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Posted at 01:43 PM ET, 08/09/2012

What we talk about when we talk about Lolo Jones


Lolo, day 11. (Streeter Lecka - GETTY IMAGES)

Lolo Jones is crying, on the Today Show. Lolo is very pretty when she cries.

No.

This is the wrong way to start to write about Lolo Jones, who fell just short of the medal stand Tuesday in Olympic hurdling. Or about any Olympic athlete, for that matter.

Even in the midst of the much-ballyhooed Olympics Of Resurgent Woman, coverage of Lolo and gold-medalist gymnast Gabby Douglas has been giving the lie to the old theory that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Sometimes, the only thing worse than not being talked about is being torn up in the New York Times two days before your big race.

I am still recovering from the Lolo Jones profile days later, and it did not mention me a single time.

That was what was so terrible about it.

As Sally Jenkins points out, this Olympics Of The Women has come after years in which people didn’t talk about women’s athletics at all. Now our complaint is that they are talking about the wrong things. It’s surely a better problem to have. But it’s still a problem.

Maybe this whole Olympics thing has gotten out of hand. Was I the only one who thought the Olympics were uncomfortably sexy this year? Please, I kept murmuring to Buzzfeed, the gamboling id of the Internet, stop showing me pornographic montages of showering divers.

But whenever I think this I am reminded that the Games used to be conducted entirely in the nude. There was a brief loincloth phase, actually, but we all know how long that lasted.

Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, the Olympics have offered a unique opportunity for people from various nations across the world to gather in peace and fellowship to ogle the glistening forms of semi-nude athletes. An Olympics where you didn’t sit down on the couch and think to yourself, “Ah, now to objectify some foreigners!” would be an Olympics out of keeping with tradition. The original Greek spectators would have wanted us to sit rapt at our computer screens surfing through another slide show of the Greek water polo team. (See, they’re even Greek. This is what Pericles would have wanted.)

But while the male athletes seem to have little trouble simultaneously having and eating their cake (something men have traditionally excelled at), this has been notoriously complicated in the case of female athletes like Lolo Jones.

Much has been made about the Women’s Olympics. How mighty our female athletes! How marvelous their accomplishments! We are about to double the men’s medal count! And all this is wonderful and, indeed, exciting.

But it is easy to get carried away.

Never mind that these are a few moments of glory snatched out of four years of onerous training before they slip into obscurity again. “This isn’t football, basketball, or Glee,” noted Geoff Calkins. “The country is going to move on next Monday.” Celebrate now!

But the problem with all the women who are turning in astounding performances at these Olympics is that it turns out our national ability to talk about female athletes has not quite caught up with their ability to perform. So we get things like the Gabby Douglas hair obsession and the Lolo Jones debacle, while medalists like Kellie Wells get well-nigh ignored. And we may slip into the feel-good assumption that because a woman is competing for a country where women have not done so before, this betokens more progress than it really does.

We have moved from not talking about it to talking about it badly.

When it comes to Gabby Douglas, the answers are fairly simple: Why are you fixated on her hair? She’s just sixteen! And she has a gold medal! Can you do any of the things you do as well as she does the things she does? Go home and rethink your life!

Lolo Jones offers a more complex version of the same questions. You have, after all, seen her all over. She is, after all, extremely lovely. She’s been in a McDonald’s commercial, a BP ad — Whose fault is this, this focus on her looks, this backlash? Hers? Ours?

It is easy to know where to look when talking to someone. But where can you look when talking about them?

It’s easy to know where to look when the games are on. In fact, it’s uniformly gripping. Consider our women’s soccer team or the indefatigable Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.

The trouble is what happens afterwards.

And for many athletes, the Olympics mark the moment when an athlete stops being simply an athlete and becomes a celebrity. It is a moment we have not yet mastered, when you climb out of the pool and people ask you what you think about the election and who does your hair, not what you ate for breakfast and why you used the kick you did.

It is the packaging and the imaging and the talking, not the racing, that we need to worry about.

Judge people by what they are capable of. Well, yes. But professional athletes have been sneaking away from that for some time. They are so much more now, than what they can do. They are how they look and what they can sell and the trademark phrases they spout at reporters (“Jeah” - Ryan Lochte; “Clown question, bro” - Bryce Harper). They are celebrities.

And one of the things that bothers the average civilian about celebrities is how much they complain that you are looking at them.

But Jen Floyd Engel says it well. There is a difference between having power and being stared at.

From a distance, the two look very similar.

But being stared at is at least something.

I’m glad female athletes are finally getting a bigger billing. My only answer to this is that we need more. The solution to female athletes being talked about badly is not simply to complain about the bad incidents but to talk about them better. The answer to people who insist on focusing on the wrong thing is to focus on the right thing. The answer to profiles that home in on frivolous arcana are profiles that don’t. Give us more of everything. To mangle a Michael Corleone quote, if anything in life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can make an inspiring montage about anyone.

By  |  01:43 PM ET, 08/09/2012

 
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