I have to hand it to Lolo Jones, her marketing agent, Brandon Swibel, and the edgy promotional gurus at Red Bull.
I can't think of another athlete with such a slim competitive resume becoming such a pre-Olympic star and attracting such an impressive portfolio of sponsors, including Red Bull, BP, Proctor & Gamble, Asics and Oakley.
(Tennis and basketball players don't count. Theirs really aren't Olympic sports.)
Jones is the subject of an
documentary. She was on the cover of
magazine - which called her "Comeback Athlete of the Year" - in a rather unusual swimsuit. Featured in an HBO
that aired Tuesday in which Jones followed up on a
revelation (to her 64,000 followers, 1,000 added since earlier this morning) of her virginity by saying that achieving her goal to be chaste until marriage is harder than graduating from college or training for the Olympics. (Jones has been tweeting relentlessly for a couple years about what she characterizes as a luckless love life.)
Wednesday morning, there was a
- linked from
- titled, "Breaking Babe: Olympian and Virgin Lolo Jones." A rewrite of the HBO 29-year-old virgin story on
had drawn 95 pages (95!) of comments in four hours. And the new issue of Rolling Stone splashes her picture across two pages.
"I'm always amazed that people are so willing to give up their personal life to strangers," Mary Carrillo, who did the Jones story for HBO, told me Wednesday morning.
And what is the most noteworthy moment of Jones' athletic career in outdoor track?
A seventh in the 100-meter high hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics.
Oh, it was a spectacular seventh. Jones, the world's fastest hurdler in 2008, was headed for the gold medal when she stumbled over the next-to-last hurdle and wound up being dusted by all but one other runner.
Other than that?
She has won a single U.S. outdoor title. Finished sixth at the 2007 outdoor worlds. Failed to make the U.S. outdoor world teams in 2009 and 2011.
The first miss, at the 2009 U.S. Championships, she locked arms with another athlete and dropped out after the fourth hurdle. At last year's nationals, she gamely tried to compete despite a back injury that would soon require surgery - but was eliminated in the semifinals.
Don't get me wrong here. There is every reason to like this young woman, who overcame stretches of homelessness and poverty growing up to earn a degree from LSU and build a long and now very profitable career as an elite athlete.
Jones left a lasting positive impression with the way she handled her devastating Olympic disappointment, answering question after question from media after the race and not making excuses.
"It's the hurdles. If you can't get over all 10, you can't be the champion," I quoted her as saying
, "Even without gold, Jones still a champion."
And there is no doubt Jones has a fascinatingly picaresque back story. A couple days before the start of the 2008 Olympics, I was among a handful of U.S. reporters at Beijing Normal University when Jones first revealed some of the childhood hardships she endured, and I followed up by calling some of the people in Des Moines who had helped her through those troubles to
that appeared in the Tribune and Los Angeles Times a few days before her fateful hurdles race.
That she also has striking good looks - call it exotic beauty - from a genetic blend of the American melting pot is another part of her appeal to both sponsors and the public. It didn't hurt that Jones posed nude -- chastely so, if that is not an oxymoron - in the 2009 ESPN body issue.
For female athletes, looks always sell - and in many cases, outsell achievement, for which tennis stars
are exhibits "A" and " B." Sharapova has at least won major titles, but she also makes more money -- according to Forbes - than her contemporary,
, who merely is one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
The closest analogy to Jones in track and field is three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton, a head-turning blonde who made it into the final just once in the three Summer Games (finishing last in the 1,500 meters in 2000) and in four outdoor world meet appearances. But Hamilton's career ended before Twitter and Facebook could turn photos of her viral, and there was nothing unusual about her personal narrative.
"It's all of a piece with Lolo," Carrillo said. "The way she has handled her back story, how open she is about all of it, the tweets and her comportment after the loss in Beijing are every bit as attractive as her looks. It's no wonder to me that sponsors want to put their names on her back."
Yet it's not as if Jones is likely to win Olympic gold this time. Reigning world champion Sally Pearson of Australia is a solid favorite, even in a race where the 33-inch-high barriers have a way of making predictions foolhardy.
It's also far from a sure thing that Jones will earn one of the three spots on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Defending Olympic champion Dawn Harper is one of several U.S. women who will make that race one of the most hotly contested at next month's Olympic trials. Eight U.S. women already have bettered 12.80 seconds this season; Jones' 2012 outdoor debut is scheduled for Friday at Ostrava,
"But imagine what happens if Lolo has a great race in London," Carrillo said.
I figure Virgin Airlines will become another of her sponsors.