Monthly Archives: October 2012

Nike: making workers poor and runners lame

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Mark Perryman’s recent book on the Olympics offers a useful short history of where the present running boom comes from. Like both Thatcherism and punk, it seems, jogging in Britain began at the end of the 1970s. Its start was a “National Fun Run” sponsored by the Sunday Times, to which 12,000 people signed up. The sport’s rise was fuelled by the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics, including Steve Ovett’s 800 metre gold in 1980, and Seb Coe’s 1500 metres golds in 1980 and 1984. Jimmy Savile fronted a weekend television show promoting running. The London Marathon received financial support from Ken Livingstone’s GLC, while such sponsors as Mars tried to muscle in on the act, promoting chocolate as the perfect mid-race snack…

Jimmy Savile’s Nike costume

A part of this story which I’d like to develop further is the role played by shoe manufacturers. One company closely associated with the jogging boom was Nike, whose shoes sold in Britain from 1978, the same year as the Sunday Times run. The company was then in the middle of an extraordinary boom, the value of its worldwide sales increasing 70-fold from $14 million in 1976 to $1 billion ten years later.

Part of Nike’s appeal was that it promoted itself as a young and vaguely counter-cultural business. In much the same way that Richard Branson’s Virgin began by distributing the Sex Pistols but has ended up profiting from privatisation, so Nike was originally associated with a generation of runners at the University of Oregon, headed by US Olympian Steve Prefontaine and his coach Bill Bowerman.

At his death in 1975, “Pre” was the American record-holder at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 metres. In 1972, he had finished fourth in the Olympic 5,000 metre final, an extraordinary race in which Prefontaine held but lost the lead three times in the final two laps. Pre was part of the student generation who had challenged the Vietnam War. He fought a series of battles with the administrators of US amateur athletics, at the climax of which he told the New York Times, that he was an internationalist who would hand in his US citizenship if given the chance.

In many ways the perfect expression of Pre’s radicalism was a TV film which came out four years after his death and which ostensibly has no links to him at all. Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile is a purely fictional account of a convict Larry Murphy who is discovered in prison to be running mile times within seconds of the US record. Given a chance to compete in US Olympic trials, he is opposed by a local gang leader who attempts to frustrate the race but is beaten back by a united front of politicised Black and Mexican inmates. The authorities then withdraw Murphy from the race. The actor (Peter Strauss) plays the part with shoulder-length blond hair and a thick moustache, making him a virtual twin of the real-life runner Prefontaine. The film is a kind of idealised, hyper-politicised version of Pre’s own radical journey.

Prefontaine’s coach Bowerman designed the first Nike shoes, supposedly on his home waffle-maker. Prefontaine was the first celebrity to endorse them, while others later to get on board included John McEnroe and the former Maoist and newly-elected Green parliamentarian in Germany Joschka Fischer, photographed in white Nike shoes while being sworn in as a member of regional government in Hesse in 1985. Nike played the game brilliantly of appearing imprecisely rebellious, while carving out a niche for itself as a giant corporation with a vast turnover and a global workforce largely situated in some of the very worst-paying areas of the world.

Nike is increasingly criticised on the grounds that is that its shoes have been badly designed and have made millions of runners more vulnerable to running injuries. The starting point is the shoe designed by Bowerman at the height of Prefontaine’s fame in 1972. The Nike Cortez had a thick rubber outer sole, and was the most cushioned running shoe that had ever been produced. Named after the explorer who subjected America to smallpox, it was also the first shoe to feature Nike’s “swoosh” logo. The Cortez had this additional padding because it was intended to extend the distance that an ordinary club runner could jog, in the direction of up to 100 miles per week. Yet the effect of the padding was to make the runner’s footfall heavier, and less efficient. When runners switched from the lighter shoes which predated the Cortez to Nike shoes, they found themselves striking the ground harder, to less effect. The weight of the “jogging” step was moved backwards towards the heel, realigning the human running gait in ways which were at odds to several million years of evolution.

The first writer to have brought home the destructiveness of Nike’s design was Christopher McDougall, whose book Born to Run cites a wide range of authorities including Daniel Lieberman, a Professor of biological anthropology at Harvard to show that running shoes are a main cause of runners’ injuries:

A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to overpronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.

One compelling sign of the malaise has been the decline in running times in the countries which were the first strongholds of the running boom. Over the past thirty years, as Boff Whalley observes, the average time of a male runner completing an America marathon has increased from 3 hours 32 minutes to 4 hours 20 minutes.

To this day, Nike remains an employer of sweat-shop labour and reports posted on the Playfair website in the last 18 months describe Nike workers being beaten and abused, being prevented from joining unions, and factories closing without notice leaving their workers without pay for periods of up to 6 months.

“No man is an island”, John Donne wrote: “Entire of itself / Each is a piece of the continent / A part of the main.” The Nike shoes a runner wears may have cost her or him between £80 and £100. The people making them will have been paid a pound an hour or less.

The shoes which we wear make other people poor and us lame.

