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, Ă–ssur.

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 fĂĽhrer'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. meidy

    I think I'll cut my legs off so I can be the world's fastest man. Unbelievable. Give the guy some credit for taking a bad situation and turning it into something positive. It certainly isn't easy to do what he's done. And to Johnson, if we removed your legs and gave you the option to put on blades, I bet your butt would be sitting on a couch watching TV, getting fat and collecting unemployment. GO OSCAR !! I'm proud of you!

    July 18, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Future

      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 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. fool1977

    What a crappy article. It is poorly written, and is pure op-ed. I suppose there is no such thing as object journalism anymore.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. vert2013

    It's an inspiring story, can't deny that but he has a clear advantage. He doesn't have lower legs therefore he needs less oxygen because he has less muscle to oxygenate. He also doesn't have to deal with lower leg and foot fatigue that other athletes have to battle. Lastly, "blades" are much lighter than natural legs and are far springier, giving him more distance per stride. I don't doubt that he's a great athlete and he's overcome a lot, but the olympics are supposed to be an even playing field and unlike super swimsuits, not everyone can choose to use artificial legs.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Chris

    Where is P...'s power and speed coming from? His thighs or the blades?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Daniel

    I like how many of you guys have not even competed with paraplegic runners in the DI level which is the closest you will get to Olympian level. Like what was said their are very few blade runners that have run the time he has run, I am not paraplegic I am a Dl natural runner & this man is my idol above all odd's he has proved he can compete without legs. For those sprinters that are talking about "advantages" they have the advantage during takeoff's their pyramid take off is much better than a paraplegic the only reason they are saying this is because of FEAR of losing to someone without legs.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. J

    how is a man with NO legs an advantage...? you should all be ashamed of yourself.......and so should CNN for even suggesting such a story........

    July 18, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BigRigger

    I think he should not be allowed. The reason is that because his body will not use as much energy as a person with complete legs, cause less muscles to expend energy, less muscle fatigue during the run or chance to pull a muscle. Also the replacement limbs are constant on reflex and that gives the user more repeat-ability to running.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. A N

    No prosthesis can ever return the same energy as a human leg. We simply don't have that technology, and will not for decades. These prostheses are propelled by his body alone and not by some other source of energy, so the jet pack analogy is inapt. It is not a given that these give him an unfair advantage: springs never return the same pressure placed on them. Pistorius is actually at a disadvantage because he must stand immediately upright in order to move forward, unlike an able-bodied runner, and this slows him down at the outset. It would be unfair to him to force him to compete with a wooden peg leg. Let him run.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • matt

      a study was done and stated that the cheetahs(sp) generate more force in return than the human ankle will generate. This was done with him specifically. However he's at a disadvantage at the start line and at corners since they don't bend like an ankle. He has actually fallen at times when rounding corners.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Robrob

    Easy fix, let all sprinters (handicapped or not) use spring loaded shoes. And rockets...

    July 18, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ron

    Johnson should shut his pie hole. I have permanent and total neurapathy in my legs (mid-calf down) from cancer treatment. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to walk,much less run, when you have absolutely no idea if you have sure footing.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bill

    Its funny how people are experts on running, physics, anatomy, and chemistry. If the guy had such an advantage, all runners would have their legs amputated, and carbon blades installed to make them "sperior athletes". Yhe arguement about oxygen....he is running 400 meters....get a clue, its not like he has to have oxygen pumped through his veins to run that distance...let the guy run, i hope he kicks everyones butt...then i get to listen to these poor, crybaby, athletes talk about how they were wronged. If johnson couldn't run for a living he would have been sitting on his couch, smoking weed, drinkng kool-aid, and eating brownies.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Boss

    Johnson is right.

    Okay, so maybe he won't win a medal...but what happens if/when the prosthetics get better? No discredit to the guy, I'm sure he works hard and is an inspiring individual...but he can't compete on equal terms in the Olympics. He's not equal.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      The operative word is When, not NOW. Michael Johnson may be one fo the greatest 400 meter runners of all time, but he is not a physiologist or a scientist and both groups have down the studies to show unequivocally that the prosthetic blades don't give an advantage. If they did, the paralympic 400 meter WR wouldn't be almost 2 seconds slower than the regular 400 m wr

      July 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • jack

      ok, so if it's that big of an advantage, then let's see some of the other runners willingly undergo amputation so they can have these blades too....no?

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

    In all seriousness, though, this theory of genetic athletic superiority among slaves has been debunked for decades.
    It has? Could have fooled me. You have blacks that make up 10% of the population of a 350m people country yet the make up 95% of all pro athletes. Statistically they should make up 10% of pro athletes yet they make up 95% of all pro athletes. What, you think they studier harder? You think they just will themselves to run faster? Grow taller? Grower bigger more muscular genetics?

    China and India have about 2.5 billion people combined. How many of them play pro basketball? What? You mean none, since Yao Ming retired? How many play pro football? What? Zero? But you want to assert that it's not genetics?

    Please. Get real.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • abphil

      all humans have the same genes (99.9%). The reason why a particular group or ethnicity is succesful is because of cultural differences and pure preference. Bottom line we cannot be great as groups in all things, however we all can excel in something.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • A Realist

      You have no clue what the hell you are talking about. Every statistic you cite if completely false and merely exaggerated to push your point. Those of African decent are able to jump higher and sprint faster on average than those who aren't, however that is not the only aspect of athleticism. Environmental factors that one grows up in and around have as much as an effect as genes, did you not read the whole article? Basketball and sprinting are the only sports that are clearly dominated by blacks. Power-lifting and swimming are dominated by those of European decent, does that mean that whites are athletically superior? NO. Picking and choosing examples is no way to prove a point. You are clearly no scientist so don't go up against what science already has figured out.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mike

    The physiological cost of being an amputee far outweighs the mechanical advantage that the Ossur feet give him. If you only look at things mechanically, he definitely has the advantage. However, numerous studies show that walking/running for amputees requires much more energy than it does for a human with all their limbs. In my mind, the negative metabolic cost properties far outweigh the advantages of the prosthetic feet and he should absolutely be allowed to run.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Disanitnodicos

      People who think Pastorius should not be admitted are putting fairness as their priority. People who think that Pastorius should be admitted are putting a political agenda as their priority. It's just a difference in values, whether you value fairness or a political agenda.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Oliuver J Dilworth

    How many medals have you won?

    July 18, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
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