LONDON -- The exquisite aspect of track competition at the Olympics -- or anywhere -- is that when the race starts, no one else can help you.
There's the start line. There's the finish. You're out in the open, exposed to the world. Go.
No other sport is exactly like that. In swimming, most of the action is underwater. In golf, there's a caddie along to help. In tennis, another player hits the ball half the time.
Maybe that explains why track stars are so full of drama. Tuesday's best example was Lolo Jones, the American hurdler who received so much publicity before these London Games because, frankly, she was such an open book about her life and wouldn't stop talking about it.
Jones grew up poor in Iowa. She lived for a while in a Salvation Army basement and was taught to shoplift by her ex-con father. After a college career at LSU, she posed partially nude in one magazine, then told another that she intended to remain a virgin until marriage. She had back surgery. Jones also had a built-in heartbreak story from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she led the 100-meter hurdle race until clipping one of the final hurdles to finish seventh. She talked about that, too.
All of this exposure, plus Jones' photogenic looks, plus her 120,000 Twitter followers, helped make her a ton of endorsement money over the past few years. Can't blame her for taking the dough. Track athletes aren't signed by baseball franchises to rich multiyear guaranteed contracts.
But here's the catch: Sooner or later, a starting line looms. Jones toed hers Tuesday night. And didn't produce. As rain fell on Olympic Stadium, she lined up for her chance to prove she was more than an advertising campaign ... and finished in fourth place. No medal. Same as Beijing. Jones wept in the tunnel beneath the stadium, wiping her eyes often, before addressing reporters.
"I've had two bittersweet Olympics," she said. "I'm like, man, every time I come here, I get burned. I'm really disappointed. I felt like I let a lot of people down."
Well, perhaps her marketing team. But who else?
Nobody from America should be too disappointed. Jones ran her best time of the year, and two U.S. hurdlers won medals in the same race -- second-place finisher Dawn Harper, the gold medalist in Beijing, and third place Kellie Wells. The winner was Australia's Sally Pearson in 12.35 seconds, just .02 ahead of Harper in a near dead heat.
The three medalists all have vibrant personalities. In their postrace session with the media, they joked and laughed about the close finish and the 20 seconds it took for the final results to flash on the scoreboard. ("This little darling scared me a little bit," said Pearson, nodding at Wells.)
Minutes after their race, an even better American story developed -- seemingly out of nowhere -- when a Mexican-American runner from Texas named Leo Manzano jumped up in the 1,500 meters to finish second and become the U.S.'s first medalist in the race since Jim Ryun's silver in 1968.
Manzano's back story also is inspiring. He moved legally to the U.S. with his family when he was 4, and said his wish was that his achievement might inspire other Mexican-American and Hispanic kids to take up the sport.
"You can come from nothing and become something," Manzano said.
None of these other American athletes, of course, came to London as famous as Jones. It should remind us -- again -- about the most important lesson to remember about our current social-media, reality-show, image-hustling culture: Namely, that just because someone makes themselves famous doesn't mean the person is the best or even very good at anything in particular.
Lolo Jones is not exactly one of the Kardashian sisters in that regard. Jones does have a résumé with true accomplishments -- a world indoor title and first-place finishes at meets in Norway and Qatar. But there is no way that her pre-Games hype matched her realistic medal possibilities. A wicked New York Times magazine last weekend compared Jones to Anna Kournikova, the pro tennis star who graced dozens of magazine layouts but zero Grand Slam singles finals.
Jones didn't read the Times story but knew about it and about the blowback against her.
"I don't understand why they would want to rip a U.S. athlete two days before she competes," Jones said. "You never know where these attacks come from. ... I'm pleased to say I can lift up my head a little high and can tell my kids about their mom in the Olympics. I wish I would have done better. But I did the best I could with the cards I was dealt. Now, I guess all the people who were talking about me, they can have their night and laugh about me, I guess."
No laughing here. Jones doesn't seem like a horrible person. She just wasn't fast enough. Turns out that's even more important than sending the most tweets.