Wherever Lolo Jones races, a vapor trail of controversy follows. In winter and summer. On tracks of rubber and ice. And, always, at the Olympics.
When Jones was named to the bobsled team for Sochi on Sunday, most of those in the room were shocked. "It's hard for me to name one or two athletes that would completely agree with that decision," veteran brakeman Curt Tomasevicz said.
Fighting over team spots is nothing new to bobsled. Jean Prahm ditched her friend and long-time brakeman Jen Davidson just before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, inciting a firestorm of criticism. Fast forward to Sochi and the drama has returned.
Three bobsled teammates told USA TODAY Sports that Jones was given the third and final brakeman spot on the Olympic team because of her fame (and her followers).
"I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass," said Emily Azevedo, who along with teammate Katie Eberling, was in the running for the spot Jones received.
Eberling said there was an agenda to put Jones on the team.
"I feel this year there was a certain agenda," Eberling said. "It's no fault of my teammates. There's been a lot of inconsistencies and that makes you wonder what's going on. It's not right."
Neither Azevedo nor Eberling fault Jones for what they say is an unfair selection process. "I know she didn't pick herself," Eberling said in a phone interview from Germany, where the team is training. She is a replacement athlete who will travel to the team to Sochi. "I know she's not the one to be blamed."
U.S. bobsled officials defended the selection procedure Thursday night. "There is no doubt in my mind that people are disappointed that Katie and Emily did not make the team," Darrin Steele, the CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation said. "But it's never about publicity or marketing. The best way to market the sport is by winning.
"We followed the procedure and I'll stand by that decision all day long," Steele said. "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. "
Jones, in Germany with the team, was not available for comment.
This week Jones, a two-time Olympic hurdler, has been featured in a segment on NBC's Nightly News and also was interviewed on Today. Both speak to Jones' marketability, which bobsledders say had a role in the team selection.
"Right now the media universe is blowing up right now, how Lolo Jones made the bobsled team along with five other girls, and that could be hard for the other girls as well as the men's team," said Tomasevicz, who made the four-man team again for Sochi.
"We're returning gold medalists and not getting much PR because all the bobsled attention is on Lolo," he said. "It brings a lot of attention to the sport which can be a good thing, but I'm not just sure who is benefiting from that attention."
Without injured skier Lindsey Vonn, NBC is short on bankable brand names heading into Sochi. NBC officials were asked during a conference call with reporters on Thursday whether they had any influence on Jones earning a spot. "Utterly ridiculous," NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell said.
"Preposterous," NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel added.
The U.S. team for Sochi was selected by a committee of six, including both the men's and women's coaches. (Prahm, who was known as Jean Racine in 2002 when women's bobsledding made its first appearance as an Olympic sport, was one of the six members on the Olympic selection committee.) The selection criteria is clearly laid out on U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation's web site. The team is selected based on the season's results and other criteria such as combine and national push championship results and international experience. But there is wiggle room for decisions based on input from drivers.
As the athlete representative, Tomasevicz helped devise the selection criteria and understands why subjectivity is part of the process. "You can't pick a team completely on hard facts. We don't have an Olympic trials like track and where the fastest athlete gets to go," he said.
Jones acknowledged that the selection process for bobsled is much more nerve-wracking than bobsled. "It's more stressful," she said Sunday after the team was named. "There's months of criteria and races and it's the course of a season and as the season goes on you do gain bonds with those other girls so it's hard to celebrate when you know what they went through to achieve the same kind of dream you're going to achieve."
In Sunday's World Cup race in Austria before the Olympic team was named, Jones finished seventh with pilot Jazmine Fenlator, while the other two U.S. sleds with driver Jamie Greubel and Lauryn Williams and driver Elana Meyers and Aja Evans finished 1-2.
Earlier in the season, Jones won two World Cup silvers in races with pilots Meyers and Greubel.
Azevedo finished fifth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and was the most experienced brakeman competing on her eighth national team. She was the veteran who helped train all three newcomers who made the team, all who came from a track background.
Williams is a three-time summer Olympian who helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the 400-meter relay at the London Games. Jones missed out on gold in her 100-meter hurdles race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after a late stumble. Evans was a former sprinter and shot put thrower in college who trains with her brother, Fred, a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings.
"The veterans were kind of pushed aside. If there had been any other rookies that would have come in, it wouldn't have been the same story," Eberling said. "It felt like the opportunities weren't even across the board."
Azevedo said that felt that process was unfair because she received only three World Cup racing opportunities and did well in each race (finishing fourth in each). When she was told of the decision by the selection committee, there was an emotional exchange and she left the room. Though she is an alternate, she chose not to accept the opportunity to be with the team during training in Germany and then in Sochi. Instead she is training on her own and said she will ready if called upon in case of injury.
Meyers is considered a gold medal contender in Sochi, but neither Azevedo nor Eberling were given a chance to ride in her sled this World Cup season. Without that opportunity, there wasn't a level playing field, they said.
Meyers is expected to be paired with Evans, who had the strongest season among the brakemen. The second bobsled will be piloted by Greubel and likely pushed by Williams. Fenlator is expected to drive the third sled with Jones.
Fenlator has the tightest bond with Jones – they're often roommates when on the road – and comfort level between a pilot and a brakeman are important. Even so, gold medalist Steven Holcomb said the selection process is designed to take most of the subjectivity out of the selection process and alleviate the pressure on a driver to pick the perfect team. "This system relies on facts, and when those facts are ignored the system breaks down," he said, implying that was the case with Jones' selection.
Fenlator had better results when paired with Azevedo, finishing fourth twice. With Jones, Fenlator finished 15th and seventh. "There was a lot of frustration in the process and maybe not a clear understanding how the teams are selected," Azevedo said.
When asked what's next after the Olympics, Azevedo composed herself between tears. "I think I'm going to be excited for March to come. It will all be behind me; I'm excited for the next step. I don't know what the next step is, but If I learned anything from bobsled, it's that I can do anything that I want to do."
Eberling will be with the team in Sochi but beyond that she's unsure. "Any decision I make now will be more of an emotional one," she said. "I love the sport, but it's definitely become tainted for me."