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. jdizzle1337

    The Olympics are for human athletes to compete with their own natural bodies. Although admirable that Pistorious can run so fast without his natural legs he is not an olympic quality athlete. No prosthetics, no bionic grafts, etc, etc should be allowed.

    As far as genetics, it is a settled issue that West African descendant fast twitch leg muscles are the premiere genetic in the world for speed. Just as East African descendant slow twitch leg muscles are the premiere genetic for endurance. This isnt about being politically correct, its just a fact. A fact reinforced at every olympiad and world championship in modern times.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Boseph Heyden

    Pistorius has already LOST races. That nullifies the argument he has any sort of advantage over able-bodied racers, because able-bodied racers have already beaten him. Good to see his common sense hasn't caught up with his legs.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • P

      Just because someone LOST a race does not mean they did not have an advantage. I bet they could give me a 5 second head start in the 400 and I would still LOSE... I still had an advantage.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. David

    PLEASE READ – Oscar is already a successful Olympian and has won several gold medals. Take the time to wiki him. He has competed and has succeeded countless times on a level playing field in the Paralympics. Any comparison versus him and an able-bodied athlete will always bring up questions. Give Oscar regular prosthetics and he can probably beat 20% of the male population. Switch out his technology (which able-bodied athletes cannot do) and he can compete on a very high level. Able-bodied athletes do not have that capability to simply improve their time in the space of an hour (switching prosthetics) to gain immediate astonishing results. His performance is based on technology. He is free to compete against other world class athletes who don similar equipment on a level playing field. Allowing him to compete in the Olympics is setting a very dangerous precedent for the future.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. buster

    Biased article

    July 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. i_know_everything

    who cares?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  6. luvuall

    I think it's really cool this debate is even happening. Olympic athlete who was born without fibula bones? Bravo technology. Bravo!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gerry

    Pistorius' legs are engineered. Does this mean we should now allow all athletes with engineered enhancements to compete? Why then should performance enhancing drugs be banned?

    Look, there's a simple choice: completely unenhanced athletes, or athletes who can do anything to win (all biological and mechanical technologies allowed). The Olympics are about the former; let's keep it that way. (Although as an aside, I think the athletes should all be forced to wear the same swimsuits and shoes, use the same ski equipment, etc. Engineering has already provided unfair advantages there).

    July 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. C Murdock

    It should be obvious to anyone with common sense: An athlete with prosthetic legs should not be able to compete against athletes with normal legs. It is an apples-and-oranges situation. Persons with disabilities will have to limit themselves to athletic events for the disabled. Otherwise, you do not have a level playing field.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Disanitnodicos

    I am offended that this one man would be allowed to ruin the Olympics for everyone else by making it meaningless. When did the power of the minority to overrule the majority become so hep?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. doug

    They should let this guy run on his stumps instead of letting him use a mechanical device.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Simple

    It's Really a Simple Question: Does he run faster with the prosthetic legs than he would without them? Yes. That is an advantage. Would Runners run faster with steroids than without them? Yes.

    We have no idea how fast this guy was without the fake legs. He could've been the slowest guy on the planet, and the legs are making him "equal" to some of the fastest sprinters in the world. They say it is not an advantage? How is that even possible to decide? Thus, you must stick to the simple question: Do they make him run faster? Yes = Unfair, Uncessary (boo hoo, great motivational story blah blah blah, its the Olympics)

    July 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Glenn

    The blades are unfair. End of story.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. beefoe

    Hey, I don't see any reason why Johnson or others can't have the same "advantage" as Pistorius. Just get doctors to saw off your legs and you too can be fitted with nifty prosthetics that will make you run faster.

    Seriously, it's not like this guy really has a chance to win a medal. Rather he's showing that he can overcome a huge disability. We should worry about this when someone starts winning and then maybe create a separate category for athletes with any enhancements and we should include glasses, any surgery, tape, shoes, clothing, etc. that might give someone an unnatural advantage. Golf went through something like this with Casey Martin and it was a big deal at the time, but nobody cares now.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • K Dub

      So what you saying is, it is fine for them to compete, as long as there is no chance they can win? Think about how ridiculous that is. Your proposal is both impossible (who can predict the future?) AND condescending ("Oh, look at the cute guy with no legs! He sure is inspiring!").

      July 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ryan

    He should be placed in the special Olympics, rather than such a highly dignified olympic games.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • LI Gator

      The Special Olympics is for those with developmental disabilities while the Paralympics is for those with physical disabilities. You are an idiot.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. 1rooster

    If this is fair, then why are steroids outlawed?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
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