There are the sports we don't quite know how to watch: team handball and fencing and water polo and dressage, their beats and applause points all weird and wonky. There is the odd experience—imagine an irritating, meticulously branded form of time travel—of NBC stringing viewers from one commercial break to the next during protracted tape-delayed broadcasts of Olympics events whose results have been known for hours. There is Wenlock, the off-putting one-eyed Olympic mascot, who looks like a sort of metallic Surveillance Penis, and there is Bob Costas and an even-more-surveilled-than-usual London and assorted subsidiary weirdness.
But as strange as the Olympics are from the comfort of our couches and bar booths, they must be immeasurably stranger for the athletes in competition. Athletes like U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones live in sweaty, monastic suspension for much of their lives, training maniacally in virtual anonymity in preparation for the brief, blazing quadrennial moment in which they become the most famous people in the country. For Jones all that has worked out fairly well—she began her second Olympics by running the second-fastest opening-round heat in the 100m hurdles on Monday morning, and was approaching Michael Phelps-ian levels of media ubiquity even before then. Here's Jones taking technical pointers from a mouthy teenager in a McDonald's ad. Here she is being promoted on Twitter by Proctor & Gamble, one of her many sponsors. And there she was, in Sunday's New York Times—on the day before her first Olympic race, and on her 30th birthday—on the receiving end of one of the most misguided and weirdly uncharitable pieces of poison-pen sportswriting in recent memory. For all the perils of Olympic insta-fame, this was one that Jones could hardly be blamed for not having seen coming.
Of course, Jones probably hasn't read the piece—she was likely deep in what she described, on Twitter, as a “P.M.S.—Pre-Meet Syndrome." But a great many people did read Jeré Longman's takedown of Jones, and if the Internet's response is any indication, very few of them liked it. Longman's basic argument—that Jones is currently more famous and well marketed than she is be-medaled—is true enough, in a basic sense. Jones was a medal favorite in 2008, but clipped her second-to-last hurdle and finished off the podium; she is pretty and charming, and suddenly everywhere in the way that big-ticket Olympians are, circa now; she has been open about both her difficult-unto-desperate early life and her religious beliefs.
But the way in which Longman made his case against Jones—or against Jones and the "sad and cynical marketing campaign" with her at its center—was sufficiently nasty and peculiar to fit seemingly every complaint lodged against the Times from all points on the political spectrum. Those on the left who bemoan the Gray Lady's priggish establishmentarianism can wince as Longman sniffs at the unseemly readiness with which Jones has discussed her "dissolute" upbringing and her sex life. (Or, more accurately, the absence of one, as the devout Christian is an out-and-proud virgin. For the Times’s critics on the right, Longman offers some mournful sanctimony on gendered media and snooty-sorrowful criticism of the way in which 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."
On some occasions, a piece of writing on the Internet has sufficient dark density to briefly collapse the entire Web discourse around it. Longman's piece has proved to be one such black hole. Deadspin ripped it for stuffiness, high-handedness, and general cluelessness. Slate tagged it for ignoring the cultural context and marketplace in which Jones and other Olympians live. Sports Illustrated wondered why any sportswriter would criticize an athlete for being too open and honest. Pretty much everyone was confounded by Longman's vinegary tone and criticism of Jones for appearing on the cover of Outside magazine in a bathing suit and posing nude in ESPN The Magazine's annual "Body Issue" back in 2009; this year's "Body Issue" features such Olympians as Tyson Chandler, Carmelita Jeter, Danell Leyva, and the entire U.S. women's volleyball team. Nowhere in his long cataloguing of ways in which Jones is not as good—and thus not as deserving of attention—as her teammates of lesser Q-rating does Longman mention that Jones is still recovering from the serious spinal surgery she underwent a year ago.
Jones is being marketed, branded, and positioned for future revenue just as aggressively/egregiously as her fellow Olympic stars.
So, yes: even leaving aside the fact that the sports section is generally the most backward-looking and vitriolic part of any newspaper—with all due respect to the seething Hannitys holding down the opinion pages of the New York Post, they will never match veteran sports columnist Phil Mushnick for sheer, sour, anti-everything curmudgeonliness—this is a puzzling piece. Longman is usually a solid contributor to the Times's coverage; he writes frequently and uncreepily about women's sports, and recently wrote a column for the Times about the struggle for equality among female athletes from other countries. On its face, the decision to go in so viciously on the popular, personable Jones seems like standard I-think-the-exact-opposite-of-you-about-X contrarianism. That's a decision that works well for the sports discourse’s more robust manufacturers of outrage; advertisers don't distinguish between hate-clicks and regular old page views, after all. But the choice to clamber down under the rhetorical bridge for a dudgeon-off with the Internet's alpha trolls doesn't seem like a good look for the Times; it also doesn't feel especially Times-y. Longman, for his part, declined to discuss the article or his motivation for it, saying that he preferred to "let the column speak for itself."
But what his column says, finally, has less to do with Lolo Jones or her (actually rather unremarkable) Olympic-time ubiquity or even the gendered way in which athletes are marketed than it does with a broader attitude toward amateur sports and a conflicted and contradictory understanding of the athletes who play them. The NCAA is willing to go to the edge of reason and well beyond to defend the illusion that big-time college sports—a multibillion-dollar business powered by uncompensated and easily exploited athletes—are our last redoubt of authentic for-the-love sport. Many in the sports media are willing to take that trip as well. The Olympics, despite its full-tilt marketing, massive price tag, and decades of multiple and creative corruption, is subject to that same overdetermined and under-reasoned piety.
NBC's much-maligned programming decisions notwithstanding, there's nothing much amateur about the Olympics. Jones is being marketed, branded, and positioned for maximum future revenue generation just as aggressively/egregiously as her fellow Olympic stars; she and her handlers would be derelict in their duties if she weren’t. Painting Jones as a shameless self-promoter is as unfair as portraying her as a passive victim of a crass sports economy. In the end she’s just another participant in a distinctively strange quadrennial phenomenon. If there's anything sad or cynical about that, it has less to do with Jones herself than the contemporary Olympics. Longman's greatest error, finally, is one of perspective: he piles hate on the player when he really hates the Games.