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THE COLOR OF BOBSLEDDING 2014:
By Eric Graham
Updated: February 3, 2014
THE COLOR OF BOBSLEDDING 2014: BLACK
By Arthur George and Gary Norris Gray
Amid the whiteness of snow and ice at the approaching Sochi Olympics, the colors of American women’s bobsledding are more diverse. Of the six woman team, one member is Caucasian, one is Hispanic; the remainder are African-American. Yet the diversity has not come without controversy, largely around the presence of former Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, amid claims that she reinvented herself as a bobsledder and was named to the team more for her pretty face and media celebrity than her bobsledding credibility. The women’s Olympic competition will be held February 18 and 19.
Lolo was among the final members to be named to the team, with pushers/brakemen Lauryn Williams and Aja Evans, displacing team veterans Katie Eberling and Emily Azevedo. The rest of the United States Olympic women’s bobsled team are drivers Elana Meyers, Jamie Greubel, and Jazmine Fenlator. Meyers has been on the team since 2007 and won Olympic bronze in 2010. Greubel has been on the team for five years and is the only Caucasian sledder. Fenlator also has been with the national team since 2007. Jones, Williams, and Evans are all relative newcomers.
A “Tainted” Selection Process?
Eberling was quoted in USA Today as having said that the sport had become “tainted” for her by a selection process which she said was characterized by inconsistences and “an agenda” apparently to assure Jones was on the team. Eberling’s primary objection was not having had a chance to race with Meyers, by far the top driver, in any of the six World Cup races this season. On the World Cup circuit this season, Lolo Jones won two silvers to Eberling’s three bronzes, but one of Jones’ medals was with Meyers, the world’s No. 2-ranked driver. Team USA reported that Azevedo did not have any medals in World Cup competition this season and only one silver in the 2012-2013 season. U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said that sledding opportunities had been given to newer competitors in order to obtain performance indicia, while past performance of veterans were more of a known quantity.
Steele told the Associated Press that it was Jones’ present skills, rather than the past achievements of others, that made the difference in a tight selection process. “I’ve heard a lot about history and all that’s nice. But who’s going to provide the best results for the U.S. team in Sochi? That’s the bottom line.” He told USA Today that the most recent performance indicators had been trending in favor of those kept on the team.
Criteria that are used to select push athletes include physical test and competition results, team trials finishes, international experience and results, team combinations, trend of push times, start rank and velocity, and current season results. Driver input also is a factor in team selection, which can be as subjective as who a driver prefers to be paired with, who a driver thinks may best produce a win, and how the numbers trend in various pairings.
Overall body strength and explosive speed and power are the skills often possessed by track athletes, and demanded for bobsledding, to create the initial velocity to propel the sled down an iced track. Lolo Jones had been invited to try out for the team after her 2012 fourth place finish in the hurdles at the London Olympics. In 2013, Jones recruited Lauryn Williams, who had won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay in London, a silver medal in the 100 meters in the 2004 Olympics, and had retired from track. Aja Evans also came aboard in 2012 after having been an All-American in the shot put at the University of Illinois.
A Chance for Redemption
Like Lolo Jones, all of the women bobsledders have come over from other sports. There’s nothing new about athletes looking to bobsledding for a chance at Olympic success. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, the first year that women’s bobsledding was an Olympic sport, Vonetta Flowers became the first black person to win a gold medal in the winter games. Flowers had been a sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When her efforts to make the Olympics in those sports was unsuccessful, she looked to bobsledding.
U.S. women have won a medal in every Olympic Winter Games since women’s bobsledding was introduced in 2002. With medal finishes in international competition this season, the U.S. team is primed to medal at the Sochi Olympics.
Lolo Jones has been controversial because of her high profile as an Olympic competitor, and her failure to medal in two Olympiads. She’s been public about abstention from premarital sex, challenge of former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand to a race without knowing he was paralyzed, and commercial endorsements and promotional activities. She has described her journey to bobsledding as “about redemption.” She told the Today show that the bobsled team embraced her at one of the lowest points in her life after her loss at the London Olympics, and that she had learned a lot from the bobsled team. “I was just coming off the Summer games, and I was pretty depressed, and they lifted me up, and day by day, they encouraged me to never give up on this Olympic dream.”
She admits that were it not for her Olympic losses, and her drive to win in the Olympics, she would not have turned to bobsledding. “Bobsled was my fresh start. Bobsled humbled me. Bobsled made me stronger. Bobsled made me hungry. Bobsled made me rely on faith. Bobsled gave me hope.” Even after having made the team, however, Jones’ dreams of an Olympic medal may still elude her. She is presently thought by observers likely to be seeded third after faster pairs on the U.S. team, and against all other international competition.