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. Matt

    Let's not make too much of this, as the old saying goes it's not personal it's business. He is just stating his opinion which happens to be correct, there is artificial material at play here. This is not a personal attack it's just the facts, I feel for him and congratulate him on all he has accomplished and will in the future. Unfortunately he has parts of his body that are not part of every other athlete out there and there has to be a distinction.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      So this guy has no danger of cramping up in his calves or of twisting an ankle during the race. Tha tgives him at least one huge advantage.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kyle

    Well I can sympathize with Pistorius, But unfortunately I have to agree with Johnson on this one. If he was competing against other people with lightweight bionic trampolines below the knees then it would be fair.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Charlesbakerharris

      Yes, and if other runners were competing against people like Pistorius while equipped with massive calf muscles, feet, and other mechanical advantages, they should be disqualified for that obvious unfairness.

      I'm hoping this will let you see the inanity of your argument, but I'm guessing it won't.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. waterman

    Michael Johnson is backward and regressive. They guy doesn't have an advantage, let him run!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. IowaNorseman

    So why have the special Olympics. Sounds like they want to be treated the same than do it and remove the special Olympics. People cannot have it both ways.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. uysfl

    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?" ------- I dont see anything in this that could be considered condescending. This writer has no clue what he is talking about or how to write it.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jack

    Pity is the ultimate condescension.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Camdens_Log1982

    Why not just let 'em all use Performance Enhancement Drugs for crying' out loud?

    July 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dsmithwi

    Or, a sub 50 400 meters. The more I think about this the more ridiculous it is.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Prometheus

    An argument can be made that the natural mechanics of the human foot adds the action of a 'spring' during the running motion and that the use of shoes magnify or enhance this property.

    Also...why do sprinters use a mechanical advantage called 'running blocks'? Who would be the fastest runner if they weren't allowed? Would Michael Johnson be the fastest 400M runner if they weren't?

    Just sayin'

    July 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • bilbo

      Before blocks they dug little holes in the cinder track...just sayin. Yes you can't compare times decades apart...but everyone in every race plays by the same rules...usually.

      July 19, 2012 at 7:44 am | Report abuse |
  10. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Michael who? This guy is so pathetic, he should be outcasted from society and lynched Jim Crow style. This guy, yes Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson recently went on record and said slavery played a significant role in helping Afro-American and Caribbean-Americans to be successful track and field athletes because in his words, slavery contributed to us having a superior gene. No, that wasn't Jimmy the Greek making this outrageous statement...it was Michael Johnson. Hey, perhaps some of us deserve being in slavery after all. Michael Johnson, you're so pathetic, you're one of the worst things to ever happen to the human race! So pathetic!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      Johnson simply stated a fact. Slaves were selected for their physical abilities, which were partly genetic, which were passed on through history. If you're choosing to ignore black history in favor of seeming politically correct, then you are playing into the hands of people who would have us believe that the slave trade had no affect on black America.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:38 am | Report abuse |
    • bilbo

      Greek and Johnson are both correct. Slaves were selected for their physical ability...genetics plays the rest...a simple but politically incorrect statement. When's the last time you saw two people 5 feet tall with a child 6' 6"? For that matter when's the last time you saw two white people with a biological child who was black? You ignore the obvious.

      July 19, 2012 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ian

    Wow way to beat up Johnson for voicing his unbaised opinion.

    The decision itself said the prosthetics give Pistorius "at least one advantage".

    Even if he might have a net disadvantage, there is still plenty of room for opinion over if it's fair for someone to use prosthetics that give him an advantage during any part of the race.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • uysfl

      also, at what point does his disadvantage in the start meet a positive return in the spring from the prosthetics? is it passes a negative return at 200m, the in a 400m race he has 200m of clear advantage.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      Plus, it's only a matter of time before it becomes a net advantage. The fact that these specific prosthetics are not advanced enough to net an advantage YET does not warrant setting this sort of precedent

      July 19, 2012 at 5:41 am | Report abuse |
  12. uysfl

    im white and agree with you and Johnson

    July 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mike

    Why is the only guy that said something smart the only guy I can't reply to? Well, I'll paste it here:
    Joe
    How is he kicking his butt? He hasn't even come close to Johnson's best time.

