Michael Johnson bucks courts findings, says 'friend' Pistorius shouldn't compete in London
South Africa's Oscar Pistorius has qualifed to run the individual 400 meter and the 4x400-meter relay in London.
July 18th, 2012
05:19 PM ET

Michael Johnson bucks courts findings, says 'friend' Pistorius shouldn't compete in London

With pals like Michael Johnson, does Oscar Pistorius need enemies?

Johnson, the former U.S. Olympic speed demon who now provides commentary for BBC, appears to be making a smooth transition from his days as Nike's "world's fastest man" to world's biggest mouth this summer.

Coming on the heels of curious statements about the descendants of slaves being athletically superior, Johnson is now saying it's "unfair" if Oscar Pistorius, aka Blade Runner, competes against able-bodied runners when it's not clear whether he has an advantage, according to the Telegraph in London.

The South African runner and his carbon fiber prosthetics are slated to compete in the individual 400 as well as the 4×400 relay in this summer's London Games.

"I consider Oscar a friend of mine, but he knows I am against him running because this is not about Oscar. It’s not about him as an individual; it is about the rules you will make and put in place for the sport which will apply to anyone, and not just Oscar," said Johnson, who holds the world record in the 400 and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the event.

The statement is in direct contention with scientists - and not just any scientists, but ones who actually monitored Pistorius as he ran the 400.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones and had his legs amputated below his knees before he turned 1. He still played several sports, including water polo, tennis and wrestling. After injuring his knee in a rugby match, Pistorius began running competitively in 2004 with the aid of the Flex-Foot Cheetah made by the Icelandic company, Ă–ssur.

The 25-year-old runner made headlines ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing when the International Association of Athletics Federations handed down a January 2008 ruling saying Pistorius' prosthetics gave him an advantage over able-bodied runners.

The IAAF cited a rule it had established the previous year banning the "use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device." Supporters of the Paralympics champ claimed the rule targeted Pistorius, which the IAAF denied.

Pistorius denounced the decision, flew to the U.S. for more testing and appealed to Switzerland's Court of Arbitration for Sport. The court called the 2007 IAAF rule "a masterpiece of ambiguity" and said that while the prosthetics gave Pistorius at least one advantage, the IAAF studies had failed to consider the difficulty Pistorius had coming out of the blocks and accelerating during the first part of the race. Thus, Pistorius was at a net disadvantage, according to the ruling.

Buttressing the court's conclusion was that in 10 years, no runner using the Flex-Foot Cheetah "has run times fast enough to compete effectively against able-bodied runners until Mr. Pistorius has done so," it said.

The court had other findings in Pistorius' favor, but we'll let you read about those here in the 14-page PDF of the decision. The court's conclusion was clear: Blade Runner should be allowed to run in the Olympics.

U.S. Olympian Michael Johnson says it's unclear if Oscar Pistorius has an advantage over other runners.

Not one to be deterred by all this scientific stuff, Johnson claimed it wasn't clear whether his buddy had an advantage and downplayed Pistorius' athletic accomplishments.

"Because his personal best is 45 seconds – and that is not enough to win medals – people generally will take the approach he should be allowed to run. 'Let him run. It’s great,' " said Johnson, whose world record time in the 400 is 43.18.

In what may have been Johnson's most condescending assertion, he paraphrased British runner Roger Black as saying, "What happens when we have a Michael Johnson, a 43-second 400-meter runner, who then has a horrific accident and then becomes a disabled athlete and then you put him on blades, these prosthetics, and he is now running 41 seconds?"

Never mind that Pistorius vowed to get better after failing to qualify for the Beijing Games and sliced 1.18 seconds off his personal best to earn a spot in the 2012 competition.

Some chum, that Johnson.

It's not the first time this summer that the Dallas-born sprinter kicked off his gilded track shoes and donned the white lab coat.

Demonstrating he may never have heard of Jimmy the Greek, Johnson told London's the Daily Mail newspaper in June that American and Caribbean sprinters would continue to dominate their sport because descendants of West African slaves had a "superior athletic gene."

Johnson's remark is reminiscent of this old canard from the 1930s: "People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive. ... Their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games."

Those words came from Adolf Hitler after American sprinter Jesse Owens shattered the fĂĽhrer's backward notion of Aryan superiority at the 1936 Berlin Games, according to Albert Speer's "Inside the Third Reich."

In all seriousness, though, this theory of genetic athletic superiority among slaves has been debunked for decades.

Wrote sociologist Harry Edwards in 1971, "These arguments imply that the accomplishments of the black athlete in sports are as natural to him as flight is to an eagle, and thus the facts of a lifetime of dedication, efforts, sweat, blood and tears are ignored.

"Perhaps it is coincidental, but such a stance allowed racist whites in American society to affirm the undeniable superiority of the black athlete on the one hand and maintain their definition of black people as lazy, shiftless and irresponsible on the other."

In a book published last year, Northern Kentucky University sociology Professor Joan Ferrante noted that there were many sports at which black athletes had not historically excelled and pointed to factors that channel members of certain races to certain sports.

"Those factors include financial resources to pay for equipment, lessons and playing time; encouragement from parents and peers; perceptions that a sport 'belongs' to a particular race; and geographic location related to warm and cold weather sports."

