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. Joe

    He has an advantage. The springs can not tire, they will never get sprained, they consistantly give (spring) back according to effort applied, they dont cramp, its a machine and its unfair to flesh and bone. I applaud his efforts and he is a great athlete, but its not the same as bone and muscle that has its limitations. Its a definate advantage.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Beadlesaz

      Well said.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bob

    Wow. This is really mind boggling. What kind of a moron would make up a rule that prevents handicapped people from competing with people who aren't? Whoever it was should be charged with discrimination as well as gross stupidity and punished by being flogged in public with live TV coverage. Maybe the event could take place on the day the Olympics begin, sort of as on opening act.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Doug Harrod

    The elitists, like Michael Johnson and others who have responded, should be aware the guy is disabled, handicapped and they are belittling this athlete's accomplishments! Give me a break, as a track coach for 40 years in high school I applaud this athlete!

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

      Yeah you inferiorist, he is really "diabled." He is missing heavy bones and tissue, and instead has light carbon fiber made into a spring which need no oxygen to srping him right into the finish line first without any effort

      July 19, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  4. Ken

    Totally not a load of crap. Johnson is spot on. Ever see a sprinter pull up lame because he had a calf pull or injury? Not this guy.....never. He will never experience it. How much "spring" do these blades have? More than a regular human ankle? Probably likely. How is his achilles holding up? Oh wait, he doesn't have one. What about if the marathon runner had a breathing apparatus because his lungs weren't developed? What about if the arm wrestler had a robotic arm? What if the volleyball player had springs on his legs or longer than normal prosthetic arms?
    Kudos to the guy......beyond kudos, he is an awesome athlete. But the truth is that he is using aids that no one else is and no, that isn't fair.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Society

    Let's just give everyone a Gold medal and be done with it. Isn't that where we are going? Everyone wants everyone to be 'accepted' and everything to be 'fair' for everyone else. Really? I don't think we do. Women want equality and to be treated the same, yet, their tennis matches are shorter; golf tees are closer; basketball rules are different. That's just one example. People want to be given an extra look because of their race, but then they also want equality and be treated no different than everyone else? False. People want advantages, white, yellow, black, or green. And we are bending over backwards in all areas of life to give people want they want.

    We just want everyone to feel happy and accepted and we don't have the courage to tell people they aren't good enough or that they have an unfair advantage.

    Only have to point the finger at ourselves for wanting this, 'just be happy and do whatever you want society,' regardless of who it hurts, individually, morally, physically, or emotionally.

    Ya! Gold medals for everyone.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. g2-554d155ee0aaa518e03a7e70d9cd6b0b

    This board is full of people who know nothing about prosthetics, disability, or the meaning of "accommodation." What a shame.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Glenn

      If he cant get shin splints or roll an ankle or get a calf cramps like able bodied athletes he should not be allowed to compete. If I tear a calf muscle I get surgery, if he cracks a carbon fiber blade, he slaps on another one. Unfair advantage.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Face

    Eventually the Olympics will become the Bionic Olympics as far as I can tell.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Reality Check

    The phrase "able-bodied runners" seems a little off. Clearly his body is very able.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Pat Higginson

    He could definately have an advantage over non-Bionic men. Technology can do great things for performance and here is an example where technology may be somewhat "better than the original", at least in performance.
    Why not have bionic men compete against bionic men and folks without impairments compete against each other.
    That way the fairness questions would be reduced if not eliminated. I think Michael is right to question this guy competing in the race against "springless" athletes.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jdoe

    I say let athletes wear anything they want, as long as it doesn't involve wheels. One can easily argue that shoes are a type of prosthetic, and that technology can give a runner an advantage over others. Either that, or make everybody run barefoot.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. 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 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. thomas

    the man is disabled and has no lower leg or feet let the guy run he is doing something us able bodied people cant do just because he is overcoming adversity and making a name for himself doesnt mean he cant run, just because he is getting better at his craft. Plus he has been using the same equipment sin ce 2004 and improved by over a second since 2008, i think that has a little something to do with work ethic not man made prosthetics.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Abee

    I 100% agree with you!!

    July 18, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. BassAckwards

    I wanna hear about the South African guy that has 2 working legs that was overlooked for blade runner. Will he be taking blade runners spot in the Paralympics?

    July 18, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. huxley

    As Johnson says, it should be considered in terms of how the precedent affects sports in the long term – not in terms of whether or not this one runner is allowed to compete.

    In my view, these augmented legs have significant mechanical advantages, which are not available to other runners who are only equiped with neoprene running shoes. Perhaps another category should be created for augmented human travel, in which all runners who are using mechanical augmentation may compete against each other.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patricia_In_Canada

      I've been a runner for a long time (triathlons, road racing, etc...) and *if* those prosthetics gave him ANY advantage he would have a.) Made the Olympic qualifying (and South African team) standard a LOT sooner than he did – and done it without (relatively speaking of course) breaking as much of a sweat – he only made it by the skin of his spider suit. b.) Not only would he have easily made the standard – with those carbon fibre legs he could have obliterated it & been an instant world record threat- a 400 M world record coincidentally held by the very man who say's Oscar should not be allowed to run in London.

      Sure Michael, it isn't personal right?

      July 19, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Keeper

      There is ... it's called the Paralympics

      July 19, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Brompton

      im sorry huxley, I actually read the article, and it was determined by scientists that this man is actually at a net disadvantage, rendering your non-scientific opinion b.s. at best

      July 19, 2012 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Will

      @Brompton. The issue isnt whether THESE devices are giving him a net advantage or disadvantage. Its where or when do you draw the line? Lets just say for example he does ok. The engineers though look at how these things worked and find a way to make them even lighter and stronger. Lets say 10 years from now some guy with these knocks 2-3 seconds off the world record. Would you say at that point the new versions give a net advantage? If the answer is yes then what are we going to do? Should we say you can use the old stuff, but not the newer stuff? Easier for all if this precedent isn't set. If it determined later to be advantageous it will be an arms race. Or legs race among amputee athletes while the guys with 2 real functional legs sit on the sidelines.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
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