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. Seriously

    Iread all your comments but none of you guys have thought about the "safety issue" of other athletes running alongside him on the track. Athletes falling and on the track and diving at the finish tape is a common sight in 100, 200, 400, and relay races.

    Now imagine a scenario: if Oscar Pistorius falls down or trips on the track and gets in the way of other athletes they may get seriously injured due to his blades!!!!!!! And if that happens it would be totally unfair for able-body runners to have him running alongside with them. I think IOC should look into that as well besides the unfair "super-light-weight-legs", "zero-muscle-stress" and "zero-fatigue" advantages, to name a few, that Oscar Pistorius clearly has.

    IOC must also look into the future of the sports: what if today they allow him, would they also allow others in the future with more advanced prosthetics to aid in various track-and-field events or in other sports. If they do allow him, then there should be no Para-Olympics held as those athletes can participate along with able "natural" athletes.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:35 am | Report abuse |
  2. HIDE BEHIND

    When the carbon fiber bikes and their wheels hit Olympics standards as to weight etc. were set in place, and the same goes for all implements.
    The. aspect of any portion of body being"aided" by artificial means in a contest that is supposed to test the physical limits of humans is wrong.
    Those artificial extensions have been desighned as to right spring tension, twist and torque qualitys. rebound quality and all for a running event.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:43 am | Report abuse |
  3. Goose66

    I don't get this at all. Is Pistorius going to work with the manufacturer to fine tune the apparatus so that he doesn't have an advantage. Maybe they will try to balance the advantage at full speed with the disadvantage of getting out of the blocks. If he doesn't qualify again, or doesn't make it as far as he wants in the meets, then they can go back and tweak. The whole thing is ridiculous. If he wants to run, he should run - but WITHOUT the devices.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. Slim

    Seems this author went on a racist rant. But having brought the discussion, there are obvious differences in the races. Afterall, some are light skinned and some dark, is that not a difference? I enjoy watching mostly Kenyans in the long runs, any hockey coache will tell you, the proloned short bursts required aren't ideal for black athletes. (See many brothers on skates?) and anyone who watches NFL knows the best running backs or black, offensive lineman mostly white, and most quarterbacks white unless someone thinks its all some bizarre worldwide conspiracry. Get over your over sensitivity for Pete's sake. Celebrate your differences. Why insist everyone is the same? Were not.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Rizz

      "prolonged short bursts required aren't ideal for black athletes" What about the 100M, 200M, and 400M. Apparently you know unintelligent hockey coaches. Did you not read the study by the sociologist?

      "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."

      Resources and defacto segregation are why "black people play this and white people play that".

      July 19, 2012 at 6:41 am | Report abuse |
  5. Chris

    He's a lot lighter. I know that much. ZING!

    July 19, 2012 at 5:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. James

    Maybe he could replace them with stilts and compete in basketball.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. Lee

    Does this mean able body people are now allowed to compete in the paraolympics?

    July 19, 2012 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
  8. tafugate

    i completely agree with michael johnson. it's entirely unfair to allow pistorius to compete with prosthetic limbs. stick prosthetic legs on me and i'll set the world record. and i got tired walking out to get the paper this morning.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  9. JW

    When you really look at this with an open mind Michael Johnson has a valid point. This could set a precedent for future rulings. It's just a matter of time until artificial limbs advance to the stage of near "Six Million Dollar Man" type speeds. But let me say I certainly mean no ill will or feelings toward Oscar in any way. I commend him in all of his efforts and I wish only the best in life. And may he go as far as he can go. He is a man full of courage.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:45 am | Report abuse |
  10. oncorhyncha

    I agree with Johnson. I've had a similar discussion with friends about whether someone with asthma and on meds for that illness should be allowed to compete if prescription meds are used (as opposed to performance enhancement drugs). I'm sure there are probably people with asthma who take meds and are still able to compete in the Olympics... But my preference as a spectator is that I want to know that the person who won did so on the basis of talent and natural ability. Meaning, by my standards, people with asthma would most likely be out. I realize that technology influences performance, in some cases, through the equipment used and in some cases through sportswear. But in terms of variables that affect the human body, whether it's meds or prosthetics, regardless of what the science says, I'd prefer that they not enter the picture.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
  11. GWEDWARDS

    So if the blades don't give an advantage, if he takes some time off from training, the blades must lose some of their effectiveness to the point that they'd be no better than wooden stilts.

    However, the blades don't degrade, and therefore he doesn't need to workout that part of his "body." At the elite level, even a small percentage advantage will mean the difference between 1st and last.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:49 am | Report abuse |
  12. kevin

    The other runners should protest by stopping just after the start. They should refuse to run the race. The carbon fibre blades are machines just as much as a bicycle is – human-powered apparatus to facilitate faster movement. It's unfortunate that the man has no legs, but life is sometimes unfair, and not all of us get to compete in the Olympics. If they allow this, it is a farce for publicity's sake.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:50 am | Report abuse |
  13. Keith

    Regardless of advantage or disadvantage in speed/acceleration, etc., Pistorius has a huge advantage when it comes to shin, ankle, foot injuries (e.g. sprains, torn ligaments, bone breaks, etc.) that all other non-blade runners have to deal with. While I applaud his efforts and his obvious athletic ability, there's absolutely no way to compare a runner on blades to a runner without when it comes to overall advantage/disadvantage–the idea that we can, that science can, ignores the very fact that Pistorius is not running on the same legs as other runners. That's obvious to the naked eye and can't be gotten around. I'm all for him competing in whatever races he's allowed to compete in, but let's not pretend we can tell if he's advantaged or not via the blades.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:55 am | Report abuse |
  14. Mark

    Test Michael Johnson for steroids

    July 19, 2012 at 7:09 am | Report abuse |
  15. toldUso

    What next, allowing a rocket powered wheelchair contestant?

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