Hurdling, sexism, and pretty virgins

In Olympic sports, you draw criticism if you don’t look girly enough. But you can also cause a stir if you’re, well, just a little too pretty. A recent article in the NY Times has been generating a lot of discussion recently after claiming that the media are fascinated with 100m hurdler Lolo Jones because she’s pretty (and famously claims to be a virgin), not because she’s particularly good at her sport:

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.

Comparisons are drawn to tennis player Anna Kournikova – another female athlete with mediocre (at best) credentials but widespread fame derived mostly from her non-athletic. . .talents. Other, more successful women are ignored, it’s argued, because they don’t meet media standards of physical attractiveness.

Reactions to this article have been mixed, to say the least. (See, for example, the discussion thread over at Jezebel). Some praise the NY Times for calling out an entrenched area of sexism in coverage of female athletes. Surely we should cover the athletes who are the most successful, not the ones who are the prettiest! Others accuse the the Times of, ironically, falling victim to sexism in the article itself. Why assume the interest in Jones is only due to her looks? Why assume that if we care about a beautiful athlete, we only care about her because she’s beautiful? Yet others think the article misses the main source of the media frenzy over Jones – it isn’t her beauty, it’s her skin color. Track and field (especially the sprint events) is dominated by dark-skinned athletes. The US media is desperate to find a successful light-skinned athlete who will be “more relatable” to white folks. They’ve found her in Lolo Jones.

For those who don’t follow track and field: the final of the women’s 110m hurdles was last night, and Jones finished 4th (behind teammates Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, as well as Australian Sally Pearson, who set a new Olympic record.)

[Speaking of gender and the Olympics: our friend John Protevi has another great post on the topic up at NewAPPS.]

UPDATE: Whatever your thoughts on the virtues and vices of the NY Times piece, I think we can all agree that this is a real bummer.

ANOTHER UPDATE: But, um, it also seems like Lolo Jones’ more successful, medal-winning, dark-skinned, non-virginal teammates are not that happy with how they’ve been ignored in her favor.

17 thoughts on “Hurdling, sexism, and pretty virgins

  1. And I started my day with this jackass: “At the first modern Olympiad, there were nine categories of sport. There are 36 in London. None of the originals required a trampoline. They didn’t have to truck in sand. No women pummelled each other. Call me an enemy of progress, but there is something distasteful about a hooting crowd watching women fight. Especially so at the Olympics.”–london-2012-some-sports-like-women-s-boxing-don-t-belong-in-the-olympics

  2. Whoops, I meant to put that comment under the “Why, yes, it does” post. But there’s so much genderriffic posting to do about the Olympics, I guess I can fit in here too!

  3. She finished 4th in the entire world. That’s still pretty good isn’t it? No credentials my ass.

  4. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the NY Times is accusing her of having no credentials (though I may be misremembering). It’s rather that she seems to receive *so much more* publicity that her more successful teammates. Dawn Harper, for example, is the defending Olympic champion and has been World Champion. I don’t think Lolo Jones has ever won a major international competition.

    No one is disputing that Lolo Jones is astonishingly good at hurdling. But it does seem odd that she is so much more famous than other women who are *better* at hurdling.

  5. Anna Kournikova – another female athlete with mediocre (at best) credentials I was disappointed to see this said about Kournikova. It’s such a cliched thing to say. In fact, among those who know even a little about tennis, it’s agreed that she was an extremely talented player. While not every extremely talented tennis player wins slams, it is true that her tennis career could have been much better. The distractions to her tennis career I’d hasten to add were certainly not all her doing.

  6. I didn’t say Kournikova wasn’t talented. I said she had mediocre credentials. That may be a cliched thing to say, but as far as I can tell it’s true. She never won a WTA singles title, and the highest she ever reached as a singles player in the world rankings was 8th (she was usually quite a bit lower). In the context of comparison to famous elite athletes, those credentials do seem mediocre.

    I’m not at all saying that the media frenzy around her was her fault, nor that she was a bad tennis player.

  7. To be acknowledged by people who know something about tennis (whatever stats happen to show up on wikipedia) as an extremely talented tennis player is to be credentialed. I have no idea what it means to say affirm one and deny the other. She was actually very serious about the game when she wasn’t suffering under people who aimed to market her ever more profitably (please don’t take that as some Gricean suggestion that you were saying she wasn’t serious).

  8. It’s pretty clear that she was a world class tennis player. It’s also clear that she’s the only player who never won a professional tournament to become a household name (among heterosexual men in the US, at least).

    Jones at least held an American record, albeit an obscure one.

