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. Mike

    He does have the one simple advantage that other runners don't have; he's running without the weight of his legs below the knee, and not having to worry about it as dead weight in his strides.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Caleb F Failes

    It's not an advantage. Unless the runners are all running on hot coals barefoot there's no leg up he has on anybody

    July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. What would YOU call it?

    What a disgusting journalistic twist, likening any statements to those of Hitler and the 1936 Olympics.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bob

    Do the springs get tired? Fatigued and droop after the race?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Edward Current

    This is an opinion piece, not a news piece, and so should run with a byline and the word COMMENTARY at the top. Yes, it matters.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. TheThinker1958

    he must be lighter because the lack of legs (I'm assuming those things are very light).
    he has an advantage: he can't get cramps.
    are those things returning more energy than plain muscle when they are compress?
    are we going to allow people with electric wheels just because they lost a limb?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. NorCalMojo

    He's awesome, but come on. There's no way it's fair.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dan Green

    I agree with Johnson, sorry PC police. I admire Oscar's dedication as I would any Olympic athlete. Johnson is right. It's not about Oscar. Does he have an advantage? I wouldn't know. Maybe he has a disadvantage and maybe not. But where does it stop? His "apparatus", as it were, is much different than all of the other athletes. Perhaps, as time goes by, more advanced models, with more spring, are produced. If all runners cannot be accessorized equally, then it sets a dangerous precedent. Also, I don't know about a "black gene", but I always thought Jimmy the Greek got a bum deal. It's quite possible that slave owners bred slaves in order to create stronger offspring. They were property, just like thoroughbreds. Now, slavey was a horrible, horrible, thing, but we're not debating that. A lot of black people have powerful legs, butts, and hips, and that could be genetic from the days of slavery. It's not about racism. It's just possible that there's some truth to it, that's all.

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

    Obviously those officials that site this is acceptable have alternative motives. No person in their right mind would allow someone with such an advantage compete in a sport with rules. It's a simple matter of time before he can start winning races. Once that happens it will make the sport look ridiculous and undermind all of the effort from all of the other athletes that have trained their whole life only to be beaten by someone with robotic like legs. Ridiculous.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Matt

    People are totally disregarding the fact that he has far less weight below the knee now. This is a big deal. It's even bigger when you consider that centrifugal force causes the stress of that mass to be even greater on the thighs, slowing down the tempo of the stride.

    This is an advantage. Plain and simple.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Hard to pull a muscle or twist an ankle in that area.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Buckee

    Johnson is a Crybaby.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. danwbadger

    If they want to test if its fair or not equip Johnson with the same springs (isolate is ankles and calves so they don't move), give him a year to practice with them. Then he can run 100m with and without the springs to see what his time differece is between the two. That's the only way to scientifically test it. This author is an ill educated person, if he thinks a couple of guys with phD's watching a video is considered science.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Adam

    Definitely an advantage! I'm sure those things are lighter than legs, his body requires less oxygen and obviously eliminates all ankle and knee issues an able body person obtains with serious training. The guy can run every day on those things! Totally unfair coming from a runner.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mike

    "With pals like Michael Johnson, does Oscar Pistorius need enemies?" So that's where journalism is heading? A guy speak his mind about a real issue and he's crucified for it by the media. Fact of the matter is most people actually agree with Michael Johnson because this will set a bad precedent. What happens when someone's lungs collapse and they're replace with a metal box that breaths for that individual? Will that individual be able to participate in some lung distance running?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joey

      I agree, this is terrible journalism.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    OK! Let's reserve the Special Olympics for handicap athletes! O' and by the way, let's also reserve a Special Olympics for Third World countries ONLY and a Special Olympics for advance Western nations ONLY! Fair is fair!

    July 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan Green

      You're confusing the "Special Olympics" with the Paralympics. Athletes at the Paralympics are world-class. I've been to one. However, they have similar prosthetics and gear. It's an even playing field with the winners being simply better conditioned or talented and not because they have superior gear. I think Johnson is right.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
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