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. Coach Larry

    The decision to allow anyone using mechanical devices to compete is a very slippery slope. Unfortunately Michael Johnson didn't supply the real reasons he asserts that Oscar Pistorius has an advantage or the article didn't bother to include it. The Court of Arbitration for Sport took into consideration flawed science when making their decision. The Blade Runner uses far less oxygen than other elite quarter milers, but the testing compared Pistorius at sub-sprint speeds and against distance runners who were tested years earlier in a different lab. A flawed scientific study which is carefully examined at http://www.sportsscientists.com/2011/08/scientific-evidence-for-advantage-for.html.

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

    @Doug....what he has is better than feet! Don't you get it???

    July 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. 555Julia

    I recall another South African, barefoot runner Zola Budd, from the 1984 Olympics. There was a lot of controversy about her running barefoot. She and American Mary Decker had a bit of a collision, Mary fell and was in tears, big kafuffle about that. Wonder what will happen in this current case?

    July 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. K Dub

    Sorry Waterman, but you are wrong. It may not be politically correct to discuss, but there IS some evidence for small but statistically significant racial differences in average intelligence. It is controversial, and "The Bell Curve" had flaws, but it does not mean there is,"None [evidence] what so ever."

    In many was, it would be more shocking if there were NO differences than if there were some. Any populations which begin to diverge are going to start to differ in average values on many if not most metrics. The important thing to remember about any of these findings, though, is that they apply to averages, but people are individuals. Put another way, the variations WITHIN groups are far greater than the variations between averages of different groups. The fastest black guy is doing to be faster than most of the black people AND most of white people; the slowest black guy is going to be slower than most of the white people. A smart person of any race is going to be smarter than most people of any race, regardless of where his or her race falls on average rankings.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      You deprive a certain demographic group of proper nutrition, health care and a good education and then test them against people who were well fed, well educated and had good medical care and when the deprived group does not fare as well you determine that they are inherently inferior. This is not only butt stupid, it is blatant racism.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • jkflipflop

      No, what YOURE saying is blatant racism. See the difference? Of course not.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Grumpyfin

      WHO GIVES A DAMN!?!?!?! The economy sucks, people are starving, dying, and suffering, and humans of ALL RACES are so smart that they are too dumb to see we need to stop doing things for money and do things for the betterment of our ENTIRE RACE! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!!!!!

      July 19, 2012 at 5:16 am | Report abuse |
    • evo5

      AMEN!!! Grumpyfin, I am a black male and it gives me hope when I see statements like yours. We ALL have more sims than diffs but , some of us focus on the diffs in a neg manner. LEARN ABOUT and HELP THE HUMAN RACE PEOPLE!!!

      July 19, 2012 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
    • wrong

      Sure there is. From standardized testing statistical analysis. Standardized testing is skewed.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:09 am | Report abuse |
    • LabAggie

      Intelligence has more to do with economics than race. Those that have access to resources tend to perform better than those who don't have equal access regardless of race.

      Some of the smartest people I know are black and some of the most stupid are white.

      The two funniest things about all these responses dealing with the subject of intelligence is:

      1. This is an article about prosthetics, and,
      2. The responses are full of misspellings and grammatical errors

      July 19, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Naive

      wow, thirty seconds on reading a post on the Internet, and youve convinced me that decades of scientific research about racial differences is all wrong.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • BermudaTriangle

      K Dub...well said! Also, let's not confuse the ability to Sprint as being Athletic. If that were the case, then you'd see all those sprinters wearing football jerseys, playing wide-receivers in the NFL. Let's not also forget that the most difficult, overall sport to play – SOCCER – has been ruled for a couple years now by mostly the same few countries Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil, etc... NONE of which are in Western Africa.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron G

      Totally ignorant response, but funny as heck!!

      July 20, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • ricardo1968

      In summation, if you are a white person of average intelligence which most white people are, you need to remember that they are millions of black people smarter than you.

      July 20, 2012 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  5. dofrenzy

    Aren't injuries an inherent aspect of any sport? How many small tendons, bones, and ligaments are there below the knee that Pistorius NEVER risks injuring or fatiguing? Seems like an unfair advantage to me.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Boston Guy

    It seems like Johnson is afraid that a disabled person is going to beat him.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Trevor Elkins

    Johnson is totally right! Imagine a scenario where 10 years from now these blades have advanced to the point where they are much more efficient and much lighter than they currently are, and they allow an amputee to beat the world record by 5 seconds. You have already set the precedent by letting Oscar run, so now anyone with these blades would be able to run. It would be completely unfair.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. larryb

    I personally do not think he should be allowed but since he is...he needs to realize that even if he wins there will always be questions and a giant asterisk will shadow him

    July 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. David

    The Olympics are meant for able-bodied athletes and the Parlympics are meant for disabled athletes. Oscar was very successful in the T44 category winning many gold medals against other disabled athletes, and even placing second vs a US athlete (Jerome Singleton) in the 100m. You can root for Oscar all you want but I'm voting for TEAM USA! If mechanical devices are now legal, then what sanctioning body will begin testing devices in the future and would running stilts be allowed in the triple jump now? As if gender testing and drug testing was not enough? Oscar has the ability to compete at a very high level vs other athletes on an extremely level playing field where other athletes can don similar equipment. Yes – Oscar has lower rotational mass and a higher power to weight ratio (you can't argue with either – sorry) so will other disabled athletes running the marathon without tight turns be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes in the future? I guess the flood gates are open for more testing – stay tuned.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Disanitnodicos

    He should definitely be able to participate, but he should have to do it without mechanical enhancements.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • asdf1984

      Disanitnodicos: well put; I agree.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  11. neffm

    let the men run in peace lo!sers

    July 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Darrell

    how about the time when runners have muscle cramps that make them pull up to have others take advantage of going ahead to win or other position, does a person with this handicap able to allow them to not have this and give them the edge in winning, I haven't heard this yet among debaters

    July 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • nmmell08

      In a track race...the vast majoirty of it is cramps in the hamstring and quads, both things Oscar has

      July 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael

    My thoughts are with all involved but carbon fiber is not legs. Sorry

    July 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. rubywyld

    I'm sorry but it's true, these 'legs' are an advantage. They are designed for speed. I'd like to see him run on the prosthetics my husband and most normal amputees have to wear instead of these things that cost tens of thousands of dollars because of their design and high tech materials. Now that would something.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. bvilleyellowdog

    Yes it is unfair. Don't let him run.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gerry

      Winning is spirit, heart and desire. This said about Michael Johnson before his career blossomed:

      Johnson was noted for his unique running style. His stiff upright stance and very short steps defied the conventional wisdom stating that a high knee lift was essential for maximum speed.

      Court found Oscar to have a "net disadvantage". Let's see how far spirit, heart and desire gets him.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
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