KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Lololash has hit another new level.
After a middle-of-the-road performance in her first two heats as an Olympic bobsledder on Tuesday, American hurdler Lolo Jones got sideswiped by a former U.S. Olympian.
— Chuck Berkeley (@ChuckBerkeley) February 18, 2014
Chuck Berkeley competed in the Vancouver Games in 2010, but is not part of the U.S. team in Sochi. In a later interview with the Associated Press after his tweet, Berkeley accused Jones of having a "very bad attitude" and said athletes' popularity factored greatly into whether they were chosen for the team.
"I get that people want to latch on to a media sensation and run wild," Berkeley told the AP. "But it comes down to this: There are athletes who deserve to be there who are not there, on the women's and the men's sides. And you have to ask yourself why is that the case? What is wrong with the selection process? Why is it flawed? Why is it corrupt?"
The feeling about Jones in more than a few minds is that she was chosen for Team USA because of her name, looks and/or celebrity, while a more qualified bobsledder like Eberling was left high and dry.
Jones' individual performance wasn't bad. She had two of the better pushes in the first heats. But it's a team sport, and 11th overall for Jones and pilot Jazmine Fenlator is probably not enough to earn a real shot at the medal stand after two more heats on Wednesday.
The bigger question, which will be asked even after the finals, is whether Jones belongs in the Winter Olympics. Jones is a world-class hurdler, so her speed and power need no defense, but she's a newcomer to the sport while those like Eberling have trained for longer. And Jones' profile has overshadowed many other Olympians, including to some extent Steven Holcomb, who has transformed the sport in America and helped the U.S. break decades-long medal droughts in both the two-man and four-man bobsled.
The resentment is similar to what Jones faced in track, where Kellie Wells and Dawn Harper both outperformed her yet still remained in Jones' shadow. In 2012, the New York Times published a profile of Jones that started in a way that could be written today:
"Judging from this year's performances, Lolo Jones seems to have only a slim chance of winning an Olympic medal in the 100-meter hurdles and almost no possibility of winning gold. 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."
In both sports, the irritation is made worse by Jones' tendency to be tone-deaf. She mocked her $741 paycheck from bobsledding last year, in a winter sport that always struggles for financing, and also made fun of George Zimmerman trial witness Rachel Jeantal on Twitter, calling her "Medea in court."
So the problem with Jones is that she sometimes comes off as enabled and elitist, even though she spent parts of her childhood in poverty.
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The problem with the hatred, though, is that it can be just as narrow-minded as Jones is accused of being. Jones' bobsled odyssey will get more eyes on the sport, which might turn into more overall exposure and a bigger influx of talent. Lauryn Williams, the track gold medalist who is on the doorstep of becoming the first woman ever to win gold in both the Summer and Winter Games, was persuaded to join bobsled by Jones and might turn into a popular ambassador for Team USA. Keep in mind, Vonetta Flowers became the first African-American athlete to win a Winter Games medal when she won gold as a bobsled pusher in 2002. Twelve years later, the women's bobsled team has four minority members in Jones, Williams, Fenlator and Aja Evans. Maybe this can be dismissed as "marketing," but all four athletes are good at what they do. Jones won gold at the World Championships last year in St. Moritz. Evans' sled is in third place with a sizeable lead heading into the final two heats Wednesday, so she has a good shot at a medal as well.
None of this helps Katie Eberling, who has the ability to compete at the Olympics but has to serve as an alternate. That was at least half of the point of Berkeley's tweet. But to suggest that Jones' presence detracts from Team USA's mission is a little bit of a stretch. Because even those cheering against Jones on Wednesday will likely be cheering for every other American bobsledder at the same time.
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