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. Steve

    If it is such an advantage, maybe the other Olympic runners should cut their legs off and get these performance enhancing fake legs. What a bunch of morons.

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

    I respect the man but I'm gonna get real here. If he has prosthetic blades then how hard is it for the manufacturers to come up with a new formula for the carbon composites that adds resiliency and rebound and makes him run faster? How is this any different from an able bodied runner using a new drug to enhance performance? It takes no effort on the part of the runner in either case. They just receive a new product and are instantly better. And there's no way for the Olympic body to ascertain if the blades are the same ones he's been using for years or some new fangled blades that give him more boost.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. Oliver

    Poor lil tink tink... you mean the mofo with no legs?!? – Katt Williams

    July 19, 2012 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  4. Shaneeda Quit

    Let Johnson say what he wants, he's not the ultimate authority on the matter. Heck, he's not even competing in the Olympics. If the IAAF says he can compete, then let him compete.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
  5. David

    This would be fair if his prosthetics were engineered the same as a natural leg, with a natural stiff shin, a rotating ankle, and natural weight. Add in some rubber banding to mimic a calf muscle just to help out. But what he has there is not engineered to mimic natural human movement. For anyone who thinks any advantage will not be taken for fame and fortune look at what steroids do to the body... look at risks of breast implants... look at the disaster cycling has become. How many athletes have suffered years of concussions and shorter life spans for fame and fortune? Finally this report seemed less about informing us of the facts than to push an agenda.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  6. LOGANSPEAKS

    Posts are saying that he has an advantage because his legs won't cramp up, but doesn't he have pain where the stump pounds down into the prosthetic device that would rub and cause him pain? Like an earlier poster said, imagine if all the runners had the same amputations, at least he is not whining and complaining like his so called friend. It's called good sportsmanship.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  7. So many Experts

    So many experts on the forums today.... Look at all the engineers crawling out of the woodwork.
    Too funny and people think Fox News is full of morons......

    July 19, 2012 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  8. kroo

    If it's allowed, it sets a precedent. That precedent could easily trigger an "arms race" where corporations/countries pump funds into orthotics which do give advantages. Before too long the olympic committee would be inundated with requests for exceptions, and would find themselves spending unwanted time and effort giving justifications against the requests, or find themselves in lawsuits about bias.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  9. lasermetrologist

    Is it just me, or do the prosthetics look disproportionately long in relation to the rest of his body? Maybe it's just an optical illusion, but if his stride length is enhanced by these artificial appendages, I'd say he's cheating; even if you exclude the possibility of the spring effect his prosthetics may have.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  10. Brandon

    It's obvious that there's an advantage. Prosthetics don't get tired. They don't fatigue. He can't get a cramp in his foot. If I drop a boulder on the prosthetic, he won't feel pain. The prosthetics probably weigh less than a regular human leg, and on and on... My goodness. Some people are too short to play professional basketball or too small to play pro football. For this man to compete against people with normal body parts is not fair. If he competed against other olympians with similar prosthetics, that would be different. Consider why women and men typically don't compete against each other. The obvious reason is that the most athletic men are usually athletically superior to the most athletic women in a given event. The same argument follows here that the best prosthetics are usually superior to the best regular body parts at least in events where durability, speed, and endurance are the major factors, giving them an advantage.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  11. tjp44

    odd, isn't that the same type of comment that got Al campanis and Howard Cossel sacked from their media roles and jobs.....double standard ABC

    July 19, 2012 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  12. LEELEE DC

    I have to agree...he should not compete. Would those legs not give him an extra push forward as he runs, compared to an all natural runner that has to push more weight forward???? Johnson I have much respect for you...only friends tell you the honest truth to your face, and not make comments behind your back.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  13. Andrew

    I think the problem here is while he may not have certain disadvantages of people with natural legs he does however have his own unique problems he needs to deal with.

    How can we though rate between the 2 different situations and warrant "fair"?

    A athlete with natural legs has all basic issues to deal with when it comes to his/her legs. Things can go wrong and even the training itself is tough and hard.
    This is where someone like Oscar has a clear advantage. He can have his limbs modified and improved to give him a edge if he wants to. However he does have to overcome the difficulties of having to strengthen other parts of his body to compensate for this disability which poses unique challenges that people with legs don't need to deal with.

    The question stands though. Are these 2 different challenges equal in difficulty to over come?

    July 19, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  14. STEVE

    All parts being equal I think he should run against other people with blades for the olympics. If someone wants to see him do a comparison race against someone with regular legs he should get paid for it.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  15. Anonymous

    Oscar is a great story. He is definitely an inspiration. But I have to agree with Johnson on this. There is no way to prove there would be an even playing field. The same could be said for an able bodied person attempting to compete in the para-olympics. It simply would not be an even playing field. After saying that, I still would like to see him run in the Olympics. Maybe they could allow it, but not count his time in the standings. At least that would give him and everyone the chance to see what he can do.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • playboy billionaire

      Another example of Obama complaining about including everyone. Its time for a change america. ***Romney 2012*** Obama is a socialist pig.

      July 19, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill Kangas

      Back under your bridge, troll. "Playboy billionaire"? Really? Doubtful.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • J

      But how is there EVER a fully even playing field?

      Usain Bolt has different muscle/tendon groupings than I do. Thus it's not fair for him to compete. I'm sure the High Jump contestants are taller than I am, thus it's not an even playing field if they compete.

      Just because they were born different, we don't exclude people. Don't exclude Tink Tink for being born different.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • RZ70

      Still not a fair comparison. OP has a cardiovascular system evolved to work 4 full size limbs. Additionally, his surviving joints, ligaments, and tendons take less wear and tear than others due to having to support and move less weight during training (and running). In a lot of ways, it's like he's running in an environment with lower gravity and richer oxygen content than anyone else. Do the blades give him an advantage? Hmmm... hard saying, but fairly doubtful. Does the lack of weight (assuming the blades wiegh less than his legs would have) and complicated biological design of not having full legs below the knee give him an advantage? Probably. Does the equation balance out? Who knows. I would say he is probably still a world class athlete. the question that will always be a question, is would he have been one if he had grown up with 'normally developed' lower legs?

      July 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • BillyBrasky

      You know what... I completely agree with that. If he wins we will all see and he will know he won. I doubt someone that has that kind of drive care about the actual medal.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • BillyBrasky

      @ Anonamus (Who I agree with)

      July 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • helicohunter

      No way to prove it? You don't know much about science. There are most definitely ways of determining the amount of energy he has to expend per stride, the amount of spring provided by the prostheses, etc. If scientists say he doesn't have an advantage, then he should be allowed to compete.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • KimI

      I feel it is wrong to allow Oscar to compete with other able bodied athletes. If an able bodied athlete sprains an ankle or aggravates an old toe injury during the race, he cannot continue. If an able bodied athlete surfers an in grown toe nail or a broken toe he cannot train in order to compete. I think you get my point. Mr. Oscar has no feet or ankles and his blades provide an advantage in this scenario. Unlike everyone he competes against in London he has few physical variables to worry about. IT IS NOT FAIR. I will not watch any of his races and I will not support any product or company that sponsors that event.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
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