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, Össur.

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 führer'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. jez

    I think this is absolute bull. This guy does not have to oxygenate his body as do "full body" athletes, plus, he has fake "accelerator" feet. Enough with all of this PC garbage. We are NOT all created equal. This is effectively a lame cheat.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jim

    The author is definitely taking the most politically correct stance. It is just too bad that the argument does not hold up to simple logic. The runner with prosthetic legs can change attributes of his lower legs simply by changing them. Want more rebound, just swap the legs. Wanna be taller, just swap the legs. Since that is not possible for every runner, it is an unfair advantage. Where he places in the race is meaningless. There just aren't enough runners competing with these legs to justify fairness by results. The only measure would be if he could both run with legs and with prothetics. Since that is not possible, he can not be allowed to compete. MJ is correct.

    As for the racially charged comments... MJ references "west african slaves", not, i repeat NOT blacks. It is an unpopular fact that slaves brought to the western hemisphere were treated as livestock. As such, they were unnaturally selected for physical traits. The same way that draft horses were bred for power to complete a task, so were slaves. Plantations needed large, power workers. Large powerful west Africans were the most valuable, and therefor the most abducted. Of those taken, only those that could survive the physically demanding journey survived, unnaturally selected again. Then, once you were here, your slave owner would breed the best with the best. This is why we have such a large portion of professional athletes in the US are descended from slaves. It is also the reason African Americans have higher instances of certain genetic diseases that don't effect other races. To compare this to outright racism is wrong. If the race roles were reversed over the last 500 years then I would expect whites to be the dominate force. MJ didn't deliver the message in the best way, but it is very accurate.

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

      well said

      July 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      What if one breaks? What if it wears out? What if a better design is made? What are the guidelines for testing the replacement? These are all questions that have to be answered before he should even be allowed to compete. Even if you come to a consensus on those issues, the governing body then has to morph into a NASCAR like enforcer of equipment standards. This is more akin to that PGA guy who wanted to use a cart on Tour. Sadly, he was shot down in court an I believe rightly so.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Evan

    His prosthetic feet ALLOW him to run, not make him run faster. Hey may have fewer muscles to tire out, but he also has fewer muscles to propel him forward plus he has one less joint. He is also slower off the starting blocks which still makes a difference in the overall time. Scientists smarter than you and I have been studying this man, and I'm pretty sure they took into account that he is lighter and may not get as tired. Science does not lie, the people who present it do.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Trey

    The problem is that he has "equipment" that can be improved over time giving him advantages that have nothing to do with training. And there is no way to measure whether or not there is a direct advantage, but the weight difference would be significant, compared to an actual lower leg). Though he doesn't have the muscles either, he is using a MECHANICAL device to compete and that should be the line.

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

      By allowing this guy to run with springs I wonder if they will allow a high jumper with springs also to compete?

      July 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. fair minded

    Honestly I take umbrage with the characterization of Johnson's remarks. Any Olympic athlete would want a level playing field. That's how I interpret his remarks. The guy with the prosthesis is just that, a guy with prosthesis. He has no special rights to compete. If the prosthesis makes no difference, ie, a level playing field, then he should compete. As simple as that. Quit making this into something it isn't.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. juggler523

    Pistorius DOES have an advantage. He is not subject to ankle sprains, foot and toe injuries that would slow his running. Are his prosthetics as proportionally heavy as other runners' lower legs? Does each step he runs equate to the same or similar shock as other runners' feet? Is the wind resistance equal or similar to the lower legs of other runners? I have no animosity against the man, but are these questions answered? Or is this a hot potato no one wants to really address for fear of appearing discriminatory against Pistorious himself? I agree TOTALLY with Michael Johnson, and the author of this article is an idiot.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Meh

    Artificial legs designed for running ... obvious not the same as natural legs. I don't see why this is even a discussion.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. trex

    .....I am very sorry to say, but I agree that those with other than born with legs, cant compete in THESE Olympics.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. adam

