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There's an uneasy tension among U.S. women's hurdlers Lolo Jones, Dawn Harper, and Kellie Wells. But it's not a fellow countrywoman they need to worry about.

By the time Lolo Jones tripped in the women’s 100-meter hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics, she was already famous — famous for being beautiful, talented, charismatic; famous for overcoming adversity; and famous, finally, for being at the top of her sport. After that stumble, she was famous for having lost. No one wants to be famous for losing, but attention is attention. In the moments after the race, the cameras lingered on the crumpled body of the seventh-place finisher. Newspapers headlined her loss. Columnists gushed about how gracious she was in defeat. It was easy to forget that someone else had won. I’m guilty: Three years later, thinking about that final, I could remember Lolo’s race vividly — but I couldn’t remember the name of the American who finished first.

Her name is Dawn Harper. Imagine what it must have been like to be her. On the one hand, you’ve won an Olympic gold medal. On the other hand, few people seemed to notice or care. All the attention was on the famous woman, the one who messed up.

Imagine what it must be like to hear, all the time, how lucky you were to win. The not-so-implicit suggestion is that Harper didn’t quite earn it. It’s as if people thought she was just hanging out by the finish line and just happened to be in the right place at the right time when Jones stumbled. (Jones, to her credit, never said such a thing. “They put the hurdles there for a reason,” she said in a post-race interview. “You have to get over them. If you can’t get over them, you’re not meant to be the champion.”) Harper ran the race of her life.

In a press conference at the 2012 Olympic trials, Harper was asked if she drew motivation from being underappreciated. “Definitely,” she said. “I feel as if, you know, I never did get the recognition you would think would come with being an Olympic champion.”

Some athletes become famous and most don’t. That’s just the way it is. The few who do have better agents, better managers, better smiles, and — ideally — better results. They work hard at publicity. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. These athletes are professionals, and this is part of their job. Lolo Jones happens to be very good at that part of her job, and Dawn Harper is not.

Four years later, Lolo is still one of the most recognizable American athletes, and Harper is still unknown. In fact, Lolo is even more of a celebrity than she was in 2008. You’ve probably already heard the outline of her perfectly scripted story: her unstable childhood, her deadbeat father, her homeless stints, her poverty, her heartbreaking loss at the Olympics, her desire for redemption. She is a marketer’s dream (BP, Asics, Oakley, Red Bull, etc.). Even when she’s selling you a pair of sunglasses, she seems somehow goofy and gracious. Cameras love her, and apparently she loves them. She posed naked (artfully!) for ESPN The Magazine‘s “Body Issue” and tweeted self-deprecatingly about bad first dates, of which she seems to have a lot. She got headlines when she announced that she was of the Tebow persuasion. For the cover of Outside magazine, she was photographed in a bamboo glade wearing, basically, a big red ribbon wrapped around her core.

Harper, at least, has a Nike contract now. At the Olympic trials in 2008, she raced in spikes borrowed from another competitor. You might forgive her for being a little resentful of how much attention Jones’s story has gotten. After all, before the 2008 Olympics, Harper, born in East St. Louis, was living with her husband in a tiny apartment adjoining a UCLA frat. She has her own interesting story, and, for what it’s worth, her own regal bearing and beauty: strong cheekbones, strong jaw.

In Beijing, Harper didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but she was a long shot to win. Harper actually almost missed making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, finishing third at the Olympic trials by the smallest of margins, .007 seconds. While Lolo celebrated her win after crossing the finish line, Harper stumbled into a somersault out of the camera’s view.

Pretty face or not, Lolo Jones’s hurdling style is beautiful. She is tall, 5-foot-9, which means that she can run more easily through the hurdles in a continuous sprinting movement, not breaking her form as she tucks her body under her and over the barrier. It’s an upright technique. She keeps her knees soft and high, so that the act of hurdling is more like a long running stride instead of a piked leap. No elite hurdlers run and then jump in a disjointed way, but Lolo’s motions are particularly graceful. Harper’s hurdling looks a little more effortful. She kicks out her lead leg pretty straight, and so she looks more like she’s … surmounting hurdles. She runs with her teeth bared.

