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Lolo Jones' openness with personal life has sparked undue criticism

LONDON -- The heartbreak was written all over Lolo Jones' face, except it wasn't her dreams that were shattered this time. In the sixth preliminary heat of the women's 100-meter hurdles, it was Jamaica's Brigitte Foster-Hylton, a former World Champion, who tripped over a hurdle and saw her last shot at a medal slip away. At age 37, Foster-Hylton was running in her fourth, and likely last, Olympic Games.

At the finish line, Jones quickly rushed over to Foster-Hylton and tried to put an arm around her. But Jones knew very well there was nothing she could do or say to ease the pain. Four years ago, she clipped the ninth hurdle in the final and dropped from first to seventh place because her lead leg came over a barrier a fraction of an inch too low.

Monday morning at the Olympic Stadium in East London, everyone was reminded once again just how cruel the 100-meter hurdles can be. It can cut a world champion down in less than 13 seconds flat, rendering four years of work into a puddle of tears. Few know the feeling as intimately as Jones.

"My heart breaks for Brigitte," Jones said moments after she qualified for Tuesday night's semifinal with her season-best time of 12.68 seconds. "I'm just devastated for her because she's been so dominant, and for her not to have an Olympic medal, I'm devastated for her.... I tried [to console her], but honestly, the emotions were outpouring from her. If she would've punched me, I totally would understand because... we work so hard for this."

Her voice cracked and tears appeared to well in her eyes, as if she was reliving her Beijing blunder all over again. In 2008, her misstep garnered a mountain of coverage, particularly because she had been the gold-medal favorite heading into Beijing. She handled the utter disappointment with grace, speaking with reporters and seeing out her responsibilities before convulsing with tears inside the Bird's Nest. It's a race that continues to haunt her -- and not just on the track.

The attention she received that night in Beijing, and in the subsequent years since, has become the hot topic of the moment. Jones is not the favorite to win gold in London on Tuesday night, but she has received more media coverage and marketing opportunities than Australia's Sally Pearson, the 2011 world champion who led qualifiers after running 12.57 seconds, or U.S. teammate Dawn Harper, the reigning Olympic champion. In part because of her physical beauty and her relative openness about her personal life and struggles, Jones has become a popular and accessible subject for news outlets -- both sporting and otherwise. But now, that openness has bred backlash.

A New York Times story published last week suggested that Jones was actively capitalizing on her misfortunes for attention. "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," the story read.

The Times suggested her image far outsized her performance, comparing her to former Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova, who once ranked in the Top 20 but gained most of her fame for a pretty face despite having never won a WTA title. But while Jones may not be a favorite tomorrow night, that's not to say she never was. She hasn't won an Olympic medal, but she is a two-time Indoor World Champion in the 60-meter hurdles and has run the 100-meter distance as fast as 12.43, when she cruised through the semifinal in 2008. Only Pearson has run a faster time since. And though Jones' performances this season have been relatively meager, they should also be taken in the context of a recent hamstring injury and an August 2011 spinal cord surgery that left her essentially bed-ridden for weeks.

But the more puzzling criticism of Jones has been of her willingness to share aspects of her life with reporters or via Twitter. The Times cited her recent admission to HBO's Real Sports that she is a virgin. The comment garnered huge attention, but that fact had been on her Twitter before the HBO segment aired. And Mary Carillo had prompted Jones with the question; it wasn't as if Jones offered it up or put it on the topics of conversation list.

Jones has spoken often about her disappointment in Beijing -- including to me -- but it's not something she actively brings up. It clearly wasn't something she wanted to relive. Her childhood in poverty is also something she will discuss, but only if asked.

In a landscape where we complain that athletes have become so cookie-cutter, rehearsed, cliché and protected, Jones is being lambasted for trying to have a sense of humor and a personality. She's being criticized for sharing her compelling life story. However well-publicized her family's struggles may be, that doesn't make them any less true. Track was always her ticket out, and she's not the first athlete to see sports that way. Can you really blame her for taking advantage of an opportunity that only comes around once every four years?

As for the notion that she is trying to sell sex appeal by appearing in ESPN's The Body Issue, it should be noted that dozens of other female athletes have posed nude or semi-nude for the magazine, including Serena Williams, Hope Solo and the U.S. women's water polo team -- not to mention the many male athletes who have appeared in the issues as well. To say Jones did that for attention and without accomplishments is also rather misleading. In 2009, when Jones appeared in the issue, she was among the best 100-meter hurdlers and had the best American time of 12.47 seconds that year.

Taking Jones to task for her looks isn't something she takes all that seriously, either. She knows she had very little control over the bone structure of her face, and her fit physique comes with countless hours of Olympic training. She has joked that she's taking advantage of the photo opportunities now because she knows she "won't have this body forever," as she told me in April. She said she'll look back fondly on the days when she had a six-pack.

The foundation upon which recent criticism of Jones is based is valid. It isn't fair that Harper and Pearson, or every Olympian for that matter, doesn't get the same attention that Jones does -- whether that's because Jones is photogenic, media savvy or apt at PR. But is it any more fair to dismiss her for the very same reasons?

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