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 Tr

    I am no Michael Johnson fan, but in this case the writer is way out of line. His dripping the sarcasm analysis simply shows that, in fact, he is being less objective than is Johnson. That Michael Johnson has a mamoth ego was never a question. That he is not a scientist seem painfully obvious. But the writer is SUPPOSED to be a writer, which seems to bring with it the implied responsibility for objectivity. CNN should be embarassed by every part of it - especially the opening sentence. The reality....the are advantages and disadvantages. But there is no way to accurately quantify either. Therefore, the race must be run among those with like abilites and equipment. This is a ridiculous presentation of an important story.

    July 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. AV

    Through no fault of his own he is obviously at an advantage. Anyone who's ever run more than a block knows you start to feel fatigue in your shins,calfs,feet. This man has none of those.

    July 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  3. LMJFLA081970

    if his prosthesis does not give him an advantage, toss those out and use the good old fashioned prosthesis with feet and no springs.

    July 23, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tyrone Williams

    You need to be quick on your feet while running from a convenience store at 3am with your hands full and 2 squad cars in pursuit.

    July 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jay

    Love all the bs.

    July 23, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Russ

    The question is, should prosthetics be allowed in the Olympics? I say no. It is about testing the limits of unaided human accomplishment. Should an athlete with a device win, there would have to be an asterisk, explaining "with prosthetic limbs", which should not be the case.

    July 23, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • You're a Backwards Ape

      What is human? Is it a human who has or doesn't have prosthetic legs?

      "unaided"... your logic is flawed. The best research indicates these legs hamper rather than aid.

      August 4, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Russ

    Bad precedent. Once you let one kind of device in the door, others will follow. Then who is to say that any athlete cannot use one? That would be discrimination. Keep them all out and the Olympics pure. Otherwise, they may be wearing Jet Packs in 50 years.

    July 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ethan

      Reductio ad absurdum is a fallacious way to back the argument that a person, with a qualifying time, should not compete in an event.

      August 4, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  8. MJ

    I think that the guy should be able to compete. I don't see why this is a big deal. Sure there is Para-olympics but this guy has managed to overcome all adversity to compete in the Olympics. I personally look forward to seeing him run. He is a inspiration to all of those who have disabilities either mental or physical ones. Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you can't achieve your dreams. As for his prosthetic legs they were made for people to be able to run after loosing their legs in accidents or war and really don't count as an advantage especially since this guy had to loose his legs in order for him to gain them. Let's try to look at what this guy has accomplished and admire him for that.

    July 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Reagan80

    It's just another step along the line set down by the Supreme Court when they required the PGA to allow Casey Martin to use a golf cart in PGA events. O.J. Simpson is disabled with arthritis but, he's still the best running back in football if he can use a motorcycle.

    July 23, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. SirDavidRush

    I have question and hear me out on this. Would it be fair perhaps, if the legs he was using were the same weight as the natural human leg? I can see everyone's opinions on the fact that yes those things are so much lighter and easier to use. But if the legs were weighted down with a heavier material, would it be fair? Just an idea. This is coming from a physically disabled former runner. Also, please quit reffering to the Paralympic Games, as the "Special Olympics", it is in no way the same thing. And it is both condesending to both contestents in both games!

    July 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hetneo

      It's not just the question of weight, it's also question of safety. If weighted down of course he will run much slower. But there's a reason why he's running 4×400 relay and is not running the last leg.

      August 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. MDCambridge

    One day, another runner will lose their legs and be given the latest prosthetic legs. Because of the decreased weight below his knees along an alloy that doesn't fatigue as their calf muscles once did, they will, after much effort, eventually run faster than ever before. At that moment, we will marvel at yet another feat of engineering and realize it should never have been about whether Pistorius' prosthetics gave him an advantage in 2012, because one day, they will.

    July 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Larry

    The guy had to qualify like anyone else. He certainly didn't cut of his legs so he could race with prosthetics. Can't help but wonder how Johnson would fare if the positions were reversed.

    July 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. SV

    Po little tink tink

    July 23, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Chi

    IDK about Pistorius possibly having an unfair advantage. It has to be difficult to run on those things...challenging in a different way. But as far as West African/Caribbean descendants being athletically superior, I have to laugh at the ignorance of that statement. I excelled academically in school, finished in the top 20% of my class...but as far as athletics, I got the shallow end of the gene pool. I have no hand eye coordination and I can't run fast, I'm not tall or strong. So that blows that theory right out of the water.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Frank Maston

      I hear you. My genes have a few athletic deficiencies as well, but my IQ is pretty good. All that proves is that there is an incredible amount of differentiation among humans of all races. But, as far as athletic genes go, one look at the NBA and NFL puts your comment into the joke book. That much size and strength did not come straight from Africa; it had a lot of help from the folks who made life hell for many generations. Payback, maybe?

      August 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mike P

    The reason Pistorius shouldn't be allowed to compete is because the contest is supposed to be apples-to-apples - who has the fastest legs, not who has the springiest equipment. Maybe today the equipment isn't able to give amputees a boost over other runners, but technology is improving all the time. If the day should come when springs do outperform legs, what then - will amputees be disallowed then, or will full-bodied Olympic hopefuls have to consider having their legs amputated for a fair chance at winning?

    August 4, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
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