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. Gabby Johnson

    Dr. Samuel Johnson is right about Olson Johnson and Michael Johnson being right!

    July 19, 2012 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  2. UmmSociology

    Sociology is a science? Try biophysics/genetics/medical research, which have routinely identified statistically significant differences in muscle characteristics between racial groups/subgroups. It is not a random occurance that the "world's fastest men" have overwhelmingly had African heritage ever since training parity was acheived.
    Our society needs to stop condoning BS because it's PC.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Snotty Kid

      I agree. Africans never win at swimming because they have higher density. In other words, they tend to sink. Watch Fear Factor or Survivor...the black guy never wins the swimming events and sometimes nearly drowns. It's not racism. It's just the way it is.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
    • krozar

      Yes, the study of sociology is scientific.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. celia

    so having prosthetics is an advantage??? I have 2 knee replacements. Does that give me an advantage? No.,..good gosh, if you don't let him compete, clothing doesn't make the athlete, the athlete makes the clothing...

    July 19, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      You're comparing apples and oranges. Knee replacements and Flex-Foot Cheetah are not the same. Oh, and I wonder how "Cheetah" got included in the prosthetics' name.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
    • jfairweather

      It is not about prosthetics per se, but about a spring-style device that is much more efficient in absorbing and repelling energy than a biological foot in a track shoe. There is no question about it providing an unfair advantage. It is the law of physics at work here, not mindless discrimination against people with disabilities.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      You think these carbon composite blades are like clothing? Just decoration? You need to step away from the conversation and let the grown ups talk. Then you'd be okay with someone in a wheelchair competing in a marathon, too?

      July 19, 2012 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
    • wizard

      This isn't about your prosthetics. It doesn't say ALL prosthetics give an advantage. However, science is very likely to improve upon the current designs. In 10 years, if this ruling stands, it could very well be that having these types of prosthetics will be an advantage. At some point, it could get to the point where only those with these "prosthetics" will be able to compete at a high level. It could even get to the point that people would amputate limbs in order to have these devices installed. Don't believe me? Look at the drugs baseball players and football players use and how those drugs affect their bodies and brains. Look at the drugs used by gymnasts (female) that postpone puberty so their bodies will appear thinner. People will do lots of things for fame. I think this ruling sets a precedent that can be used in much more extreme cases in the future.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. Gorons

    I agree with you that Oscar Pistorius is a great athlete, but a few points I must contest. First, he has never known what feet feel like per se. He had his legs amputated at the age of 1, so one can assume that he is completely used to using his prosthetics. Second, do not assume that the "spring" in the prosthetics are the only possible advantage that comes with them. They also are lighter than the human lower leg, do not take the strain of running on the lower legs, and he cannot roll his ankle. (not really a huge deal on the track though.) Third, his prosthetics are specifically designed for racing, well the ones that he uses for racing are, and I am sure account for the issues that you mentioned that come with having amputated legs. And Lastly, suggesting that someone who has not come within 2 seconds of the world record time, which Michael Johnson has, is a better athlete it is a little ignorant.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
  5. Bellatrix

    If Johnson wants his lower legs cut off and prove it, I would be honored to do the sawing. This is VERY close to "you are black and therefore cannot vote". If Pistorius had lost his legs in an accident, there may be an argument. If Johnson were born a poor slow white guy like me we wouldn't be listening to him now. Give this gifted, courageous, inspirational athlete a break. If he beats the WR (will not happen) does anyone think there will be an entire field of carbon fiber legged runners at the next Olympics? Would Johnson hold the world record if he ran barefoot? No.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
  6. Will

    When I look at the prosthetics shown in the picture above, I see the potential for a big advantage. Sorry, whether it's fair or not, I don't think someone with a possible advantage like that has a place in the Olympics. Unless there is a category created specifically for them.

    And in case anyone is wondering, I am white. So there is no racial motivation behind my opinion.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Ohz

      So, you can base your entire decision on if those devices give him an advantage or not from this one picture? That's quite a talent.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  7. Alicia

    How is this man competing unfair? He's lost both of his legs and he's running on two huge paperclips.....give me a break

    July 19, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Snotty Kid

      He is using gravity and springs to help propel him forward.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
    • No...

