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. fastnoc

    Johnson is right. in a big way. So while you don't like it, you don't look much better the way you wrote the article.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • asdf1984

      I don't give a damn about sports, but Johnson is 100 percent correct about the Blade Runner advantage.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • kman02

      If this were 20 years from now, the blade-runner would be running a 42 second quarter because of advances in carbon fiber technology. Johnson is absolutely correct.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      So, if he beat him given his mode of transpertation it wouldn't be legit? It's how the dude moves... You win or lose on the field.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mike

    Poor little tink tink

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

      I thought the same thing!

      Kat Williams is great!

      July 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mc

    Prometheus, that was genious. I would have never considered that. Oh wait! all of them get to use starting blocks. Not all get to wear bionic legs that don't get sore, tired and cramp. Recheck what you wrote

    July 18, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. sunny in ak

    This should be like the PGA, if you can't walk the course on ure own without a cart then you shouldn't be allowed to the games.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joe America

    A lot of hate for Johnson in this article, but he is right.

    Blade Runner should not be allowed to run in the Olympic games. Paralympics? Fine. Regular Olympics, absolutely not.

    He is obviously a great athlete, but it isn't a level playing field if he competes. It is like racing two completely different kinds of runners, which makes no sense in the context of the Olympic games.

    Why not just let people with electric wheelchairs "run" in the races. Or people with spring powered crutches or whatever. This is supposed to be a contest to determine the fastest runner, not see if technology is able to propel a disabled runner faster than those without use of any technology.

    What happens when Pistorius gets the next generation of two foot long carbon fibre blades and is able to go even faster, making ridiculous worlds records?

    Bottom line is it is not fair. It is comparing apples to oranges. Not a level playing field.

    I know everyone admires Pistorius, and so do I, but it is unfair for him to compete in the Olympic games.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |

      I agree wholeheartedly.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jim

    BAD PRECEDENT: If allowed to compete, where do you stop? Olympic athletes sacrifice A LOT to get to the level they are at. If it is determined a prosthetic can give an advantage, who will be the first able bodied to mysteriously need a prosthetic to do whatever it takes to get the gold? You gotta feel for a guy that has no legs. But the reality is there are two leagues: one league for athletes without drugs or mechanical devices, and everything else. How "pure" do we want to keep the olympics?

    July 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chas

    Pistorius is around 15 – 20 pounds lighter because of his missing lower legs. Maybe if he carried a bowling ball strapped to his back it would even things up.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dlosangeles

    Unbelievable. Why even have the special olympics. If you are not handicapped, you compete in the regular olympics. If you are handicapped, you compete in the special olympics. Why is that so difficult to understand? We don't need to try and determine if he has an advantage. He has no legs. He should ONLY be allowed to run in the special olympics. End of story.It is so simple. Any further discussion is downright assenine!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trottel

      Special Olympics are mainly for people with intellectual disabilities.

      July 19, 2012 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. Effed

    Let me break it down – Let bicycle riders compete against runners.

    Blades = human powered mechanical assist devices
    Bicycles = human powered mechanical assist devices


    July 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Imjesayin

    The flex built into the curve of the blade has the same effect as spring. It's an unfair advantage. Don't let this PC-feel-good-story-BS cloud your judgment

    Secondly, I have no problem with Johnson's comments. This idiot writer is trying to twist it. The bottom line is, and whether you like Jimmy the Greek's comments or not, slave breeding did go on. It was atrocious, but it happened. Slave owners sought bigger and stronger slaves the same way genetically superior farm animals are created now. Some of those genetically superior breeding traits still exist in some slaves' descendants despite the elimination of the practice for 150 plus years.

    This stupid author is denying history. Put down the PC pipe and pick up a history book.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. kyle f

    How is it curious that Michael stated that the descendents of slaves are athletically superior? I thought it was a fact that slaves were forced to breed for the purposes of creating bigger, stronger, faster offspring to work in the fields. By starting off this article by questioning a statement that is a known fact, Eliott C. McLaughlin removes all credibility from this entire article, and possibly every piece he has ever written. Pitchers in the sport of baseball are having surgery to replace perfectly healthy tendons with smaller ones to increase there velocity. There is big $$$ in Olympic sponsorships, when will an athlete purposely have an "accident" so that they can replace their a piece of their natural body with something that will give them an advantage?

    July 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. mike

    Here is a question – what is his longest stride while running? If it gives him a longer stride (than everyone else) then obviously it's an advantage.

    The 400m start isn't as important as 100/200. I've even seen some 800m runners start the 400 standing up.

    I am very happy to allow him to compete – but this is the start of 2 records (similar to irobot) – there will be Olympic records without any prostheses and ones with.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Perry

    I don't have a problem with him running. He isn't good enough to make the final. If you watch him run he is slow in the beginning, but once he is up to speed he is running as fast as most of the runners. The ability not to feel the pounding on his feet and fatigue in his calves is a benefit. Not having control especially in the rain is a disadvantage.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Randall Bart

    He's following the rules. The courts have said that if you read the existing rules in a way which outlaws Pistorius blades, that rule also outlaws shoes. If you don't like seeing Pistorius running, have them run barefoot.

    Pistorius advantage is not that his feet have more bounce. His advantage is that his feet are light, so he can move his feet forward faster, so his feet spend more time on the ground, pushing.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Coralee

    I am so sick and tired of this "all-inclusive" stuff. Ref the transgender gal in the Miss Universe Canada pageant, now a blade runner in the "regular" Olympics, everything is mixed up into one pot these days; but of course you dare not eliminate anyone for any reason, it would hurt their tender feelings. I will not be watching the Olympics, they are irrelevant, they don't matter.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
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