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. cnn

    Michael Johnson's point make sense and he's not some "chum". I like the idea of the guy competing, but there should be some finer line on the ability for a type of device to improve timeliness. It's like the golfer due to a knee injury got to ride around in a cart while everyone else walked the course.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. TrueGrissel

    Springs will make it easier, let him compete in the para Olympics if he needs to prove himself.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jt_flyer

    Lets see what happens to opinions if he wins.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • lautanner

      That's what I was thinking. How do WE know that it's easier to run on prosthetic legs? That's ridiculous. And if he has such an unfair advantage, why does the other runner assert that he can't run "fast enough to win a medal?" If that's true, Michael, then why not let him compete? Sounds like somebody's afraid of losing to this guy. This guy has EARNED his right to run. What ever happened to good sportsmanship?

      July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      This is plain and simple. Am I really smarter then the WHOLE Olympics Organization? Or they are willing to take the hit?

      If Oscar can race in the Olympics, able-bodied people should be able to race in the Paralympics?
      If A=B, then B=A, correct?

      However this is not the case. This is the simple case of "Apples and Oranges", and its not comparable.

      If he wins ANY medal at all, there will be chaos. The runner just behind him in the race will complain causing huge contreversy, making Oscar (the Blade-Runner) feel horrible. He will not be happy with himself. I hope he won't beat himself up if this is to happen.

      What about if he gets a World Record? How would that make people feel? Would they take that into account? How would the public respond? I'm surprised a big organization like the Olympics would do such a thing. I know they are trying to help, but rules are rules. This is unfair.
      This could cause some damage to the runners and the Olympics if he wins a medal. Mark my words.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Steve

    Excuse me Pete Grundin, who has the current 400 meter world record? Check the facts.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Beverlee

    Johnson is right. It's as bad as allowing transgendered male-to-female to compete against a born-female. There are differences and yes, science lies...a lot. All people have an agenda.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • D Rock

      I think your agenda is clear, Beverlee. Maybe you should recognize your own before pointing the finger at someone else.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sina raissi

    Although nobody has ever shown an advantage, big enough to show at olympic level, with blades, one has to realize that olympic level able runners are a handful out of tens of thousands of fantastic athletes that train hard and dream about competeing in olympics. There is a very good chance that if the same number of disabled runners were training with blades, a significant advantage may become detectable. What we are sure of is that there is no gastrocnemius muscle to strain, cramp, or exhaust. We are also sure about the spring action of blades that reduce the work of running. there are difficulties too but participation alongside able-bodied athletes, given uncertainties mentioned above, will be a competeion between apples and oranges. No doubt about that.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. uysfl

    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, I don't disagree or see the wrong in anything Johnson said here

    July 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Richard

    While he has had few peers on the track, Michael Johnson is not particularly bright is he?

    July 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Why do you ask?

      July 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. gene

    Well, their are no limits to stupidity. Consider the opposite. Does a runner who has calf muscles as well as thigh muscles have an advantage over a runner with only thigh muscles? Of course that runner does. Now ask yourself if you replace those calf muscles in the runner that has only thigh muscles with an object that cannot create energy but can only store energy does that runner now have an advantage? Of course not. Now go to school, study some engineering, some physics and physiology and prove what is intuitively obvious, unless of course your Michael Johnson and your heads up your ass instead of in a book.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • UtahProf

      Please see my earlier comment – and yes, I am an engineer.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO ©

      Gene, it's a great deal more complex than you are making out. It has much more to do with efficient energy transfer through carbon fiber vs bone and tendon.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Some of the commenters have never taken elementary physics. Ever hear of a simple machine?

      July 18, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • GnatB

      I'm no physicist, but I'd expect it depends how much less the devices that merely store energy weigh compared to the muscle/bone that creates it. Not to mention how efficiently said devices transfer said energy into actual movement. Would a swimmer wearing flippers have an advantage over a swimmer who isn't? By your book no, as the flippers aren't generating energy. But in reality yes, as the flippers allow the swimmer to make much more efficient use of the energy being generated.

      Now, I don't know if blade runner is at an advantage or a disadvantage. But he's almost certainly at one or the other. And since nobody knows, (and odds are there is no WAY to know) he shouldn't be competing. Simple as that. Or we just open up the rules, and any contraption you care to use to augment your body is perfectly legit.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      In engineering it's called "APPLES AND ORANGES"... They are completely different equations but we are trying to compare them....If he beats a person "configured" differently, weather his differences were an advantage. No real way to tell because they are different...Try doing your little comparison to a guy with roller skates but not allowed to use his hands and find the right "stride" handicap so that the equal, then by your definition, that would be a fair race.

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

      Ha, nice try Gene, but that was a really ignorant comment, you obviously know nothing about engineering or physics. Just consider a bouncy ball– its stiff mechanical nature allows it to bounce extremely high when it hits the ground. That is how stiffness of a bioprosthetic confers an advantage. Now compare something with more compliance like a muscle or a rubber band, which does not bounce at all when it strikes the ground. Even though runners flex the muscle to make it stiff, it can never have the stiffness of a bouncy ball or of these blades.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      I am an engineer and clearly you are not. By your perfect logic why don't we let him use a bicycle? It creates no energy.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      You obviously do not have an engineering degree. , If so, I'd request a refund from your online 'tech' school. Thanks for your opinion.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  10. bch

    Johnson could have his legs "sawed" off just below the knee and get himself some of these prosthetics...what a jerk!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. joe

    No. Idea is not good. In future inventors will come up with materials and constructions that amputee with them will be much faster than able bodies runners.Who will qualify? One who's missing one leg? One who's missing leg from the knee, or just part of the leg? So many questions, very few answer. Bad idea. Part human, part machine must compeet in different category races.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Don

      Totally agree! Future generations of the 'blade' will have much more spring to it. No contest for the able bodied. Gee next we will let them in the long jump and high jump, since no advantage in spring.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MIke C.

    There is a Boxer who lost his right hand in an automobile accident. He was very promising and had one heck of a right hook. I wonder if he can use a sledge-hammer prosthetic, as long as he wears a regulation boxing glove over it, and compete in the Olympics? That would make it a little more exciting and I am sure the glove would make everything equal.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Joe Baker

    Have they done laboratory tests to see how much force these blades are capable of asserting and comparing that to the calf muscle force of world class runners? I would think that would give you a definitive answer as to if the blades offer an unfair advantage...

    July 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. douglas

    I really don't care if he runs or not. I understand his desire to run, and I understand the spring issue.

    I'm just upset that badminton, curling, and synch swimming are included, and 3-event waterskiing is not. It's about time!!!!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Grey Cup

    Worlds Fastest Man? Correct me if I'm wrong but Johnson GOT HIS ASS HANDED TO HIM A SILVER PLATTER by Canada's Donovan Bailie when they ran 150 meter race at Toronto's Skydome. Johnson's Oscar Performance of "the great hamstring pull" after he was so far behind was nothing short of embarrassing!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • USA stomps on Canada

      Canada sucks!

      July 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
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