NBC has a teen crush on Lolo Jones. If it could, the network would tattoo her name on the skin of its lens. On Monday evening, in the middle of the Nightly News, her image appeared in a USA bobsled bodysuit over the left shoulder of anchorman Brian Williams. Bulletin: Lolo was selected for Sochi. Last on the team, first in the spotlight.
A day later, Lolo was solo on the screen again. Just the glossy star in a knit cap and a wintery backdrop, fielding questions via satellite from Today show host Savannah Guthrie, who gushed over her vindication journey from London Games flop in track to redemption in Russia via the bobsled. As the two spoke, the network rolled old footage of Guthrie and Jones in a kitchen together brewing up health shakes in 2012.
Now it's clear: This is the two-straw love affair that NBC needed after losing Lindsey Vonn. Lolo is the replacement star, the sex appeal sub for the injured ski queen, a hot storyline to ride down bobsled's serpentine track. NBC's convenience is another's conspiracy.
Somewhere in Middle America, the fans of Katie Eberling, the humble bobsledder from Palos Hills, Ill., were reaching for the Rolaids. Eberling, the most decorated brakeman on the team and a three-year veteran with a history of superior times, was left off the Olympic squad. Instead, she will be the alternate and stand by her team with congratulations for all, but Katie's grace doesn't make the selection issue go away. As her father, Hal Eberling, said in a phone interview on Tuesday, "It's a mystery to me. I wish someone would explain how Lolo is on the team." He remained diplomatic despite the disappointment and financial sacrifice of the family. U.S. bobsled officials were not made available for comment this week. But on the team's official site, where the hardcore bobsled fans flock to comment, there was outrage at the snub. A "disgrace" and "all politics," they posted. As another mentioned, "I guess [Katie] doesn't have as many Twitter followers." In that tale of the tweet tape, Lolo has 374,000 to Eberling's 796.
In close calls in Olympic sports, where some teams leave wiggle room in the rules on judgment day, U.S. Olympic officials tend to rely on Q scores. In figure skating, the close call went to Ashley Wagner over Mirai Nagasu despite the results at U.S. Nationals. This is what's best for the team, skating officials said, a theme repeated by bobsled leaders, all echoing the same phony jargon that the Karolyi clan uses when choosing the last gymnast for U.S. teams.
The Karolyi Method of subjective selection -- honed by Bela and Martha as the relentless pushers of pixies -- has always been designed with NBC in mind. It was U.S. gymnastics leaders who lured the Karolyi duo back into the fold after their 1996 Atlanta Games miracle team began slipping from relevance without them just three years later. As I reported for The New York Times in 2000, U.S. gymnastic officials acknowledged, in private, feeling the pressure to deliver for the peacock network, which hoped that the preening Bela would carry its coverage in Sydney in 2000. The team disintegrated, but the wreckage was a ratings hit.
NBC plays an unspoken role in the team politics of the Games. In 2002, as the marketed bobsled duo of Jean Racine and Jen Davidson -- supposedly best friends forever -- was scoring endorsement deals with Got Milk? ads and landing cereal sponsors, they jarred the media by splitting up just weeks before the Salt Lake Games. Mean Jean, as she became known, dumped Jen from the sled. At the time, Brian Shimer, a bobsled team fixture before he became the current U.S. men's coach, told a reporter of the breakup, "I saw it coming. I just sat back and knew this was going to get good."
Shimer knows the allure of bobsled dysfunction. He competed from 1985 to 2002, traveling an arc of scandal that has become a rite of passage. In the 1990s, pro football players such as Willie Gault and Herschel Walker alighted on bobsled as a side job and swiped spots from athletes who had been working at the craft for years. In Salt Lake, Shimer had a perfect understanding of the TV star system when the bobsled divorce of Jean and Jen became all the rage. "Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding -- look at the coverage they got," he said. And he was right. The media was all-in to chronicle Mean Jean's demise in Salt Lake.
The network cravings are not the fault of Lolo Jones. She was last seen on a Today show set at the 2012 London Games after her fourth-place finish in the hurdles. Here was America's most famous confessed virgin (next to Tim Tebow, of course). Here was the cover-splashed track star who had dominated the pre-Games buzz. And now she was in tears after a takedown piece in The New York Times depicted her as a narcissist with fraudulent fame built on a "sad and cynical marketing campaign." It was searing and completely unnecessary. She was fourth by one-tenth of a second, not last by a mile.
Yes, Jones is an opportunist, but only by virtue of the opportunity the media culture provides. If anything, NBC's prurient desire for all things Lolo is a reflection of what the public signals they want with the remote and what sponsors fete with ad dollars. That's society's flaw, not her burden. On Tuesday, Guthrie engaged in the power of this sex-appeal differential, introducing the bobsled segment by saying, "We're going to talk to Lolo and her teammates in a minute."
That remark was morning-show hooey. It was all Lolo. Building up her subject as a tale of recovery, Guthrie told Jones, "I was just thinking about the day after your last race in London, and you and I sitting on the set together and how heartbroken you were. If I had told you in that moment, 'Lolo, you're going back to the Olympics but it's the Winter Olympics and you are going to be on the bobsled team,' would you have believed me?"
What's important to underscore is the reaction Jones had to Guthrie's fawning: She didn't seize it. She talked of being humbled in London, of feeling the embrace of her bobsled friends at "one of the lowest points of my life." Lolo was pushing a different product: her teammates. Is this authentic or a new strategy?
It's hard to know with Lolo, but NBC's motive is clear: When the Today show music of Olympic trumpets cued the end of the interview, none of Jones' bobsled teammates, who were seated off camera, had been asked a single question. Quickly, with smiles and a "USA!" chant, they rushed into the frame -- a diverse crew of wonderful athletes -- so they could get a little face time with America. NBC quickly cut away. They'd gotten what they wanted with Lolo: a reasonable facsimile for Lindsey Vonn.