      The Flex-Foot Cheetah by Ossur is hardly a paperclip.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      You must be a complete fool. Do you NOT SEE the picture? Can you NOT UNDERSTAND that the spring action COULD give an advantage. I am not saying he shouldn't compete....but I am saying that people are always afraid of offending someone with a disability...fact is technology is giving him a chance to compete....We aren't talking about whether this guy and win or not, but what about the next guy that comes along with better technology...the fact is you have to have rules and stick with it.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  8. ReggieG

    Fair or UNFAIR is not the question, question is the precedent, AND TO WHAT EXTENT WILL THIS GO? ROBOTIC /PROSTHETIC ARM for example, one arm can be made 10 times better (stronger, quicker more explosive etc...) so let's not get carried away with stupid remarks as to who is more handicapped ...
    you can make these blades yet better, but hey where does the mechanics STOP and the athlete's body begin...

    July 19, 2012 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
  9. Duck duck goose

    I don't know where my twig & giggleberries are. The price to remove the goat spunk from my belly button is too high. I'd have to turn tricks for 30 decades to cover it. This is completely unacceptable. I shall now go toss my cookies.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
  10. Colin in Florida

    New simple rule needed: If you can compete in the special Olympics, you cannot compete in the regular olympics, and vice versa. An athlete can compete in only one olympics per season.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
  11. jen

    ...then able-bodied person should then be allowed to wear carbon fiber flex-foot cheetah under her/his shoes. Bottomline, everyone should be allowed to wear something then. What a moron !!

    July 19, 2012 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  12. Rick

    The artificial blades not only gives a natural spring to each stride, but the fact that he has no lower legs also means less weight to carry so that each stride is significantly faster.

    If these are allowed, what's to stop an able-bodied runner from strapping on a pair that will makes him 10 feet tall, and allowing him to make 30 meter strides. He could run the 100m in 5 seconds.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
  13. newzeaman

    I don't think Johnson is that wrong about keeping prosthetics out of the olympics and relating to African's being superior athletes it wouldn't be the first time natural selection has created stronger subspecies.
    I've often wondered how they achieve parity in the special or para-olympics given there is such a huge range of disabilities that creating a level playing field is virtually impossible. Obviously a person with mechanical prosthetics should be allowed to compete, but it seems an easy line to draw between completely natural and unnatural propulsion. Some "unnatural" will be inferior design, but probably now and definitely in the future, prosthetics will be superior in many ways to natural. No pain, no tendons to tear, recoil strength of steel or carbon fiber or whatever they use versus muscle. It's the bionic man theory. That's one of the great things about most sports is that there is very little equipment, it's just mano a mano (or womano). Of course they should be running barefoot to complete that paradigm. Maybe in 2016??

    July 19, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  14. kjaques

    First of all, Michael Johnson was NEVER "world's fastest man". Donovan Bailey embarrassed him so bad in a 150 meter race in Toronto that he faked an injury so as to end his humiliation. I also remember the 1996 Olympics where he set the world records. A female Irish swimmer had broken a couple of world records in her events (by the tiniest of margins) and the entire American Olympic team were screaming that she took performance enhancing drugs. But when Johnson shattered the world records in his events, by huge margins, the Americans didn't say a thing, except to dub him, falsely, the "world's fastest man". My point is that intelligence is not likely related to race. There does seem to be, however, an inverse correlation relating to people with big mouths having small brains. Micheal Johnson has a HUGE mouth!

    July 19, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  15. Turdlock

    It seems to me that the correct comparison for determination of whether or not an unfair advantage exists is this: Can the normal energy produced by the lower leg and knee be mathematically compared to the energy stored and released by the prosthesis. Certainly there are mathematicians and/or physicists or engineers who can create and test this scenario. Do it and be done with speculation. There is or isn't an "unfair" advantage.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
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