Time magazine's Summer Olympic preview edition made quite an impression sitting there on the newsstands last week. The initial draw was unquestionably the cover, always a Time strong point.
There were two of them this time out. One showed a tight closeup of LeBron James, basketball in hand, who was identified as the "Leader of the Redeem Team." Even more stunning was the sight of swimmer Dara Torres, lean and mean in her black Speedo, encased in turquoise water and hailed as "faster than ever at 41." They were touted as just two of the 100 athletes to watch who were profiled inside.
LeBron was No. 1 on the list, Torres No. 2, appropriately, both shown in dynamic two-page spreads and given lots of type to explicate their stories. The "coverage" varied as you made your way through the list. Some got a few sentences and no picture, like sprinter Asafa Powell of Jamaica (No. 11); others, like the well-known swimmer Michael Phelps, whose Times' No. 3 guy and is expected to shine at the games, got three medium-sized paragraphs and a photo, which might seem like under-representation. But then again, Time might have thought that the public was Phelps-ed out, with all the media hype that's been following him the last few months.
Still others, like U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson, got a dynamic photo, a good-sized bio, but had to share space with three smaller profiles of athletes and one of the question-and-answer spots Time threw in to draw on Olympic trivia.
Then there were the profiles that were no more than extended pullquotes, rendered in bold type and run across the bottom of the page, like the one for shot-putter Reese Hoffa, who was also shown straining and ready to launch his weapon of choice way past the edge of the page. The profile read: Hoffa, 30, "has oddball habits. He's obsessed with Rubik's Cube, chomps on turkey legs after big wins and tosses a 16-lb. metal ball for a living. There could be lots of turkey-chomping in Beijing, where he'll lead a U.S. team that could sweep."
Nothing to complain about there. It was vivid stuff. But what was one to make of profile No. 32, another pullquote bio that ran across the bottom of the page and read: "For his finishing kick in the 5,000m, Nader al Masri, 28, can think of home -- he's used to sprinting from Israeli gunfire in Gaza, where he trains. Only after human-rights activists intervened was he allowed to leave the Hamas-controlled region for Beijing."
What could this sudden injection of politics -- added completely out of left field -- mean? There was nothing like it in the rest of the piece. And what were we to make of the words themselves? Were they meant to imply that the athlete's skill actually came from dodging Israeli bullets, a training technique that made him faster? Isn't that like the old racist comments peddled about African-American runners evading the police? And, of course, the Israelis have to be brought in line by human-rights activists.
So much for the beauty of pure athletics.