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. SugarKube


    July 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tr1Xen

    If he can run–and actually win–with prosthetics, more power to him.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. The Dude

    He does not have an ankle to sprain or ligaments to tear. No muscle to cramp. Seems unfair to me. He should stay in the special olympics.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tim

    People assume one way or the other, without knowing. That's ridiculous. Of course it has its advantages, but it probably also has its disadvantages, too. Good for him, but I'm on the fence about this. They look like springs and are lighter than human legs that would be in proportion, and there is no ankle, calf or foot stress that a normal runner would have. I just can't believe this is fair, but I couldn't say for certain. I must question whether a normal runner could get away with such a device without controversy if it appeared to give them an advantage over another runner without it. Either way, it can't be easy (for him or normal runners - not that I'm suggesting he's not "normal").

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

    micheal johnson go back to your steroids and leave him alone, if he was an amerikan nobody would be saying jack

    July 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jerry miller

    As good of an athlete he may be, this will open up a whole new can of worms. If it's allowed, future devices may be developed that give an advantage over other athetes. The solution is to have a separate division for racers with prosthetic devices. This whole business sounds like a publicity stunt and a reason to create contraversy. Just what we need, another committee to dicide which devices are allowed. Personally the Olympic Games are being diluted by all of this baloney.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ed

    I have seen these blades before. By increasing the spring rate of the blades you can make the runner go faster, A LOT faster. You should see how high the longer blades can make you jump!

    July 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Paul Basken

    Bizarre article. There are probably decent arguments on both sides of this, but suggesting those who take one side of this debate are automatically racists deserving to be equated with Hitler is pretty amazingly cheap, even for CNN.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hugh

      This article is really slanted considering this man does have an advantage over other runners. He's using a prostetic to run really fast. Obviously if Olympians start using prostetics they will surpass athletes with no prostetic. It would be just a matter of time to do this until the technology improved enough. I don't think he should be allowed to compete and I don't see why Johnson is being bashed so hard in this article for his opinion, which to me seems right on the money.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Don

    The decision sets a precedent that is going to cause issues down the road. At the basic natural level Pistorius would be unable to compete as he was born with missing fibulas. He can't compete naturally. Period. The obvious issue is where do you draw the line? What do you allow other athletes to use in order to compete? There is a reason that there are different events for able bodied athletes and athletes that require technological advantages. I have absolutely no doubt that at some point in time the technology in the prostetics will be more advanced than the natural human body. Once people with prostetics start winning the events is that when a change to the rules is made? What do you do about potential records set during that time period?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. NorCalMojo

    It would be even less fair in the special olympics.

    The time has come for the cyborg robo-olympics

    July 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
  11. rep

    physical limbs have a strength, flexibility, mass etc. that are limited by human genetics. sorry, but it's not meant to compete head-to-head with steel (or carbon fiber or whatever synthetic materials are being used). human limbs & muscles tire, fatigue, and even get injured more easily. let's imagine a boxer who has carbon fiber fists instead of hands. Sound fair?? i think it's admirable to have the these athletes compete head-to-head and to compare their times, but calling them equivalent seems to be a stretch....particularly in the Olympic games where such a big deal is being made over performance-enhancing drugs, etc...or *anything* artificial. and, as another poster noted...did the author really make comparisons of Johnson to Hitler?? seriously?? Good grief.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Sverde

    My husband wears a prosthetic leg. He is amputated just below the knee. Every night when he takes off his prosthetic his leg is black and blue with bruising and blistered. This man has no advantage, and unless you wear a prosthetic or love someone who does, you have no idea the pain this athlete ensures with every step.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. joma14

    Pistorious is inspiring in every way. And the fact is that the artificial limbs are, as callous as it may sound, an enhancement, and should not be allowed. Leave it to the Swiss to make things clear as mud.

    An whoever stuck a microphone in Johnson's face didn't really think he was the Aristotle of the running world, who would wax eloquently about science, philosophy, and anthropology. They thought he'd be entertaining. He was.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. FZMello

    Blades don't experience physical fatigue, nor the build-up of lactic acid that muscles do. Not to mention, they are lighter than normal lower legs, giving this guy an advantage of "decreased un-sprung weight", an advantage continually sought by race car teams. What it means to him is that he has to work less hard to pump those legs up and down, resulting in being able to apply more work to running.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Joe America

    @Don: " I have absolutely no doubt that at some point in time the technology in the prostetics will be more advanced than the natural human body."

    Well, that time is now. They are ALREADY a huge advantage over the natural human body. If Pistorius has normal legs, he wouldn't even be a world class runner.

    Look how elongated they made the blades in the picture of Pistorius. They aren't even trying to replace a normal foot. He must be at least an additional foot taller than he would be if he had a regular calf and foot.
    I wonder how tall he stands when wearing those blades. He is probably near 7 feet tall with them on.

    THIS IS RIDICULOUS. HE IS NOT "RUNNING" the same way as the other athletes. He is "running" a totally different type of race. He should not be in the regular Olympics.

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