But they didn’t choose their styles for aesthetic reasons. They’re not competing in a beauty contest. It shouldn’t matter, of course. A win is a win, and clocks don’t play favorites. It shouldn’t matter, but it probably does.

When Harper stepped into the blocks at the Olympic Trials in June, she had something to prove. For Jones, though, the stakes were also high. Considering the hype, the backlash would have been severe if she hadn’t made the Olympic team. On the track so far this year, Jones has more often been the loser. She has struggled with injuries: first, back surgery to fix a tethered spinal cord (which knocked her out of most of the season last year), and then, this spring, hamstring issues. When she has raced, the results have been underwhelming. Coming into the Olympic trials, her best time this year, 12.75 seconds, was the eighth-best among Americans. Only the top three finishers at the trials make the Olympic team. During the preliminary round, she ran a 13.01, the 15th-fastest time. In order to have a chance, she was going to have to run radically faster in the final. Somehow, desperate, she did. She finished third by four-hundredths of a second. There was a long pause before her name flashed on the board, while officials verified the result. When it did, Jones dove onto her stomach and did a dry-land doggie paddle. The announcers were excited. The crowd was excited. Corporate America was excited.

Dawn Harper was not excited. Harper, who had won the race, had just finished making some sort of lassoing/spanking motion and was catching her breath, her arm raised victoriously, when Lolo skipped by and patted her on the back. Harper immediately dropped her arm and stood up. For a moment she just stared at Jones. It was like she forgot she was being watched — or maybe she knew the cameras had turned away from her to focus on Lolo, which, of course, they had. But you could still see Harper in the background, cut by the edge of the frame. Harper dropped to her knees. When Jones saw her, she went down too. Jones stood up and Harper stood up. For a while they were almost circling each other.

An official came over and directed Jones, Harper, and the second-place finisher, Kellie Wells, to stand together. Wells stood in the middle, with her arms around the shoulders of her competitors. None of the racers looked at each other. Harper kept her head turned to the side, her gaze high over Jones’s head.

Kellie Wells, of course, gets even less attention than Harper does. (The Sports Illustrated headline after the trials: “Harper, Jones headed to London in 100m hurdles.”) Like all the other top hurdlers, she is used to being asked about Lolo. Wells is petite and compact, with an exuberant and somewhat cocky air. She doesn’t have Harper’s clenched expression around Jones — but then again, she doesn’t have the Olympic gold medal, either. “I want to smoke everybody,” Wells told the media before the trials. “It’s not Lolo … It has nothing to do with, ‘Oh, Lolo’s on the cover of Outside magazine — I’m going to beat her.” Wells said that she thinks Lolo is good for the sport. “Track doesn’t get much press,” she said.

Wells wants more press. She’s not shy, and she has a cause. In 2010, Wells wrote on her blog that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather; in 2011, she said in an interview that he had raped her. When she told her mother, not long after it happened, her mother responded with silence, and Wells moved out. Two weeks later, both her mother and her stepfather were killed in a car crash. Wells has said that she hopes her own story can help others in her situation. “I thought about my mom,” she told espnW. “If someone had shared their experiences and helped, maybe the outcome would’ve been different for her.”

It takes no imagination to make up a headline that equates a hurdle with adversity — especially when homelessness, poverty, and sexual abuse are involved. Their stories are part of who these competitors are and why they run. But the race is not a metaphor. They’re not overcoming their pasts. They’re overcoming each other.

Hurdlers don’t look like they’re running from something. They’re running to catch it. Unless something extraordinary happens at the 2012 Summer Games, none of the Americans will catch Sally Pearson.

