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. Evan

    Carbon fiber legs are a disadvantage. You cannot compare them to a bike or a rocket because what are those items replacing? Nothing. Oscar has to use replacements for which the human body will NEVER be able to utilize as well as natural legs. His stride is one that the human body has not been evolved for, and it simply cannot be as efficient at this point in time. Of course, in the future distinctions will have to be made between amputees and not.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Katt Williams

    Poor lil Tink Tink.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. LOLOL

    Everyone keeps calling them springs. Could it be they just flex to mimic bending your leg at the knee and ankle? I don't see how carbon fiber could be used as a spring to increase speed, flex yes, but not spring in the sense that it would take your mostly vertical energy, multiply said energy, then release said energy to the ground to increase horizontal movement. again, as all of us, I'm no scientist, but it seems fair to me. then again, I wear a prosthetic eye so maybe I'm just a little sympathetic hahaha.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • MB

      Does carbon fiber get tired or hurt? The ankle and feet get a free pass on his body, that is a problem and not really fair to other athletes.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      It is a large spring actually, as is your foot, but much larger in this case. When you run, you lose alot of energy as step forward. Your front leg stepping down slows you down. But at the same time you get compression of your natural spring in your foot. That energy is then returned when the leg moves to the back. Unfortunately humans are designed for long distance slow speed efficiency, not speed. Most animal with longer feet are way faster as they lose less energy in the step. More energy is returned to forward movement. What he lacks in stragth he makes up for in efficiency of each step.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. btldriver

    Right now Pistorius has a net disadvantage but what about when he overcomes the issue of the starting blocks, then what? Are they going to then tell athletes with prostethics they can't compete? What if someone wants to add prostethics, such as the leg extensions, will they be able to compete? What if someone with prostethics breaks a record, do they get the asterick? Too many questions, not enough answers.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. MB

    Michael Johnson is correct. Yes it is true Pistorius has had a tough roa,d and he's done amazingly, however, the technology of artificial limbs is advancing very quickly, where are the limits? Also, these "internation sports scientists" are profoundly affected by political concerns. How come South African athletes seem to have a free pass to compete under unusual conditions?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    This articls ends by basically saying: we're not going to say who's right and who's wrong, but this guy is right and that guy is wrong. Hmmm.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony C

      Yes very true...the writer of this article is EXTREMELY biased. He should have just made this an editorial.

      Anyway everyone knows this is unfair but it's just politically correct to say this poor handicapped man should be able to live his dream and compete in the Olympics. But it is bad for the sport and unfair to the other atheletes.

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

    If they let him run, I'm going to start parking in handicapped places to make up for it. I urge everyone else to do the same.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dano99

    I'll buy Michael Johnson's research that descendents of African slaves are athletically superior if he also acknowledges that they are socially and mentally inferior. Yeah they're good at running from the cops and playing hoops in prison.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • bilbo

      And he's absolutely correct...you can only work with what you start with...to ignore genetics is dumb...and you are correct...to accept genetics in muscle structure and not brain tissue is equally absurd...but again..what you do with those tools counts for a lot. You're also ignoring cultural aspects...slavery is not exclusive to African blacks...some cultures keep coming out on top anyway.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • dawntraci


      July 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • D M


      July 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sassafras

      @Dano99, that was so unnecessary.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bilbo

    This is really quite simple...the light weight prosthetics give him an unfair advantage...if he had any chance of winning they never would have let him run. The man is propeling himself off of springs...it';s like having a high jumper with one leg made out of a mini trampoline.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ben

    Do I have an advantage if I where shoes?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. GoDucks73

    For a chance in the olympics and a gold medal, I would do everything legal I could to get that medal...even if it means I have to have my legs surgically removed and prosthetics put in their place, even a flipper if I was a swimmwer.........

    July 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jeff

    This is an editorial piece, and so should have the author's name and credentials listed. I sincerely hope CNN is not trying to pass this off as journalism. Nevermind the unnecessary extension into inflammatory racist statements; Johnson has a legitimate point about a general issue, which is not discredited just because analysts have concluded that an advantage was not present for one particular athlete. I hope this article is just an anomaly.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Disanitnodicos

      The author's name is at the bottom. Obviously he is ashamed of his work.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • bilbo

      The high school kid they paid $5 to to write this article will spend hours trying to understand your comment.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Carl

    Have to agree w/ Paul Basken here - VERY weak article. "...we'll generally side with science over sprinters." What science? The citations were merely opinions, just like Johnson's. Maybe CNN should blame it all on Romney?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. betta

    Nicely written article, but I don't think any kind of aid to the runner that is NOT NATURAL should be allowed. There are special olympics for that. It's like a swimmer using flippers because he has no feet. Then he has super feet.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Brian

    Well, might as well argue the racist part as well as the track part. While slavery was a disgusting part of our history ( and remains a disgusting part of many contemporary societies, by the way). This does not change the facts of genetics, and the manner in which the slave trade tried to manipulate natural selection. Genetics does play a part in physical appearance and stature. Any university biologist or anthropologist will tell you this. So it follows that the most physically gifted male in a population – if matched with the most physically gifted female in a population – it is statistically likely that their offspring will gain these excellent traits from both parents, and likely be more impressive than either parent.

    Jimmy the Greek stated this in a rather ham fisted manner. Johnson said it with a bit more grace, but perhaps not enough. But to ignore biology purely out of political correctness is foolish.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
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