LONDON — In the end, the most hyped Olympian was also the most alone.
Lolo Jones finished the 100-meter hurdles in a desperate lunge, stood by the finish line staring up at an Olympic Stadium scoreboard that registered a fourth-place finish and then slowly walked away.
She didn’t stick around to congratulate the two medal-winning Americans, both of whom had questioned her enormous pre-race publicity. She didn’t hang out to schmooze with fans who have increasingly questioned her sincerity. The cloudy and cool London skies broke into a steady drizzle as she walked into a tunnel and fought back tears.
“I guess all the people who were talking about me, they can have their night and laugh about me,” she said.
It’s a nasty business, this Olympic star-making machine. These athletes have one chance every four years to rake in the real gold, the endorsement and appearance money that helps compensate them for years of training. Most agree they would be fools to turn down that chance to capitalize on their success and enhance the quality of their often budget-strained lives.
Yet when Olympic athletes seek and embrace this publicity, they are criticized unless they have the medals to back it up. We chuckle at a guy like Terrell Owens working the system even though he has never won a Super Bowl, but heaven forbid an Olympian does the same thing, and shame on that Olympian if she is a woman.
In the middle of this double standard is where Lolo Jones found herself awkwardly standing Tuesday after, once again, her performance did not back up her buzz.
“I’m really disappointed in myself, and I felt like I let a lot of people down,” she said, fighting back tears. “I just feel like a big disappointment.”
The way she was viewed by many, anything less than a gold medal followed by a marriage proposal from Tim Tebow followed by a pole dance would have been a disappointment.
Jones entered these Olympics as a Time magazine cover girl, a partially nude ESPN model and Jay Leno’s guest. She was an empathetic figure after losing a gold medal in 2008 in Bejing when she hit the penultimate hurdle in the final. She was an embraceable figure after sharing a background that includes living in a Des Moines Salvation Army church basement. And, of course, to many she was a sexy figure with her good looks and openness that included talking about her virginity at age 30.
Put it another way: This was the only Olympian who went on national television and wondered about asking Tebow for a date.
“I get it,” said sprinter Joanna Hayes of Jones during the Olympic trials. “She’s got this face that people love. She’s got this story. And she’s out there. She puts herself in the right places at the right time.”
But by the time she arrived in London, the inevitable backlash had begun, and Jones was clearly in the wrong place at the worst of times. Media stories probably fueled by resentful teammates popped up everywhere, including a particularly scathing rip in The New York Times. The essence of the criticism was that Jones wasn’t good enough to sell herself so much. One expert even compared her to tennis’ Anna Kournikova, shaming them both for capitalizing on their sex appeal instead of their ability.
“I don’t understand why they would want to rip a U.S. athlete two days before she competes,” Jones said. “It was kind of difficult this year; you never know where these attacks come from.”
These attacks appear to come from jealousy from those track athletes who think that Jones has unfairly sucked all the air out of their moment. As if it were her fault that Rolling Stone, ABC and HBO wanted her under their microscope. As if she should have refused a chance to make some money off her low-paying sport because others thought she had not earned it.
On Tuesday, rather sourly, these jealous athletes included the 2008 gold medalist Dawn Harper, who finished second to Australia’s Sally Pearson, and third-place finisher Kellie Wells.
Said Harper: “I feel like I kind of shut some people up. You’ve got to talk about Dawn a little bit. Sprinkle me in that conversation of the 100 hurdles.”
Added Wells: “Like I’ve told everybody else, if you’re watching Lolo, you’re watching me, and I’m doing my job pretty well.”
Somebody in the media noted that if Wells and Jones were in the same video, Wells would be the one in front, and she responded, “Yeah, of course.”
It was a scene that should have been celebratory yet reeked of pettiness. It’s as if these American athletes forget what it’s like to be an American athlete. The successful ones go for it, not only on the field but in the marketplace. If they don’t back it up with victories, they usually disappear anyway, so why begrudge them the effort?
It seems to me that Lolo Jones’ biggest crime on Tuesday, as it has been for consecutive Olympics, is that she just wasn’t good enough. So what? And if she’s still able to cash some checks off her fourth-place finish, good for her.
“Now I’ve had two bittersweet Olympics,” Jones said. “I’m like, man every time I come here, I get burned…. I don’t know…. I’ll always think, what could I have done differently.”