No one looks more like a big cat on the track than Pearson. Her cycling legs seem less human than quadruped. Her head is quiet, uncanny, while everything else is flexing and flying. I’ve never seen cheetahs run in the wild, but I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time watching them on YouTube, and that’s what struck me about them, too: the steadiness of their focus while their legs and spines worked as springs.

It is possible that Sally Pearson can run faster than she ever has before. Her coach thinks she can, and I wouldn’t bet against it. In Paris this weekend, she ran a 12.4. Pearson wants to finish with a time of 12.2 at the Olympics. A 12.2 would break the world record, which was set by a Bulgarian in 1988. Already Sally has run 12.28, the fastest time since 1992. Like Usain Bolt in the men’s 100-meter, she is challenging the boundary of what’s possible in her event.

To run faster, Pearson can’t just run faster. To lower her time, Pearson has to improve everything at once. She is working on her precision, training herself to take off and land at exactly the same distance — the minimum distance — before and after each hurdle. She’s fine-tuning her rhythm, her pace, her stride, and her timing, over the 8.5 meters between hurdles. She’s working on the speed of her sprint running out at the end. To focus on her finish, she went to the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, to run the 60-meter hurdles. That decision was somewhat unusual, even a little controversial. Sally has only run a handful of indoor races in her career, and there was also some concern about peaking too soon before the Olympics. She won by .21 seconds. At 60 meters, in a sport that can be decided by thousandths of a second, that’s insane. On a TV screen, the scope of the camera can seem to shrink distances. On the ground, though, she was far out in front.

In Australia, the 25-year-old athlete is a celebrity. She has had her share of hurdles-equals-adversity headlines (she was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs), but mostly she’s famous for being spectacular at her sport and pretty normal otherwise. She is trained by the same woman who coached her when she was 12, and she married her high school boyfriend, who is now a plumber. The Australian papers call her “our Sally,” and it’s hard even for this American to call her “Pearson,” in the same way that it’s hard to call Lolo Jones just “Jones.”

Her movements flow across the hurdles as if they weren’t there, and when she leans along her lead leg, her muscles ripple like shivers of wind on a lake. It’s different watching her than it is the best men. For her, the hurdles are more like punctuation, or the downbeat for her rhythm, than obstacles to be scaled. Because the women’s hurdles are nine inches shorter than the men’s, the women can take off closer and come down closer, which means they don’t have to chop their steps. (The men run 110 meters, not 100 meters.) Sally can stretch. The men have to restrain their steps and then pike and bend to clear those bars, and a lot of them just end up plowing through them. It’s devilishly difficult but looks more like a series of stunts. This is not to say that some of the men are not superior hurdlers. They have a thinner margin for error; their technique is all the more important. What the women do is easier in a way, but thrilling. It’s fluid and fast.

Four years ago, in Beijing, Sally won silver when Lolo stumbled. Trackside, afterward, she gave what has got to be the best post-race interview ever delivered. Still heaving for breath, her mouth hanging open, her eyes unfocused, she gasped, “This is amazing, I can’t believe it.” Then she wiped her forehead with a green tinsel pom-pom and made a honking sound.

“You exploded from the blocks,” the interviewer prompted her.

“I think I did, I don’t know — “

“Great start … ” he interrupted her.

“I got out — did you see me?”

An Olympic athlete is seen by millions of people. This has got to be a little strange.

A track athlete is not an actress. What an audience thinks, or whether there’s an audience at all, is supposed to be incidental. The competitors matter, along with the clock. But there is an audience. At the Olympics, it’s a very big audience.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be seen by so many people and to know they’re watching someone else. And I can’t imagine what it’s like to be watched by so many people and wonder, since some part of you has to wonder, whether they’re watching for the reasons you want.

Wells was right: When they step into the blocks, Harper, Jones, Wells, Pearson, and all the other hurdlers won’t be thinking about who was on the cover of Outside magazine. They won’t be thinking about how many cousins to thank on TV in the post-race interview. They’ll just get ready to run.

But who doesn’t want a little love?

Filed Under: Olympics, Sports

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Archive @ louisahthomas