Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games.
This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.
Women have struggled for decades to be appreciated as athletes. For the first time at these Games, every competing nation has sent a female participant. But Jones is not assured enough with her hurdling or her compelling story of perseverance. So she has played into the persistent, demeaning notion that women are worthy as athletes only if they have sex appeal. And, too often, the news media have played right along with her.
In 2009, Jones posed nude for ESPN the Magazine. This year, she appeared on the cover of Outside magazine seeming to wear a bathing suit made of nothing but strategically placed ribbon. At the same time, she has proclaimed herself to be a 30-year-old virgin and a Christian. And oh, by the way, a big fan of Tim Tebow.
If there is a box to check off, Jones has checked it. Except for the small part about actually achieving Olympic success as a hurdler.
At the 2008 Beijing Games, Jones led before hitting the 9th of 10 hurdles. She stumbled home in seventh place. To her credit, she stood and answered reporters’ questions with grace, but her career has since ebbed. Anything could happen here, as Beijing showed. Still, Jones is far from a favorite.
She barely made the 2012 Olympic team with a third-place finish at the United States trials. Nineteen hurdlers internationally have posted faster times this year than Jones’s best, 12.74 seconds, including the other two Americans in the field. Not all of those faster hurdlers will compete in London, but enough of them will to seemingly minimize Jones’s chances.
Sally Pearson of Australia is the favorite. Dawn Harper, the reigning Olympic champion from the United States, is also a candidate to win the gold medal, as is Kellie Wells, another American. Yet, Harper and Wells remain in shadow while Jones stands in the spotlight.
“It reminds me of Anna Kournikova,” said Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.
This was a reference to the former Russian tennis player whose looks received far more attention than her relatively meager skills.
“It’s really a sad commentary on the industry Lolo is in,” Forsyth said. “Limited opportunities are there for women to gain a foothold unless they sell themselves as sex kittens or virgins for sale. I don’t know if this is Lolo being Lolo or part of a marketing scheme to remain relevant in an Olympic industry where if you are not the Olympic champion, you are nothing.”
Ilana Taub, a spokeswoman, said Jones would have no comment. Previously, Jones has defended her nude ESPN photograph on artistic grounds. And she has denounced a double standard that celebrates male athletes as sex symbols but derides women. She has a point. No one is complaining that Ryan Lochte is athletic eye candy.
Of course, Lochte is also appreciated for his haul of Olympic swimming medals. Victory alone is often not enough for women. Harper, the 2008 Olympic hurdles champion, grew up in tattered East St. Louis, Ill. That city’s famous Olympic athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, was her mentor. In Beijing, Harper had no shoe endorsement, so she ran and won in a pair of borrowed spikes. But all anyone asks about is Jones.
At one point, it was frustrating, Harper said, adding that she resolved the matter through prayer.
“I don’t care what anyone else is getting; I’m excited to be here,” she said. “At the end of the day, you can talk about all that, but you’ve still got to mention my name.”
Yet Harper acknowledged being startled by the extent to which Jones has revealed details about her own dissolute childhood in Des Moines. Her father spent time in prison. Her family lived for a period in a Salvation Army basement. She had a brief and desperate career as a child shoplifter.
“I’ve had family issues as well, but I’m not willing to say all of them just so it can be in the papers,” Harper said. “I don’t want that for myself or my family.”
In recent days, Jones has been criticized for what many have called an insensitive Twitter remark in the wake of the mass shooting in a theater in Aurora, Colo. After the United States lost the gold medal to Italy in the team archery competition, Jones wrote, “When’s da Gun shooting competition?” She clarified her remark, saying she was referring to American pre-eminence in hunting, which she had done with Southerners. (Jones attended Louisiana State in a state known as the Sportsman’s Paradise.) Not always the most confident athlete, Jones has acknowledged battling doubt all season. Her modest times show it. Heats of the hurdles begin Monday. If Jones can remain composed and improve her technique and speed, she can also write a great and improbable story of Olympic redemption. After stumbling four years ago, she is back on her feet, back in the Games. Back in position to be appreciated for her athletic skill, not merely her sex appeal. Back in position to undress her opponents, not herself.