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. Mike H

    I thought there was a Special Olympics for amputees and other disabled athletes, some of whom require prosthetics or special devices to compete.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Disanitnodicos

    All runners should be treated equally. If no other runner can use mechanical enhancements, then this guy shouldn't either.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. FL JimmE

    We know technology tends to relentlessly improve. These aids will be replaced by even better ones and then even much better ones made of new alloys and so on forever. Will track events for those with no technological aid eventually become impossible to compete in... seems possible, even likely. Then the Olympics would be a test of patent holders products. This is a mistake to allow and mr. Johnson is right.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. cacarr

    "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?"

    That's a good question, and the author doesn't really address it. Instead, the author goes off on a tangent.

    "In all seriousness, though, this theory of genetic athletic superiority among slaves has been debunked for decades."

    That may well be the case - probably is. But the ability to sprint is by no means entirely a cultural matter - people of W. African extraction (even had there not been slavery) are more frequently of a body type that's appropriate for sprinting, compared to many other groups of people...it's just a matter of physics, and has nothing to do with any sort of racism.

    One day, if this precedent is set, someone with more talent than Pistorious and better blades, will be able to crush all unenhanced runners.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • butch

      no, the ones who were not descended from slaves have only recently dominated distance running. descendants of slaves are athletically superior in sprinting, and many other physical tasks, because we bred them that way over 500 years of slavery. we had a lot of practice with dogs. turns out it works on humans too.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. butch

    however the man lost his legs is insignificant. there is only one fact that matters. the man has replaced his old human legs with new and improved mechanical ones. cry about whatever accident he had in another forum. what we're talking about here is an unfair athletic advantage and mechanical limbs give exactly that.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Josh`

    problem is where do you draw the line..it is unfair...the race is 2 legs against 2 spring loaded metal pieces...im no scientist but..i do under stand the old saying got a little spring in your step..this dude has to much spring...he is a great inspiration though

    July 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Joedog

    I can not help but place the HITLER quote and the ending lines by the WRITER of this article up for comparison. Mealy mouthed comes to mind about the writer of the article.

    "...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."

    "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." (period added)

    July 18, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kurt Whitman

    This must be an opinion piece because I don't see much that would lead me to believe that it was written as news, by a journalist. Mr. McLaughlin clearly has some personal issues with Michael Johnson, and did his best to let that be known. Aside from illuminating Mr. McLaughlin's problems with Mr. Johnson, this story did very little to help me sort out the facts. Scientists – and not just any scientists? What? They're called sources, Mr. McLaughlin. That's how you separate the the news from the opinions.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. really

    It makes us all feel good to let him run, but it is unfair.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Disanitnodicos

    I was born with a genetic defect: I am a slow runner. Therefore, in order to compete in the Olympics, I need a mechanical enhancement called a motorcycle. Eat my dust, mother suckers!!!

    July 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rob

    Well they look springy to me. Let's see, the potential talent pool for able bodied runners is... essentially EVERY able bodied person who won a race in 7th grade and continued on from there. Of those, some .001% (or way less) are world-class. The pool of blade-runners is... 100? So the odds of this guy just happening to be one those tiny spec of runners who are world-class.... I don't know...

    July 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. really

    Let him run an exhibition. No more.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Lucifer

    Michael who?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. k dennis

    Do a simple experiment: put a sand bag with weight comparable to adult athlete's lower leg, and see if he can still run fast.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • RadZap

      It's cheating. Plain and simple. Next Olympics, lets field a motorized wheel chair team.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Red Reich

      excellent idea

      July 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. emefkay

    Agree with Johnson; the dude has carbon-fiber springs for legs and it doesn't help that he happens to be white...the science is unsettled and the burden of proof is on his shoulders and I'm nowhere near convinced; he is in a different classification than able-body athletes...let him compete at the world Championship of Extreme Pogo, I'll chip-in $10 for a replica gold medal....and yes that may have been a little harsh, but this guy's been putting unjust pressure/guilt on the international athletic commissions who have caved-in due to public opinion and legal liability.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hendronicus

      I agree with Johnson as well. This article is biased.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
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