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. Lee Majors

    I'm legless, can I use my Ducati for the Tour D' France?

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

    What's there to consider???? He doesn't have motors built in his new legs!!! He is amazing!!!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • PaulieWalnuts

      Irene, there are over 300 responses. Pls read some of them, before posting such a dumb response.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Simple

    Irene - HE HAS SPRINGS!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Simple

    Are you telling me they built these fake legs to make him run EXACTLY as fast as he would without them? No chance. Impossible to measure.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kris

    To me if he can run, why can't athletes use steroids? It is an aid to becoming faster, stronger, better.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Let's face it, nothing about the Olympics is fair and equal to begin with because in the Olympics we have a whole lot of third world countries competing with countries of the advanced western world who's athletes have had access to better and more advance training facilities, resources and techlnology! End of story!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Name*Dr

    Johnson is right. Speedsuits give swimmers an advantage. Why not limit track events to people without artificial limbs...that way we KNOW they all competed equally.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. BobTBuilder

    My doctor says I can use a motorized wheelchair to compete. I'm going to get a really fast one and "run" in the 5k and 10k. Sipping on margaritas and talking on my cellphone the whole way....to setting world records. But Michael Johnson is looney, since quitting Celebrity Apprentice. He needs to double up on is Prozac meds.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. WillH85

    Sad how people are willing to throw away any fairness in the Olympics in order to stay PC. The guy's prosthetics give him an unfair advantage, that's pretty clear. If he can use those to let him move faster, why can't people use steroids so they can also move faster?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • bill

      if these are legal for him to use, they should be legal for anyone to use! i say someone makes a set of the same "shoes" with a small shelf to rest their normal feet on... and let them run.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jhera

      "IAAF studies had failed to consider the difficulty Pistorius had coming out of the blocks and accelerating during the first part of the race." – as the court correctly ruled, he is neither at an advantage or disadvantage. He faces different challenges than runner with complete legs. In fact, he's working to achieve goals that others before him with similar conditions haven't been able to. I think he should be seen as a role model. This isn't like taking steroids. In those cases you have people on equal terms who take the steroids to get an advantage. He uses prosthetics so he can run. Period. If he wins a race, it's because he's taken the next step - the step every other athlete takes - and he's trained like crazy to push his body to get him where he wants to be.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. RCBinTN

    I hope he breaks Johnson's records. More power to him.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. J Hughes

    Michael Johnson appears to be getting old and senile. His day has come and gone, let someone else have the spotlight. Athletes are athletes regardless of the sport. No race is superior to the other, although there are sporting events that races excel in better than other races. That equalizes the playing field. So let's look at the event and praise the athletes that compete for the Gold, regardless of race or color.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. sck

    The facts: 1) his prosthetics CLEARLY give him an advantage 2) It won't REALLY make any difference- he will be crazy lucky to make the semis.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cted

      And what about the next guy who might actually win. If this guy is allowed to run with these limbs ANYONE in the future can as well. They give him an advantage, period. If nothing else, he can NOT injure his ankle, he does not have to excercies his legs, they are always in peak condition, etc. He has advantages. Trying to wieght those against apparent disadvantages is ludicrous, it will never prefectly balance out. He should not be allowed to complete with anything artificial.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mischaracterizing

    1) Johnson didn't say that slavery helped make American black genetically superior. What I believe he was saying is that American blacks have a genetic quality that makes them naturally better sprinters. Whether this second point is true or not, I do not know, but he did not attribute the superiority to slavery. There is no doubt the best athletes at any sport are so because of their hard work and dedication to being good. Certainly Johnson would not be one dispute that as it is what made him good. That said, there is also a certain amount of "talent" or genetics that the best athletes have.

    Anyone who cannot see that is choosing to misread his statement (as inarticulate as it was).

    2) As it relates to "Blade Runner" I think Johnson was again a bad spokesman for a point that has a place in the conversation. I for one believe while Mr. Pistorius has an enormous disadvantage in his disability, if a runner has ANY advantage it should not be weighed against disadvantages. For instance, if one long distance runner has a genetic disorder that their blood stream produces fewer red blood cells they are at a clear disadvantage. Should we allow that runner to inject red blood cells to better compete?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cted

      If we do that then we also have to go the other way. and Lance armstrong has to reduce his lung capacity, becuase he has an oddball physiology where he as more lung capactiy than normal people. So should the other athletes come up to his level with artificial blood oxideizers?

      July 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dan

    Hey Johnson! I forget, how did that race you had with Donovan Bailey go?? Oh wait I remember, you got 'hurt' when you realized you couldn't catch him. "Worlds fastest man"....not!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. GFeltner6343

    I have a really fast remote control robot with my face glued to the front. Look at me ... I'm an Olympian. Can someone get me a beer from the fridge while I finish winning this gold?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
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