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. No Smoke or Mirrors

    Why do I get the feeling he is only being allowed to run so Disney can make a yuppy feel good movie about him?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jimmy

    What a bizarre story! Of course this guy shouldn't be in the olypmics, his legs are built by a company! Ridiculous!!!!! Also I know its an unpopular opinion but I agree with johnson that former Slaves have an advantage in the athletic field, they were bred for a few hundred years to be strong, it did have an effect, as proven by their excellence in sports.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. MrApplesauce

    Woohoo... Olympics 2072... all bionic athletes. Screw you "normals"!

    July 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. mark

    First of all you basically get to pick the size and shape of your foot for the best possible outcome. Foot size and strength of joints and tendons etc is really half the battle. A battle that this guy does NOT have to fight. Some of you just think that any time someone loses a limb or suffers some kind of a loss they're automatically to be pittied. This guy get's to practice on these things until he is able to use them to the fullest extent possible.

    And whoever keeps claiming slave breeding is a myth and people who believe in that need to pick up a book...... Every book says slave breeding was common place so I don't know what the hell you're reading.
    Go over to Aftica and take a look at some of the untouched tribes. They aint winning any football games.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dan in MPLS

    This is naive and bad journalism. The author's support for his obvious judgment about Johnson's slavery comment are not convincing. One can be not racist and believe that 200 years ago americans took the most fit africans home to be slaves, and the ones who survived the trip were bred to be stronger. Their descendants obviously have crazy athleticism. This doesn't necessarily apply to all black people (e.g., look at recent Somalian immigrants), but the descendant of slaves who work hard, etc., become great athletes. How could a Darwinist argue with that?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son.

      Facts, be them historical or scientific have not place on either side of the political aisle.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Syndrome Zed

      There are so many reasons why that statement is an insult to Darwin's work. First, the most physically fit Africans were killed fighting. There was no American selectivity in choosing who became slaves – half the slaves were captured by their opposing African tribes and sold to white slavers. They may have weeded out the injured, but they basically took everyone they could make any money off of. Those recent Somali immigrants you talk about tend to be malnourished or undernourished, because they were living in poverty – that's why they come here, after all. No athlete of any skill is undernourished.

      Second, Darwin never defined fitness in strictly physical terms. Natural selection, which is what you're trying to suggest (or artificial selection anyway), is a different animal entirely. In terms of fitness, the most athletic slaves would not be the most fit. A slaveowner would prefer someone who could do the work, but who wouldn't be able to fight back very easily. So no, Darwin's theories don't really support Johnson's goofball argument.

      Lastly, Kenyans have been at the forefront of marathon running for a while now. Not West Indies runners. There are a few really fast sprinters, but you're not talking about a whole population of super-sprinters. By your logic, the slave descendants should be killing the Kenyans, because slave owners would have selected for endurance for the slaves who worked in the fields, not sprint speed. Would you try and own the people who had the best chance of running away from you, or the guy who could spend all day working hard without tiring as fast?

      July 19, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  6. talos

    If baseball players, nascar drivers, NFL players, and yes, even track stars, etc. are not allowed to use any type of drug that enhances their ability over others, then this guy and those like him should not be allowed to compete with artificial means. The playing field is not level when he doesn't even have a shoe string to trip over; oh, and no possibility of shin splints; etc; etc; etc. This is what the Special Olympics and Paralympics was designed for.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Disanitnodicos

    I was born without arms or legs. The only way I can compete in this race is with a jetpack. Of course the jetpack goes 220 mph, but it is not an advantage because I don't have any arms or legs. Anyone who thinks the jetpack is an advantage is free to cut off their arms and legs and use the jetpack. No takers? That's what I thought. That proves the jetpack isn't an advantage.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bill

    Thank God for people like Johnson who have the gall to say the truth, even if it's not politically correct.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Yegofry

    Perhaps all athletes should be required to compete naked so that all possible inequalities can be eliminated. After all, what are shoes but replacements for the soles of our feet and suits but replacements for our skin?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Abrondon

    This is a tough one. I can see Johnson's point, the callousness of his analysis notwithstanding. But I would argue that the shoes and uniforms runners wear are constantly being engineered with the intent to give them an advantage, however slight. Maybe the Greeks were on to something when the original olympians competed au natural.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. red wash

    i agree with johnson. it's not that i think his "blades" will give him an advantage over the other runners. it is because he is not comparable to the other runners as far as artificial legs are concerned. not if he was competing against guys who are also running with "blades", i think that would be fair. would it be any different if a female athelete was trying to compete against the guys?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Keith

    He has a big mouth for speaking the truth x2?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Truth

      If he didn't have the blades, he wouldn't be there. It's like wearing shoes and everyone else is bearfoot. Imagine him in the nba, all of the sudden he's jumping higher. Lets see how he compares to other legless people with blades...

      July 18, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. xedder

    i agree with johnson. it's not that i think his "blades" will give him an advantage over the other runners. it is because he is not comparable to the other runners as far as artificial legs are concerned. not if he was competing against guys who are also running with "blades", i think that would be fair. would it be any different if a female athelete was trying to compete against the guys?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dave in Jax, FL

    "Coming on the heels of curious statements about the descendants of slaves being athletically superior". Wow, many readers may not remember this, but sports commontator Jimmy the Greek got fired from his job for making an almost identicle statement. Talk about double standards.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ezo

    Well, you're the expert, Slow Poke!

    July 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
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