    Oh and this article was really poorly written. It is possible to state the facts of the story without adding the authors opinion to it.

    The author's opinion in the first two paragraphs is what stopped me from reading the rest.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Larry

      Opinion in a CNN story? How shocking, what a surprise!!! NOT. I'm a retired journalist and I rarely see anything on TV anymore that is loaded with the personal opinions of the reporter. When I first started as a journalist, the standard advice to reporters was: NOBODY gives a damn about your opinion, just report the facts. Still some pretty accurate advice.

      July 23, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
  14. waterman

    @Bill there is no scientific evidence of blacks being inferior in intelligence. None what so ever. If you are talking about 'the bell curve', that book is so full of holes that it is used in statistics courses to illustrate the errors one must avoid.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Will

      The people who criticized The Bell Curve have been discredited by numerous studies as having weak statistical analysis capabilities.

      The Bell curve is criticized because it is painfully correct, not politically correct.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarah867

      The Bell Curve has been debunked and thrown on the trash heap of bad research long ago.

      August 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      The odds of races being of equal intelligence are astronomically small. If you don't understand that, you simply don't understand genetic science. Some races are more intelligent than others on average. The differences between races may not be as pronounced as the differences within them, but they do exist.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:31 am | Report abuse |
    • mike

      James, obviously there'd be some delta in terms of average intelligence between races. In fact there would be between any given groups of people selected from the same race, too. The question is would it be statistically significant? Would it be indicative of anything beyond mere chance? And even if it was, it would not mean you could judge an individual on that, since obviously half of those people would be above average for their race. The danger is that stupid people of any race won't understand this, so you'd have rabidly idiotic people of the on-average "smarter" race thinking they were automatically superior to very intelligent people of the on-average "dumber" race. I.E., it would breed racist tendencies.

      Which is why, while I agree with you to an extent, this is one issue I'm willing to leave in bed. Because such a study on racial intelligence would, ironically, bring out the dumbest people of all races.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • brad

      If intelligence weren't so grossly overrated, this truth would have little weight. I know loads of intelligent people who neither achieve much nor have social skills to speak of. I know lots of nice happy people who share and are happy contributers to society. I doubt that they are more intelligent than average.

      July 20, 2012 at 6:03 am | Report abuse |
    • bilbo

      I agree...there's no scientic proof. However, genetics plays a roll in athletics and intelligence because both the muscles an brain are genetic...simple unavoidable fact. What is almost impossible to measure tho is the impact of culture. Why do certain cultures excel in academics and others in athletics. Are white sprinters slower because more white people sit on their a** in front of the TV growing up and more blacks are out playing sports? A better question might be why do American blacks dominate the 400m? A strong arguement can be made for genetics because of the selection process for the slave trade. Weak, wimpy slaves weren't in high demand. Try running a pony in the Kentucky Derby. So maybe culturally more white people have focused on education and technological advancement. But cultures come and go and empires fall. When people stop trying to advance in mind or matter they get surpassed by someone else.

      July 19, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
    • mlg4035

      I agree with you waterman, there is not "inherent" difference in intelligence between the races, if it seems as though there is, it is only because that "intelligence" has been defined by caucasians over the centuries as they have purposefully kept blacks ignorant! The difference, if any, is socio-cultural in origin, not innate!

      July 19, 2012 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Well

      In most studies, those designed by Caucasians and others, those of Asian heritage always come out on top with the highest average IQ. So it seems kind of faulty if they [Caucasians] are intentionally putting themselves in second place.

      July 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • SnakepitDave

      Must've been something we put in the water.

      July 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • chefdugan

      The whole thing is stupid. Everyone trying to be PC and open their hearts to the handicapped. What's next, running on stilts? As for the blacks and Johnson's comments, he might have a point. I do know if you put one in power corruption follows very closely. Can that be genes as well?

      July 19, 2012 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill Miller

      Yes but if he out runs a black guy will he become the "racer" who became a "racist"?

      July 19, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jake

    If regular runners were allowed to wear spring-shoes, then maybe this guy should be allowed to compete. This is obviously an advantage for him.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Charlesbakerharris

      Yes, because his lack of calf muscles isn't a disadvantage AT ALL. /derp

      July 18, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
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