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. JB

    So, Pistorius who is missing both legs is supposed to have some advantage because of the prosthetic devices he uses to run? What?! Let the man run. They've tested these things over and over again and found no advantage whatsoever. It's not like the guy's driving a car. If some other athlete were to have his legs cut off to gain a similar "advantage", by all means, go right ahead.

    And while we're at it, Michael Johnson is 6'1" and is predisposed to having longer Achilles tendons than some of the rest of us. Since he is over 5'10" (average height), he has the unfair advantage of having longer legs which allow him to run faster. Also, he has countless trainers and dieticians, among other coaches, helping him along the path. That's an unfair advantage over regular people who enjoy running, so he should not be allowed to compete. Right? Same argument.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
    • lwhardin

      I could not disagree more. If he is allowed to use this device, then so can anyone else. How about high jumpers, long distance runners, etc? If a 6' athlete used these, they would be nearly 7' tall.
      If I can't get out of the gate as fast as everyone else, but my top speed is twice as fast as any human without the device, is that fair?

      July 19, 2012 at 1:44 am | Report abuse |
    • jkflipflop

      I have a pair of Power-Reisers that work on the same principle. I can run over 20 MPH and I also have a 9 foot vertical leap while wearing these boots. Mr. Johnson is correct, these prosthetic legs give the man a huge advantage.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Off the cuff I would agree with Johnson. IBM beat the best chess player and science can beat the best runner. I don't advocate chopping off limbs but the Six Million Dollar Man will school anyone.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Really? Lee Majors is warming .up.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      How about the all prosthetics, all drugs Olympics brought to you by NBC? Thanks.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Imminent

      If it's true that the prosthetic legs in no way enhance his running speeds, let's put them on everyone to level the playing field. This is a tough one because it is possible for thetics to be too good.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:54 am | Report abuse |
    • joderito

      Well thought out ! What a great response.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:37 am | Report abuse |
  2. huh

    They have olympics specifically for disabled people, he should compete in those. No doubt he's in tremendous shape, you can tell that just by looking at him, but he's got a whole different setup than most humans do. What if his legs had wheels and a 150 horsepower motor attached to them instead of the 'blades?' Should he be competing in that case? Michael Johnson is right. Kudos to this guy for overcoming his disability and being a faster runner than 99.9% of people out there, but he's not competing in the same sport as the other runners in the 400.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. wherefore

    wow – didn't realize CNN had started to censor so much.
    My comments got filtered – my post never made it past "review" apparently... despite the fact that they were not prejudiced or racist. Guess CNN wants to protect its writers.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
  4. Mike P

    Why don't we just let robots compete? See, here's the thing: the Olympics is all about *natural* ability - how people can fine-tune their bodies, not their equipment. Sure, one player's outfit might be different from another's such that it confers an advantage, but all the players could, if they wanted or if it were mandated, wear the same outfits, thus negating the advantage. But a player can't chop off his or her legs and wear springs if he/she wanted (unless he/she were REALLY dedicated). At some point we just have to realize that some people can't compete because they can't bring to the table what is required: a whole body. And, yes, that's fair.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
  5. krozar

    It is spring action and uses no oxygen/blood!

    July 19, 2012 at 2:14 am | Report abuse |
  6. Langkard

    How much do the prosthetics weigh compared to human lower legs and feet? If the Flex-Foot Cheetahs weigh significantly less, meaning that he gets to run with a weigh advantage over an average Olympic-class runner, then yes he does get an unfair advantage. Ever notice how physically similar in height and weight runner are at this level? There is a reason for that. Too tall and you carry too much weight. Too short and your legs can't provide enough stride to compete.

    What about muscle fatigue in the lower legs? He doesn't have to suffer that, does he? Doesn't that count as an advantage?

