When Team USA Olympic hurdlers Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells came in silver and bronze Tuesday behind a heavily favored Sally Pearson of Australia, they were all smiles, giddy even. Harper, a 2008 gold medalist in the same event, didn’t even seem to mind that she’d fallen just 0.02 seconds from repeating her win. Because while it might have been a bummer to lose to the accomplished Pearson, the Aussie wasn’t the one Harper and Wells were trying to beat.
It was their fellow Team USA hurdler, media darling, Lolo Jones.
Jones, who was on her way to Olympic gold in Beijing until she smashed into the last hurdle, has been all the press – particularly NBC, the TV host for the US broadcast of the London games – has wanted to talk about in women’s track. This despite the fact that she qualified behind Harper and Wells to join Team USA.
Just the round-up of headlines on the women’s 100 meters reflects this:
Lolo Jones Barely Reaches Olympic 100 Hurdles Final (Huffington Post)
Jones misses glory in 100 hurdles (Sports Illustrated)
Lolo Jones Finishes Fourth In the 100-Meter Hurdles. Will It Silence Her Critics? (Slate.com)
Lolo Jones Can’t Win For Losing (FOX Sports)
Update: Lolo Jones finishes fourth in 100m finals (Des Moines Register)
Lolo Jones endures more pain after failing to medal in 100 hurdles (USA Today)
Lolo Jones fails to capture 100-meter hurdles medal (Associated Press)
For all the press Jones received, both before the London Olympics and after her fourth place finish, you’d think she was the one to beat in that race, but she wasn’t. She was the plucky underdog. Jones, for a myriad of reasons, wasn’t posting better times than her Beijing heartbreak. She was lucky just to make the squad, then to qualify for the final heat. It was always more about Harper versus Pearson – the two heavy-weights – with Pearson being the favorite to win.
This favoritism bred some obvious resentment as, in post-win interviews, Wells and Harper didn’t hide their true feelings about the media being “All Lolo All the Time.” Those who had the best shot at medaling in women’s hurdles had a legitimate gripe with the press and, even in some respect, their limelight-loving teammate. But in the end, the real culprit here is the media, big ratings, marketability, and the laziest form of colorism.
Lolo Jones is a talented hurdler. You have to be to qualify for an Olympic team twice, which Jones did in 2008 and 2012. But we’re dealing with some of the best athletes in the world who, in some respects, have dedicated their entire lives and the lives of their loved ones to the sport. Being good enough to get on the team isn’t necessarily what it takes to be good enough to win, and there were three hurdlers who simply ran a better race than her that night. But you can’t ignore the fact that so much of why the media made Lolo Jones its darling comes from its own tortured logic about women, sports, and race.
Jones is conventionally pretty, biracial, and very light complexioned in a sport that – in the US at least – is dominated by African American women. And because, long ago, Madison Avenue decided black women of a brown-skinned or darker hue have a face only a bottle of syrup could love, they aren’t considered “marketable.” Oh sure, Dawn Harper has gorgeous skin and a magnetic smile. Of course Wells has that girl-next-door cuteness and pluck. But they’re both on the darker end of flesh tone spectrum. Hence, in the eyes of your advertising exec, unless their names are “Oprah” and “Winfrey,” they aren’t marketable.
The hard truth is that those who have the money – meaning your captains of media – are mostly white men. Most of the people who cover sports in the United States are white men. And when they choose who to cover and who not to cover, who to “make happen” and who to ignore, it’s purely about what is of interest to them.
What is of interest in them is a pretty girl (preferably white or as close as you can get to it) who can also do “sports.”
If you happen to be both a pretty girl AND excellent at sports you’re as good as printed money. But a pretty woman who’s just slightly above average will also do in a pinch. Years of Madison Avenue campaigns have told people that no one’s penis is supposed to be interested in Dawn Harper, hence Dawn Harper can’t sell product, therefore Dawn Harper is not “relatable” to the (white) mainstream, hence no magazine covers for Dawn Harper, no endorsements for Dawn Harper, no near nude photo spreads, no endless discussions about her sex life (or lack thereof), no mentions of how much Dawn Harper loves Jesus and so on. If Dawn Harper’s face is on it, it’s Tyler Perry. If Lolo Jones’ face is on it, it’s Will Smith. That’s how Madison Avenue – and even some consumers – think. Black faces are for black people unless that black face is a face that has “crossed over” in their popularity and has render their race a “non-factor.”
Now, is all of this kind of sort of screwed up and horrible? Why yes. But is it new? Not at all.
In the lead up to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona Spain, Reebok rolled out a huge campaign starring aspiring Olympic decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Relatively unknown to most in the United States, the campaign made the duo stars and their U.S. qualifying rounds an event to watch. But the Dan & Dave rivalry that was promoted and largely cooked up by the advertising industry hit a pretty big snag when O’Brien failed to make the US Olympic team.
Johnson did make the team and won a bronze in Barcelona, but Johnson would have to wait until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to get his gold medal.
Tall, good looking, and, in Dan’s case (much like Lolo), “ethnically ambiguous” – Dan & Dave were marketable. Could they go all the way? Um … eventually, they could. But in the way they were hyped up to be in 1992? Obviously not.
It’s easy to get mad at Jones because she, like Dan & Dave, are the face of this ridiculousness. They’re the ones Madison Avenue plucked out of obscurity to sell us flavored water and tear-jerky NBC stories. But Jones isn’t the problem – intellectually lazy latent sexism and racism in advertising is. And as long as we have a marketing machine dominated by diversity adverse white men who vote which female athletes are “marketable” by their penises, we will have this problem.
It’s not that Harper and Wells AREN’T marketable. It’s that they aren’t even considered unless they do something so unbelievable the marketers and the media have no choice but to stand up and take notice. Because when one black woman crosses over and is successful it is considered an anomaly, a fluke. Oprah becoming Oprah didn’t lead to media companies scouring college campuses and newsrooms to find the next black female news star, because the media machine doesn’t work that way. They have a narrative, it’s already written and Lolo Jones fits that narrative. Anyone who’s ever watched half an hour of AMC’s “Mad Men” would recognize that the advertising industry – like all historically white male-dominated industries – is pretty slow to recognize that everyone doesn’t think like them. Not even other white men. Proof that black women have and can be marketable means nothing because your success – like that gold medalist Gabby Douglas – is treated like a happy accident or a comet that only comes by every seven years. So what if Viola Davis wins an Oscar? So what if Queen Latifah models for Cover Girl? So what Serena and Venus Williams have dominated Tennis for nearly a decade? So what if Beyonce and Rihanna top the charts?
If a black woman is a failure, she’s a predictable, mournful statistic, endlessly reported on in the news. If a black woman is a success, she’s a unique snowflake not fit to sell pancake batter.
When you’re good, you’re an individual. When you’re really good, you’re “beyond race.” But when you’re bad, you are your race.
And that’s marketing.