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, Ă–ssur.

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 fĂĽhrer'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. David

    Oscar could physically make it once around the track without any prothetics. Not sure how long this would take but I'm certain it would be more than 45 seconds (45 minutes??). Oscar could certainly make it once around the track using 'standard' every day prosthetics. Again, not sure how long it would take for him to make it around the track, but it would likely be more than 45 seconds. You change the technology once again, and his times improve to world-class speed. His performance is COMPLETELY dependent upon having technology or improving technology. He has won gold in the paralympics SEVERAL times and that is the stage his talents are meant for. He can run against other disabled athletes with similar technology. He does not belong in the Olympics. +PERIOD+

    July 19, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Remmett70

      MIT has tested runners with one full leg and one of these prosthetic. And the prosthesis has a 9% decline in performance.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • SnakepitDave

      I wonder how many Olympic athletes have had their tendons, rotator cuffs repaired. If so then they've been surgically altered and so by your statement they should not be able to compete in the "normal" Olympics as well.

      July 20, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. fiascojazz

    Eliot opines that Johnson is factually incorrect and that science has settled the matter. However, there is not a single citation or reference or even summary of an experiment to back up this claim. He also paints Johnson as a bad friend, when Johnson's quotes are quite clear and have, as he says, nothing to do with his friend or anyone else. Then to bring up an ignorant statement as racism? That's irrelevant to the topic, unless the topic is "Johnson is a bad man".

    Even the "evidence" cited is anecdotal and poorly thought out. Pistorius is the first person to qualify using blades? That doesn't mean they offer a disadvantage. It could just as likely mean that there is a smaller sample size of disabled runners (and there is).

    Interesting issue, poorly thought out article.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. John D

    Let me get this straight .... athletes with two good feet are saying a man with no feet has an unfair advantage??? What world am I living in?

    July 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnny

      Do you really need to have this explained to you?

      July 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Danielson

      Depends how the prosthetic is made. Design and test and certify such that no runner has an advantage over one with two real legs, and there is no problem. That testing is done with this current technology, so let him run.

      July 19, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      How could this ever be fair? He has pogo sticks for legs no calve muscles to fatigue or feet to cramp thoes "blades " look like they spring i dont know about you but my legs dont bounce me forward

      July 19, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. David

    Another idea to put things on a level playing field. Oscar establishes a baseline without prosthetics by making one lap of the track. Take his fastest time using mechanical and all technological improvements he wishes to use and that is the net percentage of gain through human technical advances. He competes without prosthetics of any kind against other athletes. Their performances are scaled DOWN by this factor. ORRRRR, he can just compete in the Paralympics like he has in the past. Since the Olympics are meant for able-bodied athletes, he is afforded mechanical and man-made improvements for which able-bodied athletes cannot depend on. His baseline is his body and nothing else, just like the other athletes in the Olympics. Everything else he uses to mechanically enhance his forward motion around a track is an advantage. The amount of performance enhancement he is afforded by mechanical means is the percentage increase from NO prosthetics to wearing his blades. What is that – maybe 400%? I thought performance enhancing drugs were bad. Paralympics.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Guest

    1. No technical enhancements, additions, etc. should be allowed. Otherwise, everytime a new one is developed we will have this same argument. K.I.S.S. please.

    2. Johnson's may not have been personally armed with scientific proof to back up his other assertion about racial superiority, but that doesn't mean what he said is necessarily false. There are plenty of sports where (a) blacks and whites both currently participate in great numbers and (b) whites used to, but no longer, dominate those sports (eg sprinting). Characterizing something as racist and dismissing it outright do not disprove an assertion.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Patrick

    This article is so biased, it's pathetic. Why is the author so dismissive of Johnson's comment, which is in line with the 2007 findings of the IAAF? Johnson has a point, a good one, that prosthetics can give the runner undue advantage. Why bother risking giving one of the athletes an advantage? He can run in the paralympics, which are intended to be an Olympics for disabled people. No reason to allow him into the actual Olympics and I'm pretty sure Michael Johnson is NOT the only person who thinks that way. It is the author of this article who is truly ignorant, and this article reeks of condescension towards Johnson that is really nauseating.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  7. PublicNightmare

    Obviously, Michael Johnson is feeling threatened and is afraid this guy might beat him. Thereby being the better athlete....and he doesn't even have legs. It would make Michael Johnson a laughingstock....or so he thinks. That is what this is about.

    Michael lost, move on. Quit fighting to get a man who clearly is a better athlete (and better sportsmanship) removed from the game. Just deal with it if you can't win. Sheesh!

    July 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Nathan Kavanaugh

    Funny how the writer of this post keeps claiming that "science" has authoritatively settled this issue, yet says nothing about how it has done so. It's easy to play the arbiter of truth when you invent standards to live by in your own head, right, Elliot? I don't know what the truth is here either way, but it does seem to me that if there's any potential for an unfair advantage, we should lean towards being cautious. While we can all clearly have the utmost respect for this athlete's daily challenges and successes, and his courage in general, that doesn't give him an automatic qualification to participate in the Olympics.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. David

    Oscar is afforded the benefit of mechanical devices for which other athletes on the same stage are not allowed to do. The contest is how fast you can get around one lap of the track under your own human power and no mechanical assistance. The amount of mechanical assistance Oscar is receiving can be determined by the percentage difference in times between how fast he runs WITH and WITHOUT his prosthetics. If he can increase his performance that much through mechanics, so should the other athletes he competes against in the Olympics, by the same percentage. Or he can compete without prosthetics in the Olympics. However the Paralympics allow him to use prosthetics with other athletes who can do the same.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve Lyons

      You sound a lot like one of those "separate but equal" types.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. James

    Who cares what Michael Johnson says, he was a drug cheat like Armstrong, like most American hero's of the 80's and 90's

    July 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • SnakepitDave

      When was Armstrong disciplined for cheating?

      July 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. rboy

    My last comment seems to have been deleted so I will restate it. I say let him run there is no advantage or those runners who think it is would cut their legs and feet off. It is good to see a disabled person in the big show and not just in the para freak Olympic show.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Steve Lyons

    If he really thinks it is an advantage by all means let him have his own legs amputated so he can defend his "record". He sounds as arrogant as Obama. What's next he didn't run the race on his own?

    July 19, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Andy in Oz

    Wow with friends like this Pistorius sure as hell won't need any enemies now.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  14. BrianO

    Um, don't pretty much all athletes alter their bodies in unnatural ways to increase their athletic performance? If a guy who adds prosthetic legs is bashed, why do we allow swimmers to shave?

    July 20, 2012 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
  15. weber

    He shouldn't compete. Period.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
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