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. spence

    Johnson slammed for speaking the truth. Norm for the times we live in.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:12 am | Report abuse |
    • leave it alone

      he is afraid of losing to a cripple, I mean loosing his record. shaved 1.18 seconds off from best 45 sec so he runs it in 43.82

      July 19, 2012 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. Larry L

    This is not about race. Would we allow a person with two iron fists to box? How about prosthetics that consequently make a person 9 feet tall? Basketball? A standard must be met or the records are about technology rather than human endeavor.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Chocolog

      Is this a news piece or slop ed? Who the f cares if these guys are "buds" or what johnson thinks about race. Not relevant.

      July 19, 2012 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  3. Chad

    Let him compete. Everybody cheats anyways, including Johnson who doped up during his time.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
  4. Melissa Jones

    I agree with Johnson. How can springs for legs NOT be a help?

    July 19, 2012 at 7:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy

      Oh I don't know, HE HAD THIS LEGS CUT OFF BEFORE HE TURNED ONE! He's doesnt even know what it feels like to have legs, the article clearly stated as a whole he had a disadvantage in take off from the line and build up speed. The scientists that designed his "legs", also stated he was at a disadvantage. Come on people, get off your high horse!

      July 19, 2012 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  5. bilbo

    Most of the power of running comes from the knee up....so removing the weight from the knee down and adding springs is a complete advantage. The man is simply engineered to propel himself forward as fast as possible. Why not enter a cheetah in the 400m? It's apples and oranges. Horrible precedent because it won't be long before someone engineers a similar prothesis and someone obliterates the WR by 5 secs making a mockery of the whole thing and proving how ridiculous the ruling is.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:30 am | Report abuse |
  6. tim

    The only condescending thing is this article. What Johnson is saying isn't nice, but it's the truth.

    You seem to have trouble from separating reality from "the poor disabled guy, let him run he has no legs."

    July 19, 2012 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. MalcolmXcrement

    Boing, boing, boing, boing, boing. I win!!!

    Hey, what do you mean it isn't fair??? I'm just like every other runner....

    July 19, 2012 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
  8. mlg4035

    What about the Paralympic Games? They are specifically designed for people with "disabilities", right?

    A quote from their site:
    "The Paralympic Movement offers sport opportunities for athletes that have a primary impairment that belongs to one of the following 10 ‘eligible’ impairment types: ...
    Limb deficiency – There is a total or partial absence of the bones or joints as a consequence of trauma (e.g. traumatic amputation), illness (e.g. bone cancer) or congenital limb deficiency (e.g. dysmelia)"

    He should either compete there, or they should do away with the Paralympics altogether and just let everyone compete, "disability" or not. I put the word "disability" in quotes, because compared to Pistorius, I'M the one who's got the disability: I'm slow!

    July 19, 2012 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
  9. Woodrow

    Michael Johnson: Your comments come up lame, kinda like when you raced Donovan Bailey...You came up lame there too!!! Only this time I don't think you are faking your comments.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  10. Truthbetold

    Its a great story that people like Pistorius continue to compete at such high levels but you can't allow someone to use adaptive equipment...its no longer the same event.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  11. forrest

    3 advantages,
    1. Carbon composite extensions are lighter than equivalent leg mass, he has less load to propel down the track.
    2. They are also longer, meaning he is extended for each stroke, giving an even better distance advantage
    3. politics, no one wants to say no and want to be singled out for stopping him (whole equal rights thing)

    July 19, 2012 at 8:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Thinker

      1. Difficult to balance on.
      2. Slow to accelerate.

      Since accel off the blocks is fairly critical to a good sprinter #2 is a problem. It should be noted that he is the first of many amutee athletes who was even able to qualify for the olympics. If the legs give a runner a significant advantage that would not be the case. In fact, you would see consistantly better times for amputee sprinters than able-bodied sprinters, and such is not the case.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  12. larry5

    Why don't they put those springs on a quarter miler that is already capable of a gold medal time just to see what happens?

    July 19, 2012 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
  13. citizenUSA

    Very simple actually. If Pistorius, (I love the name. Sounds like an old Roman name for a person who urinates magnificently), didn't have the prosthetics, he couldn't run. Therefore, they aid him in running so it's against the rules. I applaude the man. He can outrun me, no sweat. Too many emotions running on this. What makes sense to me is to create events for those who meet the same criteria. We just have to come up with a name that doesn't offend anyone. Handicapped race? Handi-abled? Physically challenged? I think the ones who would qualify need to come up with a term we can all live with. I believe that any person wants to measure up with their peers but the fact is there are going to be some conflicts and considerations have to be, considered.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. NFLD thought

    Johnson is off the juice and now his brain has to function on its own

    July 19, 2012 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
    • mbane

      Why is he off the juice? He spoke the truth. The Paralympics exist for a reason. Maybe they shoiuld also start allowing pro athletes into the paralympics to compete against those with disabilities. This guy does not have legs and aas such he shouldn't be allowed to compete against atlhetes with legs. He obviouly won't be feeling fatigue, ankle problems, calf strains or any of the issues normal atlhetes have to deal with.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  15. Stephen

    Of course he's right. We are at the very early stages of bionic device development. The technology is bound to improve to the point where mechanical assists will be the deciding factor, just like chemical assists are now. Why mess up the able-bodied Olympics forever for a publicity stunt now? I envision a day when a new category of Olympics or at least contestants evolve and they won't compete directly for wins and records against able-bodied athletes.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
    • bex

      Poor little tink tink

      July 19, 2012 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael J

      Stephen is exactly right. And I think Michael Johnson gets that. It is astonishing that we want to make examples of the PED types but we are moving in this direction with possible long range implications with athletes getting such PEP, performance enhancing products.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
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