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. Chris

    I don't care if there is an advantage or not: a person wearing Cheetah's is clearly participating in a different sporting event. That's the beginning and end of the story, or at least it should be.

    Also, while I have no idea if descendants of slaves tend to have any genetic predisposition towards athleticism, I find the author's choice of using the research of a *sociologist* from *1971* as the best scientific refutation of Johnson's claim to be utterly ridiculous. What is the point of quoting someone who isn't even a geneticist and from a time before DNA mapping was available? And the quote isn't even meaningful, as it merely says that others have *implied* that black athletes have natural undeveloped talent. So? That doesn't specifically argue against the idea that they are more likely to have a genetic predisposition towards athleticism. Therefore I agree with what others have said about this article: it is very sloppy and clearly biased writing at best

    July 18, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • gamesheroic

      What about shoes and sockets?

      July 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Joe Smith

    They're allowing him to run because they don't expect him to win. So what happens if he actually wins 1st, 2nd, or 3rd? Will they really give him a medal? On the other extreme, what happens if he falls and takes out a legitimate athlete who meets all the qualifications? It's great what he's able to do but in the end really just a publicity stunt by the Olympic Committee to make more money (what, you didn't know that the Olympics are really all about money?).

    July 18, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      The olympic comittee was the ones trying to prevent him from running

      July 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Blacksnake Johnson

    Cool – I'm going to cut my legs off and train be a sprinter!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. GoldenIdaho

    Well, now I'm really confused. If Pistorious didn't even qualify (assuming "Jonathan" knows what he's talking about), then why is he on the team? Why even bother having the Paralympics? Regardless, his lack of qualifying doesn't necessarily disprove a prosthetic advantage.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • gedwards

      He didn't meet the SA qualifying times, but the SA Olympic Committee made an exception.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jenny

      The problem is that these particular sports are won in seconds and less so every advantage, even slightly minor becomes huge.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Oscar Pistorius is in fact the ONLY South African to meet the A standard in the 400m for London with a time of 45.20

      July 22, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. fofa

    he has a place to compete which is like all other amputees, the special olympics.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Nissim

    Yes it is unfair. Even if it's unknown if this gives him an advantage then it's still unfair due to this unknown status.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. GnatB

    I'm just waiting until 2025, where the guy with the best cybernetic implants will win with a time of 20.3 seconds. 'Course, is cutting off most of your body worth halving your 400 meter time?

    But seriously, what DOES happen to sports when any random "handicapped" person can actually perform at a higher level than the most well trained "unenhanced" athlete? Does the win go to whomever's limiter calibration was just a little bit off giving them the advantage? Or do they just toss the rulebook, and whomever has the best engineer wins?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mike

    This is absurd. Watch everyone backpedal if he actually won the race. The only fair thing to do is no mechanical devices. Look at the controversy the swimmer's suits generate. There is absolutely no way to create a "fair" race between someone with mechanical devices and someone without them. That doesn't take away from the fact that he's probably a very good athlete. If you allow them, soon you'll have athlete's cutting off their own legs or having 'mysterious accidents' to get the devices.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TrueGrissel

    I saw a movie once that had bionic enhanced fighters, is the Olympics a prelude to the future?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  10. tet1953

    I agree with Johnson. Kudos to the impaired athlete for his acheivements. But it could well be an advantage. No impact on the balls of his feet, no aching calf muscles. Springs taking the place of flesh and bone and muscle. Springs that don't get tired. They don't belong in the Olympics, sorry.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe Smith

      Even if its not an advantage, all the attention he's getting is taking focus away from all the legitimate and qualified athletes completing in the race, for which this is their moment.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ughhh

    Kind of defeats the point of the Olympics doesn't it? I think Oscar is awesome but he should be competing in a different Olympics if he can't compete without aids.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jay G

    Johnson is right. Where do you draw the line when it comes to prosthetics that might start to give an advantage? Better to have a bright line rule. Let this guy compete in the paraplegic olympics or in events where the prosthetics are not used in the event (e.g. shooting).

    July 18, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rocky

    Very simple and to make it fair, everyone who wants to use the blades should be allowed to do so regardless of if they are injured/disabled or not. Suddenly we see we have a different game. Perhaps there should be a blade-running 400 meter, but it simply is apples and oranges. So any reasonable person would have to agree with Mr.Johnson. I am just amazed that these judges did not have common sense to understand this is not this basic issue. If none of that is still clear enough, if the blades gives someone a 10 ft hop, what are we trying to do then?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Disanitnodicos

    I recommend reading Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" about a society in the future where everyone is made equal. If you are a fast runner, they put weights on your back. If you are smart, they make you wear an ear device the buzzes in your ear to distract you. Everyone is equal. It's not quite like this, but it's related, in that it shows how ludicrous the idea that everyone should be equal can become.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. moribundman

    While I don't know if the blades are an unfair advantage or not under racing conditions, artificial legs and natural legs are not the same thing. There should be a category for "blade runners."

    July 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Some Dude

      There is, it's the Paralympics

      July 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • BR549

      Yes you do know! Scientists (the guys that DID pay attention in school) have measured his running an determined that he is at a net disadvantage. Or do you always ignore scientists when it fits your political view (like tea baggers)?

      July 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grumpster

      What???? An entire blade runner category? Then we'll have runners self-amputating just to get in the club.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
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