies that shadowland between athlete and TV attraction, the controversy her balancing act so often arouses is back as well.

While finishing seventh and fourth, respectively, in the 100-meter hurdles at Beijing and London, the Iowan was disparaged for her devotion to social media (she has 375,000 Twitter followers) and to her own marketable image.

After seriously transitioning to the bobsled in 2012, Jones quickly alienated some winter athletes by posting a photo of herself mockingly displaying her meager annual earnings from her new sport, a check for $741.84.

If, after her own depression and fans' scorn that her failings on the track provoked, she had hoped to find anonymity in a bobsled as well as that Olympic medal she has chased so long, Jones must be disappointed.

As the 2014 Winter Games near, Jones, more than almost any other American medal contender, seems to be everywhere.

Photos of her glancing fetchingly over her shoulder in a skintight U.S. bobsled uniform pepper Olympic websites. Ad Age profiled her as one of the Sochi Games' top endorsement prospects. Business Insider magazine named her the second sexiest athlete alive. NBC Nightly News and the Today show spotlighted her.

The United States, its numbers and strength bolstered by onetime track stars such as Jones, 31, and gold-medal-winning sprinter Lauryn Williams, might have its deepest pool of bobsledders ever.

Identifying the three brakemen (pushers) and three drivers to compete in Sochi was going to be difficult, no matter their identity. But when Jones was selected over two other equally well-qualified brakemen, sparks flew.

Emily Azevedo, one of those bypassed in favor of Jones (Williams and Aja Evans are the other two brakemen), responded bitterly:

"I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than building muscle mass," Azevedo said.

SportsonEarth.com columnist Selena Roberts, reflecting on the Olympics' duality as an athletic and entertainment event, even suggested Jones' choice was inspired by NBC's desire to find a glamour substitute for injured skier Lindsey Vonn.

"Preposterous," replied NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel.

Perhaps, but a few days later, when Jones and her five bobsled teammates appeared via satellite on the Today show, all of cohost Samantha Guthrie's questions were directed to her.

The firestorm led Darrin Steele, CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, and driver Elena Myers to defend the organization's choice.

"I haven't heard anyone making the argument about Lolo not being a better athlete right now, a better brakeman for the team," Steele said during a teleconference. "Who's going to provide the best results for the U.S. team in Sochi? That's the bottom line. And I'll have that debate with anyone who wants to have it."

On her Facebook page, Myers wrote that "difficult choices had to be made."

"The three [brakemen] that were chosen for the Olympic team were chosen because of the numbers they have put up this season," she posted. "We should be celebrating our Olympians, not tearing them down."

At the heart of the debate, of course, is the difficulty of separating Jones the celebrity from Jones the bobsledder.

Regardless of her persona, Jones, like the rest of America's bobsledders, has had a successful season on the world's runs.

In only her second season, she earned a pair of second-place finishes at World Cup events in 2013. In one she teamed with Bucks County native Jamie Greubel, in the other with Jazmine Fenlator.

Which of those drivers she'll be paired with at Sochi has not yet been determined.

"Last year, I was just soaking everything in," Jones said. "It was an adventure. It was fun. Now I'm expected to be more knowledgeable, more of a leader."

For her part, Jones has tried to steer clear of the turmoil her presence has stirred up in what ordinarily is an obscure winter sport.

She has downplayed her role in the two-person sled; praised her teammates; and, by most accounts, tried to fit in with the athletes she turned to shortly after her London heartbreak.

"[My bobsled teammates] embraced me at one of the lowest points in my life," she said. "They lifted me up and day by day they encouraged me not to give up on this Olympic dream."

The speed a brakeman needs was not a problem. But to help her gain the required strength, she gained 25 pounds on a diet heavy on chocolate cake.

And to all those who contend that she's just along for the Olympic ride, that it's the driver who is dominant in bobsled, she points out that running on ice while pushing and leaping into a heavy sled, then tearing down mountains at breakneck - literally, breakneck - speeds is no walk in the park.

"This sport is tough," she said, "really tough. I think that's what I don't like, the fact that people will be like: 'Oh, it must be that bobsled [doesn't require much] talent if Lolo can come in and be one of the top bobsledders.' They forget I was one of the top Americans in track and field before that."

So for the next 21/2 weeks in Sochi, save that roughly 11/2 minutes when it's obscured by her racing helmet, Jones' face figures to be omnipresent.

Afterward, if she comes home with the medal she craves, Jones will have time to reflect on her role as a celebrity athlete.

In the meantime, not surprisingly, it was on Facebook last month where she perhaps came closest to revealing her feelings.

"Bobsled was my fresh start," she posted the night she was named to the Olympic team.

"Bobsled humbled me.

"Bobsled made me stronger.

"Bobsled made me hungry.

"Bobsled made me rely on faith.

"Bobsled gave me hope.

"I push a bobsled, but bobsled pushed me to never give up on my dreams."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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