Given that athletes are generally interviewed at moments of extremely high tension — just before or just after their performances — we have little sense of what they’re really like. All but the most charismatic come into our lives speaking, quite understandably, in bland, agreeable and “sportsmanlike” truisms. (Richard Sherman’s now-famous postgame interview with Erin Andrews was so controversial precisely because it was so unusual.) That’s where social media has changed the game.
Whether the Twitter feed of Lolo Jones, the three-time Olympian, is a boon or a threat to her image is up for debate. The athlete takes opportunities to go after all sorts of people in a way that seems totally untrammeled. Take, for instance, her recent criticism of the pop singer Rihanna for having apparently dated too many people:
Rihanna is not completely beyond a well-placed funny dig — on Instagram, she does a better job than anyone of sending up her decadent image — but implying that the singer is promiscuous (and that this is a bad thing) is not a great look for Jones. It seems less like a sharp comic jibe and more like a completely unnecessary attempt to start a feud. If we were seeing Jones’ real personality here, far from the buffed and shiny image in an Olympics highlight reel, it was downright nasty.
Jones has let her snark flag fly on Twitter before, too; when a fan tweeted, flatteringly, that she was dressing as Jones for Halloween, Jones offered the sarcastic retort that the fan needed to relax her hair. She has also compared Rachel Jeantel, a witness in the trial of George Zimmerman, to the stereotypical film character Madea. It’s as though Jones is constantly searching for opportunities to insert the most obviously controversial thing possible into the conversation.
Even off Twitter, Lolo Jones has been a subject of controversy at least since the 2012 Olympics, when a New York Times column lambasted her for being more about an image (one founded on her physical beauty and her claims of being a virgin) than about her achievements in sports. And yet aspects of that critique, over time, have come to seem increasingly valid. Jones manages to surface every time she sees a woman whom she apparently deems not quite as beautiful or as chaste as she is, and try to take them down. The outcry over her most recent Rihanna tweet led Jones to express not contrition or curiosity but triumphalism — she tweeted to her haters that her joke was “PG” compared to how athletes are generally roasted (leaving aside how random a target Rihanna is) and then a picture of her three Olympic rings (whatever those are).
But maybe Jones has figured something out about branding an athletic career in the Internet age. It seems fair to say that neither her athletic performance nor her sports of choice (the low-wattage hurdling and bobsled) are generally the sort of thing that keeps one in the spotlight. In a world of boosterish postgame banalities and slavering ESPN the Magazine photo shoots, Jones is in a class all her own — a gold medal-worthy Twitter troll.