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. Scott

    This kid should get a gold medal just for being the great person he is and for shattering beyond belief, the idea that a handicapped person can not compete at an olympic level or any level for that matter. I hope he runs like the wind and ends up getting a medal.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
  2. JCS

    Is it possible to create similar prosthetics for an 'abled' runner; attach below the knee, and wrap under the foot? It would be interesting to time the individual both with and without them. It would be a quick and easy test to determine advantage or not.

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

      You can already buy them. Check out youtube and watch guys cutting flips on them, jumping super high, and running like the wind.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |

    So the blades supposedly give him a net disadvantage. By that reasoning, if Kobe Bryant were to strap on ankle weights (an artificial addition that absolutely gives him a net disadvantage vs. without), he should be allowed to compete in the Paralympics.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. Upset Voter

    OMG ..... How can people call a handicap an unfair advantage. Does Mr. Johnson think he would improve his time if he cut his feet off and used these prosthetic s?

    July 19, 2012 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
    • forreall

      yes he does think he would be faster.. It is unfair... Even nascar goes to great lengths to make sure that all the equipment in the race falls withing the same mechanical spectrum. You cannot honestly do that in this case. I feel for the guy, but fair is fair... Every one has to usethe same equipment or it is not fair...

      July 19, 2012 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |

    "Thus, Pistorius was at a net disadvantage, according to the ruling."

    So if the Court can absolutely determine if he has a net disadvantage or advantage, they could just as accurately determine who will win the race, who will be 2nd, etc.

    Why bother running the race at all, if they've come up with a method to magically determine the overall effect of hundreds of immeasurable characteristics of an athlete? Just plug in the numbers and get the results.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. Thinker

    Since there seems to be quite a few people that think his legs give him an unfair advantage, let me ask you a question: If the blades give an athlete an advantage, why do ablebodied runners make better times than amputees with blades? If the blades conferred a significant advantage in a sprint you would see better times than ablebodied persons (of similar commitment obviously; this guy, like any olympic qualifyer, would have no problem beating most people).

    July 19, 2012 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |

      Thinker, you need to be doing more.

      1. The percentage of amputees vs. not is miniscule. So the odds that a world class athlete would be in that group is miniscule.
      2. The court determined that the advantage of the blades during steady state running is less than the disadvantage during the start and acceleration. That should be self-evident that from, say 30m to the finish, he has an advantage because of the blades.
      3. Based on #2, would they also allow him to run in races that do not use blocks, but having a standing start?

      July 19, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
  7. JCS

    It's an interesting debate; equipment v. natural ability. Much like the debate that led to the banning of the body swim suits (Razor suits) from Beijing. In my opinion, if all athletes have access to the same equipment, discounting any equipment based advantage, let them use it.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael J

      Exactly. But we need to do the same with PEDs. Its the same rationale. Ultimately fit and trained athletes go to the next level with these enhancements.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  8. dmc64

    A perfect example of a specious, PC opinion.......this article is an excellent example of all that's wrong with media and it's social monologue in today's America.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
  9. tacostand

    I wonder what a gold shoe tastes like?

    July 19, 2012 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jess

    So, he and other decendents or West Africa shouldn't be allow to compete and should return any medals given because they have a special gene. Kind of like those metal legs huh?

    July 19, 2012 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Dewayne

      Are genes natural? Are synthetic blades natural? You're making a weak argument about something that is natural v. something that is man-made.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
  11. Haakonas

    They are making fun of Tink Tink again? Gees a man loses both legs and they say he has an unfair advantage My god what is wrong with people.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Dewayne

      People arguing that it's insensitive to oppose his running because he has a disability are completely missing the point. Carbonfiber blades are no more "natural" than performance enhancing drugs. Why not let everyone use performance enhancing drugs? Because we want the best "natural" atheletes.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
  12. truth2285

    Such a poorly written article. The author strays away from the main point to "go in" on Michael Johnson. Sounds personal. I agree with Johnson, unfair advantage. We can try to replicate parts of the human body but they're mechanical. He shouldn't be allowed to complete.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. nutz

    All myths are meant to be disproved – heck we let a C student become president.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
  14. Yes1fan

    I say if passive-device prosthetics give them the Olympic qualifying times to be eligible, let them compete, but double the medals and podium stands if necessary. Give those with prosthetics separate 1,2,3 medals than able-bodied, but let them share the podium.
    The Paralympics can still continue for those who, despite prosthetics, remain unable to achieve able-bodied times.
    This change would be a win-win, because it would advance the cause of designing optimized prosthetics, give prosthetics exposure and backing, and give the handicapped more heros. Where is the downside?

    July 19, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      The downside is that if one of these disabled athletes lay a whooping on an able bodied athlete, he or she does not get recognized as such. It's like a big stinking asterisk!**

      July 19, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      These are prosthetics that have no function other than running. The longer the run the more unfair they become and easier it is to show. The only reason why they can try to argue the case is the short distance because of the start. Military members are far more showing of the advancement of prosthetics as they are used for a variety of activites including running. Yet you don't see Pistorius wearing them because they give no edge.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Juan M

      They should then set up the Olympics for average people and let them get medals. Just because you are not a superior athlete doesn't mean you should be kept out of the winning either! They should also have medals for for 4 through 20 :). Your idea defeats the purpose of medal system and is disrespectful to the athletes of the Para-Olympics. According to the findings by the Swiss sports board he shouldn't be able to win any medals. The only way he has competed with able bodied athlete times is by readjusting his prosthetics, which is totally ignored in this article.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Yes1fan

      Jeff, please READ what I said – non-handicapped and those using prosthetics would get SEPARATE 1,2,3 medals.
      Humans not using prosthetics would get the same recognition as those using them. They'd just compete in the same event, and share the same podium.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. Mike

    Way to present both sides there.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
    • cassandra

      Agreed. Johnson makes a valid point but the ignorant writer is too concerned with being politically correct. Boo-hoo.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Imjustsaying

      No kidding the last statement "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." really sums up the article. We aren't taking a side but.........we are actually. I think Johnson is 100% correct.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
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