You know the only thing that detracts from an Olympic medal even more than a publicity-magnet teammate? Infighting with her.
Americans Dawn Harper, who won silver in the 100-meter hurdles, and Kellie Wells, who took the bronze, were again robbed of the spotlight when they took the bait afterward on questions about fourth-place finisher and teammate Lolo Jones. Both showed just a bit of glee about finishing ahead of Jones. But by revealing the cracks in team unity, guess who that put the focus back on?
Not Harper and Wells.
Harper and Wells deserved their moment. It had come after Jones got the lion's share of endorsements and attention leading up to the final. But almost as much as sex, controversy sells.
It's much easier to turn Harper, Wells and Jones into the Real Housewives of Mount Olympus than to recognize a complicated compensation dynamic that puts athletes at odds with one another.
This all came to the forefront when the New York Times published a critique that quoted Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, dismissing Jones as another Anna Kournikova. Kournikova was the beautiful Russian tennis player who reaped millions in endorsements despite never winning a tournament as a singles player.
On Wednesday morning, Jones cried in frustration on the "Today" show as she awoke to a full-fledged backlash.
"They didn't even do their research, calling me the Anna Kournikova of track," Jones said. "I have the American record. I am the American-record holder indoors, I have two world indoor titles. Just because I don't boast about these things, I don't think I should be ripped apart by media. I laid it out there, fought hard for my country and it's just a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I'm already so brokenhearted as it is."
Jones is a competitor and a champion -- and even Kournikova won majors in doubles and was ranked as high as No. 8 in the world in singles. Her name is used as an insult these days, but Kournikova the player was much better than you'd know from "Kournikova" the invective.
Just as Jones was built up, it was that easy to dismiss her. Jones got a lot of publicity because of her looks, her authentic blend of humor and candor, and her use of the word "virgin" with a straight face. We loved her for her openness -- the Olympics are all about personal stories, and Jones has a compelling one.
And everything she said can and will be unfairly used against her during the Olympic backlash.
No doubt Jones has received endorsements -- and an invitation to pose nude in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue -- because of her athletic good looks. But she doesn't deserve to be smeared for her decision to pose, or to have anyone imply that it doesn't comport with her religious sensibility.
Corporate magnet and backup quarterback Tim Tebow can run shirtless in the rain without having to deal with that nonsense. And that's in part because Americans have different standards for women and men. Danica Patrick, Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova -- the pettiness has different ways of cropping up. Even Gabby Douglas and the silly distraction of her hair. We love building up our heroes only to tear them down.
Billie Jean King said that when she's watching junior tennis players, she looks for talent, but also for players who love the spotlight, because ultimately that's how you thrive in professional sports. Jones has that quality, and it draws people to her.
Jones deserved to be on an international stage and, considering her hamstring and back issues and her age (30), she dramatically overachieved during these Olympics.
Yet the story of two jealous medalists and their beautiful teammate has completely overshadowed the fact that an excellent U.S. team captured three of the top four places in the 100-meter hurdles. And that is a shame for all three women.