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. AaronT3

    Prosthesis's should be a separate event, having their own pit crew and all. not meaning to sound harsh, but human versus mechanical should be; human versus human and mechanical versus mechanical.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. pez

    Michael Johnson should be allowed his opinion without ridicule. The scientific evidence should be open to question. One of the experts providing input on the question is Hugh Herr, a famous rock climber who lost his feet in a climbing accident. In response, he researched biometrics and started his own biometrics company. I am a great admirer of Mr. Herr, but I think it possible that his struggles would make him sympathetic to a handicapped runner. In addition, his biometrics company would certainly benefit from the publicity surrounding an amputee running in the Olympics.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • samanthairene7

      yes because we should not be sympathetic to a handicapped runner.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • cat

      Michael Johnson is afraid his record will be beat by a man with prosthetic legs!!! The only thing this is about is his ego. Why doesn't he run against him? maybe that will shut his mouth.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mark

    Poor little tink tink !!!!!!!

    July 19, 2012 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
  4. samanthairene7

    I see tons of people saying he is at an advantage because he has no legs from the knees down. Seriously? Lets chop all y'alls legs off from the knees down stick some prosthetics on ya and see how much of an advantage you have.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • ReggieG

      well, so he is at disadvantage? do you know how those Olympics called? Paralympics...you surely want to wish him compete where the others with disadvantage compete...NEXT thing you know, an athlete with a robotic arm will start competing in javelin and guess who will be winning all those ones??????

      July 19, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  5. Steven Hoefgen

    More power to this guy but I believe it's unfair for him to be running against people who aren't "handicapped" and vice versa. He should run against others of the same handicap to make it all equal.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  6. cja

    What if an able bodied runner where to attach these to his lower legs such that it made him 8 inches taller?

    July 19, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
  7. BassAckwards

    When Oscar loses, but returns in 4 years with new and improved blades and wins a gold medal, then what?

    July 19, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
  8. 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. I'll promise you that.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Steven Hoefgen

      Just like I wrote earlier,

      "More power to this guy but I believe it's unfair for him to be running against people who aren't "handicapped" and vice versa. He should run against others of the same handicap to make it all equal."

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

      Should an athlete with a prosthetic arm allowed compete in throwing javeline or similar discipline? What if that robotic arm will be 5 times faster and more explosive than the human arm?? Do analyze a bit more then you will come to correct trees where oranges don't mix with apples ................

      July 19, 2012 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. dan

    who cares, he has no chance of winning anything.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  10. Rob Thompson

    If this dude has overcome this much in his life, why does he need an olympic medal? This guy should not be allowed to compete. It strikes a sour chord in people, but you can't tell me that running with those prosthetics should be allowed. The truth of the matter is that without his lower legs, his heart has less muscle tissue to pump oxygen to while he's running. It's sad that he has no legs, but he should not be allowed to compete.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  11. mkub

    So Johnson's argument is that Pistorius might have an advantage in his prosthetics, therefore he shouldn't be allowed to compete, rght? And Johnson also said that descendants of West African slaves have a genetic advantage– so they also shouldn't be allowed to compete, right? Hypocritical? No advantages of any sort allowed, sir!! (lots and lots of sarcasm)

    July 19, 2012 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  12. mark

    Less weight, springy bottoms–i'd say he has an advantage.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |

    Completely unfair. In being a long time runner, I have experienced many, many setbacks due to issues with my Achilles tendons, cartilage in my knees, broken toes, and twisted ankles. These injuries take lots of time to heal and they hurt...a lot! I wish a simple screw replacement, hinge adjustment or a strategically aimed blast of WD-40 could erradicate my leg problems. This guy has never been tortured by blisters, ingrown toe nails, improperly fitting shoes, heel spurs, or even wet ,cold feet. He has an obvious advantage over those of us despite his "handicap".

    July 19, 2012 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |

      Hey, life isn't fair. I am not saying that his lack of legs is NOT unfortunate. It most certainly is! My point here is that his misfortune has been more than compensated for by the marvels of modern medicine! He no longer has to be concerned with common leg injuries that ail most of us runners. So yes, he has a distinct advantage over those athletes who could not qualify for the olympics because, say, of a broken toe or bruised kneecap!!! This guy has the opportunity to complete in his "own" olympic games...wherein everyone has a "handicap".

      July 19, 2012 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Clearly you don't understand what it is like to have a prosthesis...Prosthesis users (especially athletes) often get blisters from their limb changing in a socket. If that happens, guess what?! They have to take time off too! Additionally, you can often fix a sprained ankle on your own, but if the prosthesis breaks or your leg grows muscle mass from exercising, it takes multiple trips to a trained clinician to even get back to running because the leg doesn't fit any more. He still has his knees too, and I'm sure they hurt him every once in a while. Modern medicine has more than compensated you by allowing you to get back to running too. Just because he can't get an ingrown toe nail doesn't mean that his problems aren't actually a lot worse and threatening. Your post is completely unfair and insensitive to any individual who has overcome an amputation because let me assure you, a simple screw replacement, hinge adjustment or WD-40 won't fix 99% of the issues he might have.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Passive

      Hi Kathleen. As a relatively recent amputee, I can say that many of the common problems and sports-related injuries you describe can certainly affect amputees as well as the able-bodied. Discounting your comments regarding "WD-40"... blisters on an amputated stump are a very serious concern for all amputee runners. They routinely lead to skin breakdown and serious complications. The interface between amputated stump/prosthesis is more dangerous and complicated than between healthy foot/running shoe. As a runner both before and after my amputation, I then (as now) experienced cramps, blisters, etc. The difference is that now these conditions affect my already sensitive amputation point vice my healthy and durable feet. The addition of a prosthesis adds an additional negative variable to the running equation. So, in addition to needing 'WD-40" to manage our prosthetics, we also need to manage all normal adverse running conditions (blisters etc.). However, when a disabled runner gets one of the myriad runningn conditions the able-bodied are also prone too, the consequences are more severe. In my past life, a blister meant mole-skin and padding, maybe swapping out shoes, or some time off from running. Now, a blister may prevent wearing of a prosthesis until healing (and time on crutches).

      July 19, 2012 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  14. Cheryl

    Unfair? Do you think that NOT having 2 legs is fair?

    July 19, 2012 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  15. mattymatt

    then Michael Phelps should be able to wear the shark skin suit that was banned.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
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