    When was the last time you saw a white guy run faster than a black guy in the olympics. Pretty obvious then these give him an advantage.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Disanitnodicos

    Pistorius should definitely be allowed to compete, but he should have to do it without mechanical devices, just like everyone else.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Brandon

    He can't get shin splints.... Or pull a calf muscle, or risk an Achilles tear..... Or get cramps. Sounds like an advantage to me.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      He doesn't have those limbs. I'd call that a disadvantage.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Joe public1

    The author of this article needs to come down off his moral high horse. Michael Johnson concern is entirely valid. If you take the time to read our comments, you would realize that most of us feel the way Michael does. I think that with some thought and some compromise, the IOC can allow blade runner to run without withholding a metal from an otherwise deserving athlete.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    According to Michael Johnson, slavery played a pivitol part in improving the genes of black athletes and helping us to retain a superior gene. Then if that's the case, all track and field events should be segregated where blacks compete against blacks only, this way we don't have an advantage over white athletes. Why the F is Michael Johnson commenting here? This guy has no credibility and no integrity whatsoever.

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

      so is it your assertion that just anyone would survive slave ships? or is it your assertion the conditions on those ships wasnt what is historically recorded. you cant have it both ways, either they were horrible and therefore the only ones to survive the crossings were darwinistically genetically healthier / stronger, or ALL the history books lie and that anyone could survive. The early whites had the same advantages too, or do you think its completely common that a few tens or hundreds of settlers overpower entire native tribes. Easier travel, better conditions, and now aircraft / ships dilute that natural selection but slower on Africans since the origin was much more recent in they are still a relatively segregated race with respect to intermarriage with native africans and others.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Majors

      So why are Americanized blacks very athletic and African blacks not? Except for long distance running they are a non factor in sports. They don't even have the same build. Slave owners would breed their slaves for better offspring just like the rest of their "stock". Just because it's uncomfortable doesn't mean it's not true.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lai Ka

      what hes saying is the truth, thats just how it is, i dont know why that has to be so controversial

      July 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex peterson

      Prothetics are for the Special Olympics – sorry!

      July 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Antonio

    What if a non-disabled athlete decides to wear a prosthetic device? Would that be considered valid? How about using prosthetic devices in other disciplines like archery? or javelin throw?

    The ruling could have a profound effect in how Olympic sports are played.

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

      How about you grasp a bit of reality? Think about your comment.Have your ever heard about the term stupid? Think not.

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

      Antonio, i get your 'what if' point, but it's not going to happen. The IOC is supremely conservative when it comes to setting presence as it should be. They may allow gloves or other protective gear such as helmets which lessens chaffing or protects againat serious inury. but even they are under strict rules. In cycling they've disallowed certain brands of handlebars and even pedal systems. , They are not about to allow mechanical bio enhancers anytime soon. They would be measured to the same strict controls as drugs ans as a comparison, they will not allow the sue of de-congestive agents in the event of a head cold. You drop some Nyquil, you're out of the games.

      Prosthetic devices which permit the same physical abilities as athletes without those disabilities only equal the playing field and should be welcomed. The day I see athletes having their limbs removed so they may be fitted with these devices is the day I'll believe these create an advantage... a day I don't expect to see in the near or even distant future.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dennis

    The author clearly has an axe to grind, Michael Johnsons points are valid, including on the African Americans..
    The same thing was true of the early Pilgrims. If you believe at ALL in REAL science and not just your own postulating for political correctness, its inevitable that the very strong and healthy would be the only ones to survive crossing the atlantic on a slave ship. The same was true of the early pilgrims crossing on relatively horrible conditions on the Mayflower and others. Its not eugenics or racist to say that and to spout off some scientist who clearly made no REAL study and just hugs PC party lines is as dumb as claiming that someone with carbon fiber legs has no advantage or that we have ANY WAY whatsoever to say whether he does or doesnt, and because we CANT and because he has OTHER opportunities to race (in the paralympics) its NOT fair to have him compete in the olympics.

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