We're not here to call one side right or wrong, but in matters such as these, we'll generally side with science over sprinters.

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Filed under: Olympics • Running • Sports • U.S. • United Kingdom
soundoff (949 Responses)
  1. LCN

    I wanted to comment on the prosthesis issue but was more interested in what was said about slavery.

    The sociologist quoted does nothing to disprove the contention that black Americans as a group have superior genes relating to athletic performance. That people making such a contention might have ulterior motives is irrelevant. It simply makes sense that slaves were "bred' to some extent, and it is a plausible explanation for what the sociologist himself calls "the undeniable superiority of the black athlete".

    Self-righteous indignation is not debunking. I'm quite sick of supposed experts who function as glorified censors.

    August 4, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  2. Frank Maston

    Johnson is right. We really don't know the effect of artificial limbs on running times, and, African-American athletes often have a genetic advantage unfortunately partly a by-product of slavery. Truth is sometimes inconvenient to modern sensibilities.

    August 4, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. MsJ

    He's not subject to a cramp, tearing his Achilles tendon or pulling his hamstring. So he DOES have an unfair advantage over mere mortals. (Too, understand he's next off the para-olympics. Shouldn't he have to pick between regular and for handcapped? Should he be able to have it both ways?)

    August 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. alanretired

    OK, so if we they make the bottom of the springs adaptable for Ice Skates, can he also take part in the Winter Olympics speed skating events if he qualifies in the team trials? and if we can further adapt the springs for Skiing, how about the men mens down hill and slolam events. I see no difference. If he can qualify to Run, he should be allowed to qualify to Skate and Ski. Book it, Dano. (...and MJ, I love ya but that crack about slavery relating somehow to genetically superior genes for sporting is rubbish. Go back to Baylor and take some classes in basic human genetics

    August 5, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  5. Lea

    Anyone who saw Pistoris run his first race yesterday should have no reason to say that he should not have been there as he took second place and qualified to advance to the next round. From what my untrained eye can see, he had to work just as hard (harder even off the blocks) as the other runners. His pace looked to be about the same and he certainly did not look like he was bounding or leaping ahead. What a wonderful thing that this man who worked just as hard gets the recognition that he deserves as an athlete, not a paraplegic who was given some feel-good chance.

    August 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Running Man

      The key phrase–untrained eye. Ever go to a high school track meet? Everyone looks like they are working hard. That's no measure. Can you please show me the scientific studies that show that a slower start evens out a 30% efficiency gain using the blades? Anyone? Anywhere? Ironically, 400 meter runners "get out fast" not so their starts will win the day. Rather, they get out strong so they can save energy down the back stretch. In this case, Oscar doesn't have to worry about saving energy, because real science shows he benefits from a 30% efficiency in carrying his body weight with the blades. Don't get me wrong. I love the story and love the kid. But decades wheelchair athletes have beaten able bodies runners. You can't use them in the Olympics. There's no difference with devices. They ought to be banned. But there is a creative solution used in high schools and colleges. Let Oscar run in a special category–he likes running inside so he can have a lane that big meets don't use....let him be awarded, recognized, but don't allow him to take away the opportunity that an able body person should enjoy–who doesn't have a device that gives a 30% performance improvement. Again, there are no studies to the contrary. I dare anyone to provide them. Right now, officials are simply speculating and ignoring the science.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
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    August 7, 2012 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  7. GMR213

    This article spreads a lot of misinformation. They claim that the science used shows Pistorius has no advantage. That is quite literally 100% false. Here are some quotes from the link this article provided:

    "In total the double transtibial amputee received significant biomechanical advantages by the prosthesis in comparison to sprinting with natural human legs." (Page 4)

    "the energy loss resulting from the use of these prostheses is significantly lower than that resulting from a human ankle joint at a maximal sprint speed." (Page 5)

    Here are some quotes from the Houston Report about Pistorius:

    "Rates of oxygen uptake for our amputee sprint subject increased from steady-state values of 26.5 ml O2 kg-1 min-1 at a treadmill speed of 2.5 m s-1 to 43.3 ml O2 kg-1 min-1" vs "rates of oxygen
    336 uptake for intact-limb 400 meter specialists increased from 32.7 [1.5] at 2.5 m s-1 to 50.4"

    "Our amputee sprint subject’s gross metabolic cost of transport was 17.0% lower than our 400-meter specialists" 174.9 vs 210.6 ml O2 kg-1 km-1, "2.7 X SD lower."

    "The maximal rate of aerobic metabolism of our amputee subject was 7.6% lower than that of our intact-limb 400 meter subjects (52.7 vs. 57.0 [3.4] ml O2 kg-1 min-1; n=3)"

    "At the fastest common speed of 10.0 m s-1, our amputee subject’s foot-ground contact times were 14.1% longer (0.113 vs. 0.099 [0.004] s), aerial times were 34.3% shorter (0.092 vs. 0.140 [0.011] s), swing times were 21.0% shorter (0.293 vs. 0.371 [0.023] s) and stance-average vertical forces were 22.8% less (1.79 vs. 2.32 [0.10] Wb) than those of intact-limb sprinters."

    August 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
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