When the Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia, in less than two weeks, two-time Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones will be a part of the U.S. women’s bobsled team, making her just one of 10 U.S. athletes to compete in both the Summer and Winter Games (her bobsled teammate Lauryn Williams is another, having won the gold in the 400-meter relay during the 2012 Summer Games in London).
Jones, 31, gained one of three hotly contested spots as a pusher (or brakeman) last week, and the team, including bobsled driver Elana Meyers, is glad to have her. Meyers, a gold-medal contender who describes herself as a “Christ-follower,” tweeted that she is “extremely proud to have [pushers Jones, Williams, and Aja Evans] as Olympic teammates—they fought hard and earned it.”
But not everyone thinks Jones earned it: The two pushers who failed to make the team, Emily Azevedo and Katie Eberling, lashed out at Jones’ selection in an interview with USA Today.
“I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass,” said Azevedo, implying Jones was selected because of her fan following. Eberling, who has three World Cup medals from this season, added that there was an agenda to put Jones on the team: “I love the sport, but it’s definitely become tainted for me.” Even men’s veteran brakeman Curt Tomasevicz remarked, “It’s hard for me to name one or two athletes that would completely agree with that decision.”
It’s not rare for track athletes to make the jump to bobsledding, but Azevedo and Eberling are both seasoned veterans, while Jones and the two other pushers are Winter Games rookies trained in part by Azevedo. Jones initially tried out for the U.S. national team in the fall of 2012 and surprised many in the sport by making the roster. She later helped the United States tie for a silver medal in her very first World Cup competition.
For Jones, competing as a bobsledder offers her an opportunity to win an Olympic medal after tough finishes in track in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games. “God can turn a mistake to redirect you,” she wrote the day she made the Olympic bobsled team.
The controversy adds another chapter to Jones’ run as a polarizing sports figure, from posing nude for the ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue in 2009, to being open about her Christian faith and virginity, to getting into trouble with her ever-present openness on social media. She took some heat last year, for example, when she tried to joke that the paltry $741 check she received for her six months as a bobsledder would make her short on her rent.
But while U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele acknowledged Jones comes with “baggage,” he defended the decision. Though more complex than track, Olympic bobsled nominations are based on performance, Steele said, adding that he double-checked all the numbers pored over while deciding on the team. It was “incredibly close,” Steele said, but Jones “absolutely” earned her spot.
Jones’ Olympic teammates are defending her as well. “We should be celebrating our Olympians, not tearing them down,” Meyers said on Facebook, adding that she could no longer keep silent. “I’m amazed that out of all the people asked about the situation, not a single driver was asked about what happened over the course of the season.”
For now, the bobsled team continues to train in Germany before heading to Sochi, where Jones will likely team up with driver Jazmine Fenlator during the competition that will take place Feb. 18 and 19.