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. Jeff

    Nobody is stopping Michael Johnson from having his legs amputated to see if that helps him run faster!

    July 19, 2012 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  2. Tochukwu

    Of course he shouldn't be allowed to compete. The fact that he never has to worry about the stress on his feet, gives him an unfair advantage. I could understand some tape and an orthotic on your feet but he's completely replaced his feet which each have about 26 bones that delicately transfer weight. What kind of runner shouldn't have to worry about shin splints, and where do we draw the line ? Not to mention, it seems rather peculiar that a white man is now magically competing for records with black folks. We don't need a scientist to know that someone who doesn't have to worry about the intricacies of the bone structure of certain parts of the human leg has an advantage over a person that does !

    July 19, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      You are suggesting white guys cant run as fast as black? That is false

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

      I agree with almost everything you said, except the White guy competing with Black folk thing. Aside from whether or not you agree with the underlying premise, its just wrong. Jeremy Wariner won 3 gold and a silver in the 400 and 4×4 relay the last two Olympic games. Last I checked, he was quite White.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
  3. guitargeek85

    Poor ting ting

    July 19, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  4. Kris

    Johnson is correct. Until we have an athlete who has been timed able-bodied and then with these devices we will never know that the device isn't making an Olympic athlete out of an average athlete. Saying that Pistorius improved and therefore is a world class athlete is silly; many average athletes improve and it doesn't make them Olympic caliber.

    There just is not enough evidence that these devices don't aid the athlete.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jeff

    The problem with many of these disabilities is that there are so many differences in the disabilities from one person to the next. As soon as they mae some kind of rule governing the use of a certain prosthetic, a different situation will come along that gives birth to controversy. The way I see it, Don't make any rules, if you are missing your legs, and have the stamina and drive to compete at any level especially an olympic level, go for it. To me, it's the same as one able bodied sprinter having faster legs than another. Some folks are just born with the natural ability and tools to be successful. Ask any of the able bodied athletes though, if they see it as an advantage to run on prosthetics, offer them an amputation free of charge and see who takes it. I think that the able bodied athletes (and I'm not saying all of them) are simply afraid of being beaten by a disabled athlete.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  6. chefdugan

    The whole thing is stupid. What's next, running on stilits? Everyone trying to be PC and open their hearts to the handicapped. The guy looks like a freak and evidently has the mind of one. As for Johnson and his comments, he might have a point. Look at the NBA and NFL. I do know if you put most blacks into a position of power, especially with money at stake, corruption follows close behind.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
    • jewel

      He's look like a freak? What have you done with your life armchair warrior? I doubt you've ever achieved anything as impressive. Regardless if the prosthetics have given him an advantage or not, he is still an admirable person for doing something with his life in spite of his disabilities. It's his drive and spirit that serve as an inspiration to the rest of us to do more.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. ZepLedHead


    A trollish remak bud.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Yulaw

    poor lil tink tink – Katt Williams

    July 19, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  9. shagpal

    what hitler is saying is that jews are descendant from rats and therefore wothless as pests and rodents

    July 19, 2012 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  10. SomeGuy

    The guy should be in the Special Olympics.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:05 am | Report abuse |
  11. DisabilityAdvocate

    Let's get the terminology straight, people. Pistorius is an able person (he's proven his ability) using aassitive technology that alters his body.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  12. carly4freedom

    I think it is amazing that in spite of this mans obvious deformity he has achieved so much. The bias I am hearing on this site is appalling. Many people would have been content to learn to even walk normal with prosthetic' s much less attempt to compete in an Olympic event. This man is a wonderful example of what going for your dream is no matter what your obstacles are, regardless of how impossible it seems. I bet when he told people he would be in the Olympics someday while growing up people laughed at him, well, there not laughing anymore. He is a shining example of what the Olympics are truly about, working your very hardest and training your whole life to compete for your country, let the best man win!

    July 19, 2012 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
  13. Gavin Prout

    Without trying to be a racist, I understand his African and Carribean runners theory. Its the same principle that applies, and can be seen when breeding animals for anything. For years these slaves were raised and "bred" in a capacity that encouraged reproduction of the naturally strongest, fastest, and fittest slaves because they were the ones who were most desirable to slave owners. Frailer or genetically "weaker" slaves would either die off or not be encouraged to breed, thus making the available gene pool stronger and more athletic. I easily could see how these biological characteristics could still be prevalent in those two areas.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  14. Mymaria

    Yep, those people born with disabilities get all the breaks. (And yes, that's sarcasm.)

    July 19, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      I suppose it's a wash, really. They get the best parking spaces, public sympathy, preferential treatment in many social and professional settings, if you portray one as an actor in a movie you generally win the oscar,retain your public office in AZ, bigger toilet stalls, etc. Yes it sucks to be in wheel chairs, crutches, etc. but they get compensated in other ways. It all evens out.

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

      Didn't Michael Johnson learn from his past. Claiming that the fastest man in the world runs the 200m. Got caught with his foot in his mouth when Donovan Bailey crushed him in the 150m showdown. Pulls up short pretending to be injured. Should learn to accept that others can and will be better than him.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
    • watergirl

      Obviously Mark is not disabled if he thinks that a parking spot and toilet seat makes the life of a disabled person, much easier than everyone else.

      Mark, do me a favor and sit in a wheelchair for a day, never get out of it, go around town and tell me what your findings are.

      What an ass.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  15. mcgauth925

    Well, it occurs to me – this is probably in numous comments above – that Michael Johnson could get his legs amputated and then have some of those springy prosthetics attached. Then, he'd have the same advantage.

    It's a little like the slave thing, really. if you've been bred to be a superior athlete – yeah, I know that wasn't the purpose of slave traders and owners – then you have an unfair advantage over those who weren't. You shouldn't be allowed to compete with those who didn't have the benefit of eugenic breeding. So, there should be Olympics for those who aren't able bodied, for those who are the descendents of a breeding program, and for the rest of us. Maybe we could have one for short people, too. One for left-handed, red-haired people...

    There, Michael: satisfied?

    BTW, I recall hearing that Calvin Hill had said much the same thing about breeding, that he was bred to be an athlete. I think it's likely to be true. As Jimmy the Greek found out, though, white people aren't allowed to say that. Truth be damned. The truth also includes the fact that I wouldn't trade being white for being able to say that blacks went through horrible, inhuman experiences so that those who survived could be stronger and more powerful.

    I suspect Michael is correct about those prosthetics providing an advantage. That would mean we can expect events in the future where only those with prosthetics qualify for the Olympics. Can you imagine those springy things on a basketball court? I've seen people use a trampoline – you know, with all that springiness – do amazing, gymnastic-like dunks. There'd be people taking off from half court, doing all kinds of flips and spins, to dunk.

    Overall, I think Johnson is saying things that a lot of people think. So, we get to make him the scape goat. Thanks, Michael.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      I have nothing for respect for Oscar Pistorius, but Michael Johnson is 100% correct, there is probably a spring element, second is the weight factor and how much energy is required for the hips and thighs to move those versus a full leg. I'm really not trying to be rude, but there is no way you can tell if Oscar Pistorius would be as successful without prosthetics. I'm sorry that this sounds horrible and demeaning, it is, but it's also the truth.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
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