KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- All collective human pursuits constantly struggle with a fundamental question: How do we make our pursuit more popular among people who do not care about it without offending those who are the most avid? This conflict spans sports, movies, music, art, politics, religion. (Even the Pope's trying to soften his church's edges to make it less polarizing.) You want expand your reach without losing your base. You want to make everyone a fan, you don't want to betray the ones closest to you. You try to keep the delicate balance.
As it becomes more difficult to find universally shared experiences, this conflict is even more present. We like our little sandboxes to play in, but the market requests more. That blog you love that suddenly is doing sensationalist headlines and listicle slideshows? That person you voted for suddenly abandoning what you thought were his/her core principles? That glowing puck? We ask the diehards to make sacrifices for a vaster scale. The trick is not going too far.
Almost every word written about the bobsled over the last six months has been about this very issue: How far is too far? The center of this controversy -- the center of a lot of controversies, for reasons I'll confess I don't quite understand -- has been Lolo Jones, the former track star who joined the U.S. bobsled team for these Olympics. The U.S. bobsled team picked Jones for publicity reasons, the criticism goes, over possibly more qualified candidates such as Katie Eberling to make sure that NBC gave maximum coverage to their sport (something the network denies). This would be exposure for a pastime that, suffice it to say, is not among the most followed recreations in the United States. Bobsled fans, such as they are, say that since Jones joined the team -- and offended some of her teammates -- their sport has been suffocated from the exposure. Jones took all the air out of the room. The other bobsledders stopped becoming Olympians and became "those bobsledders who aren't Lolo Jones."
For what it's worth, tonight you can call them "medalists" -- four of 'em, precisely. The U.S. No. 2 team of Jamie Greubel and University of Illinois graduate Aja Evans won bronze, and the No. 1 team of Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams just missed out on gold, finishing .10 seconds behind the Canadian team. The Meyers-Williams team led heading into the final heat but notched their slowest time in any of their four runs, allowing the Canadian team to come from behind and win the gold. No one from the U.S. team at the flower ceremony looked terribly broken up about it; they were all beaming, including Jones, who watched from the side. (She and driver Jazmine Fenlator finished 11th.) There was no gold, but it was still a terrific night for Team USA.
Yet still: I'll be impressed if any of you remember the names "Elana Meyers" and "Lauryn Williams" within 20 minutes of finishing this column. (And if you know Williams' name, it's because she won medals in track and field at the Athens and London Olympics, unlike Jones.) Lolo Jones is the reason NBC showed this event in primetime, Lolo Jones is the reason this column is even being written, Lolo Jones is the reason that I saw more American media at this event than any other at this Olympics, including the U.S.-Russia hockey game. She also even received a "Lolo! Lolo!" chant from the sparse crowd here. (Bobsled is not the most compelling event to watch in person; basically all you can see is the sled come to a stop.) Lolo was the story here; more people knew about this event because of Lolo Jones.
The question is whether it was worth it to the sport. The question was whether it did any good.
You can already sense those in charge of the United States team believe the answer is "no." Darrin Steele, the CEO of U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton, told the Des Moines Register's Bryce Miller that the organization "has yet to sign a new sponsorship since Jones was picked." Fellow U.S. bobsledders are still sore about Jones' selection to the team, most notably Chuck Berkeley, a men's bobsledder who just missed making the Olympic squad. Yesterday, within minutes of Jones' 11th place finish in the first round of qualifying, Berkeley tweeted:
That makes for a fun waggy headline -- EX-OLYMPIAN RIPS JONES! -- but it is worth noting that, without getting too Rovellian on you here, this Massively Controversial Tweet was only retweeted 20 times. Meanwhile, J.R. Smith calls Derek Jeter "the greatest Yankee of all time" and gets 593. This is to say that the American public's appetite for bobsledding, whether the sport has a controversial well-known figure or not, has not been particularly whetted. Can you name any bobsledder's name before Jones? Your answer is almost certainly "someone from the Jamaican bobsled team maybe?" or "Herschel Walker." This makes half of Berkeley's point for him: Stop worrying about marketing and let the best athletes do their thing. The sizzle doesn't make a difference. The sport is the sport, so leave it alone.
The other half of Berkley's point is wrong, though. There are practical reasons to question putting Jones on the team, but, ironically, they have a lot more to do with the marketing aspect of all this than Jones' performance itself. Jones and Fenlator finished 11th after the first three heats, but the problem wasn't Jones: It was Fenlator. Jones' job is to get the sled off to a quick start, and she did that; the team's start time has been consistently among the top five in all heats. It's later, when Fenlator is steering (and Jones is just ducking behind her), that the sled loses time. Jones did just fine, but because she was stuck with the United States' third-best driver, she finished 11th.
Which is an argument for Jones' competence … but also a rather clear argument against ever having her on the team in the first place. People are talking about bobsledding more because of Jones, but not really; they're really just talking about Jones. By selecting her for the team, Team USA not only didn't get any positive publicity or advertising out of it (which the U.S. Bobsled CEO explicitly stated), they completely distracted everyone from the greatness produced by its in-house Olympians. "U.S. Wins Silver and Bronze; Lolo 11th" is the headline. Bleacher Report even left out the silver and bronze part: "Lolo Jones Fails to Medal in Women's Bobsled 2 Man Run Final at 2014 Olympics."
Team USA was looking for a boost, a way to break through to the mainstream, a way to grab eyeballs. This was an undeniable mistake. It offended the fans of the sport, it put Jones in the position of looking like both the bad guy and a bobsled failure (neither of which are true), it made those in charge of the sport look they like didn't trust their own product and it didn't even bring any tangible financial benefits. This is how you get that delicate balance incredibly wrong. Those in charge of U.S. bobsledding turned Lolo Jones into a glowing puck.