Mary Mitchell wrote a puzzling column for the Sunday Sun-Times. Her subject was the appearance of the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, at the UNITY conference of minority journalists in McCormick Place. Mitchell wondered what he was doing there, given that Wade was the first foreign head of state UNITY had ever invited to speak, since he’s “been accused of unfairly suppressing journalists by locking them up and threatening them.” 

And sure enough, during an interview Thursday with a group of journalists he “showed shocking disdain for journalists in his own country,” asserting that the “Senegalese press is infiltrated by politics. I am telling you if you do not give them information, they are going to invent it. They insult people. They accuse people when they don’t even have any proof.”

But what troubled Mitchell more — she found it “appalling” — is that Wade’s speech Friday was disrupted. Someone shouted, “I want to speak in the name of my people,” and was then pummeled.

“Frankly, it was embarrassing that an African head of state was subjected to the chaotic situation,” wrote Mitchell, as if the matter came down just to Wade’s feelings. She faulted “the security personnel — including the Chicago Police Department — [who] should have anticipated trouble,” and she pressed on to the extravagant conclusion that the matter “doesn’t bode well for the city’s Olympic bid.”

Did Mitchell, whose knowledge of the incident was sketchy and secondhand, think no visiting head of state had ever before faced a hostile crowd? Here’s an account of what happened, posted by the Community Media Workshop, that makes it harder to sympathize with Wade. It identifies the protester as Souleymane Jules Diop, “an exiled Senegalese journalist,” and says he “was beaten for several minutes by at least four men who were reportedly bodyguards of President Wade.” And here’s a video. It’s hard to follow, but it does show the presumed bodyguards roaming the room. On the other hand, it makes it clear that “several minutes” is a wild exaggeration. Diop was led out of the room, shirtless, by Chicago police in under a minute.

The problem with Mitchell’s column is where it lands. Conceding that Wade’s safety “apparently was never threatened,” she nevertheless fashions it into a treatise on “the city’s ability to guard a foreign head of state” rather than what strikes me as the matter at hand — the anguish of Senegalese journalists.

I’d had the same reaction a few days earlier reading a column by Mitchell’s sportswriting colleague Carol Slezak. Like Mitchell, Slezak didn’t appear to understand her own material.  

Slezak was considering the failure of Oscar Pistorius, who runs the 400 meters on artificial legs, to make South Africa’s Olympics team. “Talk about ruining what should have been a heartwarming story,” she wrote. Pistorius hadn’t quite met the Olympics qualifying standard in his event, and South Africa hadn’t named him an alternate on its 1,600-meter relay team. So Pistorius doesn’t get “to pursue his Olympic dream.” And “that’s a shame,” wrote Slezak, “because this young man has done nothing wrong.”

The world’s full of athletes who have done nothing wrong who don’t get to go to the Olympics. Pistorius runs on carbon-fiber blades, which the International Association of Athletics Federations thinks might give him a competitive advantage — greater stride, less wind resistance, no aching leg muscles. The IAAF said Pistorius couldn’t compete but was overruled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. “Doesn’t the IAAF have some drug users to go after?” Slezak wondered. “Track and field should be celebrating Pistorius, not trying to ban him from competition.”

Slezak refused to consider the IAAF’s point of view, but she got so close to it her nose must have twitched. Observing that Pistorius can now aim for the 2012 Olympics in London, she thought to ask “But what if a newer version of the blades comes out before then? Will the IAAF become more determined than ever to prove they give him a competitive advantage? When the IAAF was considering banning him, it indicated that advancing technology was a concern.”

Why shouldn’t it be a concern? Especially if it’s technology that’s available to only one competitor. Let’s say Pistorius switches to new blades and immediately becomes the fastest 400-meter runner in the world. Would that development support the IAAF’s position, or would it make the IAAF more unforgivable than ever for trying to keep Pistorius from competing? Slezak brushed past the question. “Of course, the technology will continue to evolve,” she concluded. “More to the point: Will society keep pace?”

As if a healthy society is one that lets nothing get between it and the next heartwarming story.