Rabalais: Familiar jealousy tracks Lolo Jones to Sochi

New sport, same tired complaints being lobbed at Lolo Jones.

The former LSU All-American and world-class hurdler turned bobsled brakeman is being bashed by “teammates” and sports columnists for being included on the U.S. Olympic team because of her fame, her looks and apparently her 375,000 Twitter followers.

“I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass,” Emily Azevedo told USA Today. She and teammate Katie Eberling were in the running for the last spot on the team Jones received.

Eberling said there was a pro-Lolo agenda at work.

“There’s been a lot of inconsistencies, and that makes you wonder what’s going on,” Eberling said. “It’s not right.”

SportsOnEarth.com columnist Selena Roberts alleged NBC, which is shelling out a staggering $775 million in rights fees for next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, is Jones-ing (pardon the pun) for a telegenic star to replace injured Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn. She asserts the Peacock Network extended a big, multi-colored wing and used it to twist the arm of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.

Darrin Steele, CEO of U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton, defended the selection procedure while acknowledging the hurt feelings that are naturally going to be left raw by a close race to the finish. It’s bobsledding, where the difference between gold and silver could be thousandths of a second — what else should anyone expect?

“It’s never about publicity or marketing,” Steele said in the same USA Today article. “The best way to market the sport is by winning.

“We followed the procedure, and I’ll stand by that decision all day long. It was a really close call. The numbers were close. There’s no question about it. That always makes it more difficult. The trending was going toward Lolo, and she’s a great athlete and, at the end of the day, that’s who we think is a better brakeman for the Games.”

In Lolo’s defense, albeit in a group format, U.S. bobsledder Elana Meyers tweeted Friday that she was “extremely proud” to have Aja Evans, Lauryn Williams and Jones as Olympic teammates. Evans and Williams, like Lolo, are converted track athletes.

“They fought hard and earned it,” Meyers said.

As with all controversies, the Lolo imbroglio comes down to whom you believe.

If you want to see a conspiracy stretching from NBC’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center to U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton headquarters in Lake Placid, N.Y., to Sochi, it wouldn’t be hard to gin up that storyline. If you want to see Lolo Jones as a deserving, talented, multi-sport athlete, that’s also no stretch.

The take from my vantage point on a surprisingly wintry Friday in Baton Rouge (I think I saw some kids bobsledding down my street around lunchtime) is this:

Bobsledding is a major winter sport but certainly doesn’t have the visibility of hockey or figure skating or skiing. The Olympics is bobsledding’s one and only stage for the vast majority of us, and it comes every four years. Honestly, how often do you think about bobsledding, except every fourth winter?

Given that, why would the U.S. bobsled selection committee choose an inferior athlete who would lessen its chances to medal in its biggest event? It would sort of be like the Denver Broncos bringing in a free agent right tackle to block for Peyton Manning in next week’s Super Bowl just because he looked like Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast.”

If that was true, why not just go totally celebrity?

“Why not just pick Jessica Simpson?” my wife asked. “She’s pretty.”

Point is, Lolo is no Jessica Simpson. Or Anna Kournikova.

Lolo Jones was a three-time NCAA champion and 11-time All-American at LSU. She was the American record holder in the 100-meter hurdles (since broken last year by Brianna Rollins). She was a fraction of an inch, a toe really, away from winning the 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics before she tripped and tumbled to the track.

Maybe that’s part of Lolo’s image problem. We love to build up sports heroes, deify them. But boy, if they disappoint us, if they fail to live up to the hype? Bring out the wrecking ball.

Has Lolo Jones cashed in on her celebrity, her model good looks? Sure. And she has made some regrettable public statements, like dissing paralyzed former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand after he challenged her to a race apparently without knowing he was in a wheelchair, or mocking the pittance of a stipend check she got from U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton ($741.84) in a Vine video.

She later apologized for both and, according to CelebrityNetWorth.com, Miss Jones is worth $1.5 million.

Hmmm. Beautiful, talented and wealthy. Can’t think of any reason anyone would be jealous of her making the team over someone else.