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.