Lolo Jones' Olympian failure

Steps from gold, she clips a hurdle and falters, leading to an agony that's unique to the games.

Published August 20, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

We can talk about how this or that thing is what the Olympics are all about. The small country winning a rare medal. The many athletes who are there just to compete, with no hope of winning. The superstars etching their brilliance on our memories forever.

The Olympics are about all those things and more but what they're really about, what undergirds the whole wonderful, ridiculous, terrible, spectacular enterprise, is Lolo Jones.

Not Lolo Jones herself. But for the moment she stands for the crunching heartbreak without which nothing would mean anything at the Olympics, without which it would be a bunch of old dudes in suits distributing medals, something that happens all over the world all the time without anybody much caring.

Lolo Jones was the best female 100-meter hurdler in the world coming into the Olympics. She had glossy-mag looks and a back story to die for, "a great American story," as a former benefactor put it in a feature about Jones in her hometown Des Moines Register.

She'd overcome poverty and homelessness, separation from family and depression. She'd succeeded not just on the track but in school and then in life. She had that sunny cockiness that plays so well on TV. After a convincing semifinal win, NBC's Bob Neumeier asked her if she'd made a statement with her run, as she'd said she'd wanted to do.

"Yeah," she said with a wry smile, "I think I got my point across pretty good."

And now here she was cruising, leading the final, a few meters from having the first sentence of her obituary written before her 27th birthday. Two hurdles away from a universe of open doors. A dozen steps away from a lifetime of hearing herself introduced as an Olympic gold medalist, the best in the world at something, the thing she'd spent her whole life pursuing. She'd stayed behind in Des Moines when her mom and siblings moved to another town because that town didn't have a track.

"The obstacles Jones cleared to get to the 2008 Olympics were a lot more formidable than the 33-inch barriers she will hurdle next week," said a Los Angeles Times profile.

But it was one of those 33-inch hurdles that tripped her up.

Jones clipped the ninth hurdle, the penultimate one, with the heel of her right, lead foot. She didn't fall, but she was thrown off stride. She somehow managed to recover, clear the last hurdle and cross the finish line, but the field passed her in those final few steps. Crossing the line, she grimaced and shouted a swear word, then fell to her knees and pounded the track.

She looked up again, her face a mask of shock, pain, regret, disbelief. This was that moment the winners must be thinking about on the medal stand when they appear to be overcome with not just joy but relief. The momentary screwup, the tiny slip, that means a lifetime of work will not pay off.

Lolo Jones is 26. She was a long time coming. A star at LSU, she'd fallen in the trials and failed to make the team for Athens at 22. By London, she'll be 30. That's one more obstacle she'll have to clear to make another Olympics, and it might be a taller one than any she's seen before.

That. That's what the Olympics are all about. In most cases, one shot. The incredible glory of making good on it, of coming through, of not having to suffer the incredible agony of failure.

The first person to pass Jones as she faltered, the first across the line, was fellow American Dawn Harper, who wasn't expected to win. She ran her personal best time in her one shot. She wandered the track in a daze, looking up at the video screen, arms out, shouting, "What?"

"It's heartbreaking. I felt the gold around me," a momentarily composed Jones told Neumeier moments after the race. "But it's hurdles, and if you can't finish the race, you're not supposed to be the champion."

So it's Harper, who wasn't supposed to be the champion, who's the champion, her bubbling joy the polar opposite of Jones' devastation. But not just the opposite. It's also the product of it.

Every sport has champions. It takes an Olympics to make a Lolo Jones.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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