  9. Is the NY Times article correct? Perhaps, what I find more interesting is that they compare Lolo to Anna a white woman. Is it because they see Lolo as white? Why not compare her to Florence Joyner who was also beautiful? Maybe it is because Florence Joyner looked “Black!” While Lolo Jones is a very talented athlete I think her endorsement contracts have a great deal to do with the color of her skin. Or should I say lack of color? While Dawn Harper won the gold medal in Beijing the media was far more concerned about broken hearted Lolo Jones. Which begs the question…why? Perhaps it is because Harper with her ebony skin and African features is simply not palatable to the American media; whether you choose to believe it or not being a dark skinned track star in America 2012 means that you will never get the endorsements of your lighter sisters.” By the way race is a bigger topic than sexism, because last time I looked “white woman” got more minority jobs than any other minority…I am just saying.

  10. One more thing I am frankly disturbed that in 2012 women are still being judged not by our abilities, accomplishments, character, talents, skills, but by beauty alone…really? Has nothing changed?

  11. I very much agree that the racial element of this story is unsettling (and very much underplayed in the NY Times article). It’s not like either of Jones’ more successful teammates are unattractive – far from it! Kellie Wells, in particular, is strikingly beautiful. But they are both dark-skinned. As are most of the women in the US track and field team.

    Supposedly, the media buzz around Jones started because of her “compelling story” – she was leading the 100m hurdles race in Beijing when she fell at the last hurdle. But Harper and Wells have compelling stories of their own. Harper came back only a few months after knee surgery to become Olympic champion. Wells is involved rape-victim outreach, and has spoken courageously of her own experience of overcoming the trauma of rape. But the focus has always been on Jones, to the extent that it undermines her teammates’ success. We’re told that Jones would have won in Beijing had she not fallen – which implies that Harper is only Olympic champion because of Jones’ mishap. But it’s far from obvious that Jones would’ve won that final had she not fallen. Harper always finishes strong, and was closing down Jones like a train. The narrative built around Jones ignores the success of Harper and the moving stories of both Harper and Wells.

    The media coverage still centers around Jones’ disappointment – not the medals of Harper and Wells, or the Olympic-record winning performance of Sally Pearson. Even the coverage of the interview given by Harper and Wells when they complain about the Jones-centric focus of the media is pitched as “Poor Lolo – another thing for her to be sad about!”

    It’s hard to chalk this up just to difference in attractiveness, or in “compelling story”. The most striking difference is skin color.

  12. While race-related views of beauty may well be relevant here, it bears mentioning that the media has focused much more on Gaby Douglas’ success than Wieber’s failure (as defending world champion). It also seems somewhat unlikely that lack of focus on Pearson’s performance is due to skin color.

    It will be interesting to see if Douglas gets endorsement deals comparable to past US champions.

  13. I worry a little about disanalogies in the cross-sport comparison to Douglas. Gymnastics is a sport dominated by adolescent girls, track and field by mature, grown women. We might be more comfortable with an adorable dark-skinned teenager than we are with powerful, muscular dark-skinned women.

  14. Magicalersatz’s analysis of the Beijing part of the Jones story is very much on point. The video of the 2008 final shows Harper closing in on Jones before the infamous hit hurdle:

    At the risk of belaboring the obvious: the goal of a hurdles race is to win; a large part of that is not hitting the hurdles, so it’s not that Jones had “bad luck” in Beijing; it’s that she didn’t correctly perform one of the basic skills of the event. (Note: you can hit the hurdles and still win; it’s just somewhat rare and of course you can’t hit them so much that it slows you down appreciably.)

    So the “bad luck” angle applied to Jones isn’t something someone with an appreciation of the technical aspects of track and field will buy. It isn’t “bad luck” when a high jumper fails to clear a height she usually clears. It’s bad performance. Same with Jones.

    This I think lends support to the racial angle; those with an appreciation of the sport’s details wouldn’t buy Jones as a more interesting story than Harper, qua sports story. It’s only in the often-wretched “human interest” angle that Jones becomes the focus. And there you can’t discount the race angle.

  15. The first update is exactly what I was getting at. The NY Times implied that Lolo spent more time worrying about her image and endorsements rather than putting work into her sport. I agree that there is a problem with the media covering her more than they cover her teammates who medalled, but it’s not Lolo’s fault by any means. She is who she is, and we can only take her at her word. The writer was on to something though; it’s just sad that it had to be done at the expense of someone who works incredibly hard. Don’t point the gun at Lolo media, point the gun at yourselves for giving her more of your attention. Also, she lost a medal by .1, and she’s thirty. Loads of attention has always been paid to athletes who are 30 and older because they’re at the end or nearing the end of their primes, and it is therefore compelling to see them continue to perform at such a high level.

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