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. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son.

    Let him compete in the SPECIAL Olympics.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Hugo

      As you command Sire. Oh wait. You aren't the king.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Tor

      The SPECIAL olympics are for people with learning difficulties, the PARALYMPICS are for athletes who go to win medals not for a hug and a cheese sandwich after! I dont want to take anything away from the special olympics because they are very good at what they do.... but.... they are not on the same level as Paralympians. the para in Paralympics means PARALLE as in runs along side the Olympics! and Yes Oscar will compete in the Paralympics and the Olympics being the 1st ever athlete to compete in both.
      If he wasnt good enough then i am sure the South African Olympic Committee would have said dont call us we will call you.

      Do not start with they are not as good as able bodied athletes because they are. The work just as hard and put in just as much effort into their sport, the majority of the time with very little funding.

      I am pleased that Oscar is pushing the boundaries of the Olympics and Paralympics. He is a great advert for sport in all sense of the word!

      July 19, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Dana

      I believe in equal rights and fair opportunities for everyone; however, until the research has been finalized as to whether carbon fiber prosthetics gives an athlete an advantage, Oscar should not participate in the London games. This is tough call. Given time is of essence and the opportunity to qualify may only come once in a life time, I believe all decisions should be made with comprehensive and conclusive research.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jesse owens

    No. He's not the same. He's not from the jungle and he has a prosthesis. In my opinion he does deserve copious amounts of attention for his accomplishments after being dealt a insurmountable disability but he should withdrawal if he wins. For now, the attention to the sport helps, much more and it'll be a distraction. Quit and go on USA's "60 minutes" TV show, Oscar. You've earned it already!!!!! No need for a Gold and a bunch of haters

    July 19, 2012 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. Dan G.

    It's obvious he does have an advantage if he doesn't have to worry about any misplaced foot step or foot or ankle injury the other runners may make or have.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  4. spud4834

    "statements about the descendants of slaves being athletically superior" ... I remember a white sports announcer making a similar statement in the U.S. and he got fired.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  5. Adam

    You know what the irony about the statement of the "descendants of slaves being athletically superior" is? New studies are now implicating those descendants genetically less smart than the white devil race. Why else isn't there a black super power?

    This story is great.

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

      Pathetic

      July 19, 2012 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  6. MedinaDad

    What an ameteurish piece of journalism. The disdain for Johnson drips in every sentence he writes. C'mon comparing this to the 'being bred' statement is ridiculas. Johnson has an opinion, a reasonable one at that and this guy tries to cut him up for it. All Johnson said was that he wanted more studies done to ensure no advantage.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
  7. Truth

    Whats next? Shot-putters with a cannon attachment in place of their arms? Maybe high-jumpers fancy those new spring legs instead of the blades? Maybe swimmers will just start amputating their feet in favor of propellers? Archers with laser vision?

    Yeah, when the olympics were created in Ancient Greece, this is exactly what they had in mind. I dont really care if this offends anyone. The creators of the Olympic games wanted to show case the most talented, athletic, "perfect" human beings. If they were aware that we created seperate games for the hani-capped and mentally ill, they would be HORRIFIED. It defeats the fundamental principle....

    July 19, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
    • jean Poole

      Separate!

      July 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sean

    He should not be allowed to compete, as this becomes precedent setting. People always fail to look into the future to see how decisions made today affect tomorrow, till it's too late. So, now there will be a special board created to monitor and make sure that assisted athletes do not scientifically enhance their artificial appendage to gain an advantage. Is his devise going to be gaged to ensure it only flexes so much, or have so much spring according to his weight and other attributes. maybe all these factors have already been accounted for and just needs to be publicized?

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

    Excellent story

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

    Sorry but I have to agree with Johnson on this one. We have a paralympics that allows all those with disabilities to compete against those with similar disabilities.
    I think the majority of us would like to watch those individuals compete against others who use all the same equipment, whether that be legs, or whatever.
    If Pistorious is truly the best runner on blades then he can prove it against other runners with blades in the Paralympics. In my opinion those events are actually more fun to watch because they show the true spirit and determination of individuals to overcome huge obstacles in life and succeed at the highest level.
    While I support Pistorious' dream to run I personally think it should be in a different venue.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  11. Aculeius 13

    When star athletes start having their legs amputated in order to run faster, then we'll know there's an advantage. Somehow, I don't think that's going to happen. Until and unless world-class athletes with disabilities like Oscar Pistorius become so commonplace that non-disabled athletes face a significant disadvantage, I don't think there's any point in getting worked up about it. Pistorius is still running under his own power, and it shouldn't matter what form his prosthetic legs come in, as long as it's not clearly demonstrable that the prosthetics make him faster and better suited to racing than he would ever have been with his own legs. So far, it's not, and he's the only athlete who's shown that he's capable of performing at this level in his condition. Over time, there may be others, but as long as they're the exception and not the rule, ordinarily-abled athletes will still dominate their sports, gloat when they win, and gripe about the unfairness of it all when they lose (even when the winners have exactly the same physical characteristics).

    July 19, 2012 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bob

    What happens when the technology for the prosthetic gets more advanced?

    July 19, 2012 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
  13. whodis

    How could shedding the weight of your lower legs and being immune to lower leg injuries not be an advantage? Johnson is spot on.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • CTed

      And never having to exercise... don't forget that. His lower legs give the same spring as an normal athletes lower legs... one who is in PEAK condition. His lower legs will always be in peak condition with no effort on his part. Definite advantage. If an athlete has a genetic abnormality where his legs are weak, can he then use steroids to compensate?

      July 19, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  14. joethejuggler

    Johnson is 100% right.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  15. Hugo

    "... 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...

    And one of the rules is the Court of Arbitration for Sport is the official rule arbitrator.

    Johnson saying that the rules are violated is like saying that a ruling by the US Supreme Court isn't law. It is law. When the CAS issues a ruling on a rule, that ruling is a rule.

    I don't understand why Johnson doesn't seem to understand that. It's not rocket science. It's basic civics. (Grade school stuff.)

    July 19, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Imjustsaying

      Right but if years down the road all of the runners (disability or otherwise) are running on similar equipment, the sport has officially changed from it's intentions (arguably for the worse). Johnson is implying that such a change is bad for the sport. It's like those clap skates from the winter olympics. If you didn't have them, you lost. His point is about keeping the sport legit and not about the courts decision.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
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