    I don't think the "experts" did a very thorough job of evaluating his advantages and disadvantages over the other runners.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
  7. dalekloefkorn

    The author of this story seems more bent on finding fault with Michael Johnson than really telling the facts. This has nothing to do with race. It is about mechanical aid. I am so tired of people using the race card to justify their opinion. Plus, the "science" that "concludes" that there is no advantage is not proven. How many "medical facts" written several years ago have been reversed. This is totally ridiculous. Let "mechanically alterted" althletes race against each other and let natural un-aided athletes compete against each other. Personally, I don't care to see someone with mechanical aids compete with natural athletes.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
  8. Its easy to see

    Pick up a copy of the track and field world records and you will realize Michael Johnson is correct. Is the fact that he is correct somehow racist? I can't see why.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mike

    Horrible article. Trying to make comparisons between how blacks were/are treated and the topic of assisted devices such as Pistorius's shows just how completely stupid this author is. No not, ignorant, just plain stupid. I agree with Michael Johnson, and not only should devices that are more mechanical in nature not be allowed but there should be tighter regulations on other sports too, including clothing. Just tell swimmers that they can only wear the old standard speedo. The same with these new Nike suits for sprinters. No, only shorts and tank tops are allowed. Pretty simple. There will always be advancement in equipment but let use some common sense.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mike

    Oh yes, the courts stating that no other runner using this device in the last 10 yrs as justification that he they don't serve as an advantage is laughable. I doubt even the scientists studying them really have any solid evidence one way or the other. There are just to many variable and studying the human body in relation to exercise is notoriously difficult. The bottom line is that we should't even be judging if this is giving an advantage or not but that it not the allowed attire for the sport.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:57 am | Report abuse |
  11. OKthen

    Why did the author of this article bring race into this discussion. Kind of a weird comparison that is nonsensical. Also the article is overly biased against Michael Johnson.

    Furthermore saying that the prosthetics don't give runners a possible advantage based on how fast the runners times are is ridiculous. Technology will only continue to improve so what will happen if runners with prosthetics start breaking world records? Will it be against the rules then? What about basketball players using prosthetic stilts?

    July 19, 2012 at 3:21 am | Report abuse |
  12. sparkyguru


    July 19, 2012 at 3:22 am | Report abuse |
  13. Reid Ickulus

    We can all thank Oscar for making the 2012 Olympics 'Special'.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:54 am | Report abuse |
  14. skwirrl

    Um debunked by sociologists who study a fraudulent field and are the human embodiment of political correctness run amok. It has less to do with West Africa and more to do with eugenics performed here in the states.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:08 am | Report abuse |
  15. Judith

    It never fails to amuse me how dumb many of those who write comments here are. The author did not bring race into this, Johnson did.

    Of course we could let every athlete have this false legs as some thick people suggest but would the ahtletes be prepared to have their own legs cut off first.

    Some dopes come up with rubbish like having wheels or engines when obviously they are banned as they would give the athlete and advantage.

    Many scientists have proven that these legs overall are a disadvantage to the athlete.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      NOW runners using blades are at a disadvantage...what about in a few years when the technology improves and they have a massive advantage? The human body can only go so far; technology can always be improved. Allowing artificial limbs that provide power for the sport the athlete is in is a very slippery slope. Also, thinking that athletes striving to win wouldn't sever body parts to be allowed to use performance-enhancing devices is naive. Look at athletic drug use. When you are talking about millions in endorsements and appearances, don't rule anything out. Bottom line...this is opening up a very dangerous door.

      July 19, 2012 at 6:02 am | Report abuse |

      @Judith, please re-read the article. Science haven't "proven" anything. They've "concluded."

      That's a key difference, as it's impossible to measure the dozens of differences, assign 100% accurate weighting factors to each difference, and then definitively "prove" that the net effect is positive or negative.

      For instance, how much advantage does he achieve from the O2 transport of the blood not have to go to the extremes of his legs? Since it's impossible for him to roll an ankle, how s that considered? Acceleration only occurs when in contact with the ground, look at his blades, they're shaped in an arc to optimize contact with the track surface throughout the stride (unlike a runner's shoe which is obvious that the effective pressure points are only at the forefoot and heel). How is that advantage accounted for?

      And the list goes on.

      July 19, 2012 at 6:43 am | Report abuse |
    • mike k.

      Judith, you must be new here, so let me help you out. Commenters:
      1. almost never read the whole article
      2. almost never have anything worthwhile to say
      3. almost never know what they're talking about anyway.

      The comments section should be reserved for brilliant flashes of trollish wit and, of course, plugging your candidate.

      Gordon Gekko 2012!

      July 19, 2012 at 7:04 am | Report abuse |
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