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Critical Mass and CMP v Kay

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One of the many memorable scenes from the Olympic Opening Ceremony was the sight of several dozen cyclists emerging into the stadium, with giant wings waving behind them, like so many Tubular Bat-people. Outside, the police were then midway through the obstruction and then kettling of London’s monthly Critical Mass cycle ride. By the end of the day, 182 cyclists had been arrested; and although the police have made the welcome announcement that they have no plans to take any further action with regards to 166 of them, sixteen of those arrested still remain to be interviewed and some may yet be charged.

Most arrests were made for offences under section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986 which empowers officers to ban “public processions where a senior officer reasonably believes that the holding of such a procession would result in serious public disorder, and no action short of a ban could prevent the disorder.

This raises the question of whether Critical Mass is a public procession at all Act. Something like this question has already been subject to litigation. Section 11 of the same Act requires organisers of certain kinds of demonstration to notify the police in advance of their intention to protest. Not every demonstration requires notification (i.e. is a “notifiable procession”), but only public processions “(a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person or body of persons, (b) to publicise a cause or campaign, or (c) to mark or commemorate an event.” From the wording of the Act it is far from clear whether this provision gives the words “public processions” their meaning (i.e. processions for other purposes are not public processions) or only specifies which public processions require their organisers to notify the police.

The Act then goes on to provide in any event that the duty to notify where the procession is one commonly or customarily held in the police area in which it is proposed to be held.

In Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v Kay [2009] 2 All ER 935, the House of Lords had to decide whether Critical Mass was “commonly or customarily held” in the same area. Their Lordships determined that it was and there was no duty to notify.

A number of the Judges remarked in passing that Critical Mass either might not be a procession or might not be a procession to demonstrate support for particular views, etc. In the words of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, “To my mind the real question here is whether these cycle rides are prima facie notifiable processions at all within the meaning of s.11. And the answer is that they are not. Their very nature as impromptu rides to my mind takes them out of the section altogether.” But these reservations refer directly to the notification duties in section only, and are less than an unequivocal statement to the effect that Critical Mass is not a public procession and does not come within the Act at all.

It is very easy to see that if any of the 2012 defendants are arrested and charged, they may well say that Critical Mass is not a public procession, does not come within the Act, cannot be lawfully prohibited by the police, and that involvement in it where there was an illegal police ban cannot be unlawful.

It is equally to see that the police will respond that Kay is a case about what sort of processions require notice, and that even if Critical Mass does not require notice, Kay has left open the question of whether Critical Mass is part of a class of events which a senior police officer can in any event prohibit.

I’d love to say that this is a battle which the police must lose. My truer, more considered belief is that there is no short-cut; only a court can determine which analysis will prevail.

The best, practical, advice for any people reading this who are within the group of 16 people still to be interviewed, comes from a message being circulated by the legal observers’ network Green and Black Cross:

“Accepting a caution has very specific implications in these cases with specific regard to the Section 12 restrictions. This is because a caution is an admission of guilt, and to be guilty of breaking the S.12 restrictions you have to acknowledge the legality of those conditions, it goes hand in hand. So in other words, or in reverse – if the conditions are illegal then there could have been no breach and therefore no offence.”

“A caution is never a great option. The police will present it as such, but this is because it is an easy, cheap and efficient way for them to convert arrests into convictions. Naturally it is very tempting for the defendant to have it all over with and not have to go to court, but having a criminal record poses many issues, especially if you work with children or vulnerable adults.”.

Lives; Running reviewed

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(Hazel Potter, in London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, Autumn 2012)

In a summer where Sebastian Coe’s face has rarely been more than a few minutes from a TV screen, David Renton’s Lives; Running  is a timely reminder that the media’s love affair with the LOCOG Chairman has been a long one. Renton takes us back to the golden era of British middle distance running, interspersing childhood memories and reflections on the Coe v Ovett rivalry with a memoir of his own running career, while exploring the relationships in and around both.

Anyone who is old enough to remember the Moscow Olympics will recall the build-up to the games, not just the US (and potential UK) boycott but the media hype around Britain’s two middle distance runners: Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Renton tracks this, exploring not only the press depiction of “toff v monster” to characterise Coe and Ovett respectively, but also the differences between the athletes in terms of style, emotion and attitude. Coe’s all-encompassing need to win, driven by his ultra-competitive father, versus the more magnanimous Ovett, for whom running is an important part of life, but not its whole, is a theme largely ignored at the time. In 1980 the press was far keener to demonise Ovett as arrogant and even unpatriotic, whereas Coe was always – and remains –the golden boy, meaning fans of the older athlete were often at odds with family and friends. Renton is one such fan but this is only one of a string of differences, social and political, that will emerge between the author and his peers and parents during the course of the book.

Coe’s upbringing – and in particular his father – helped to shape him as an athlete and the resultant craving to compete and win will undoubtedly have played a role in the development of his Thatcherite politics. His constant need to compete with Ovett and to take credit for his teammate’s performances portray a fear of failure but also a lack of compassion and understanding of the realities outside of the track. One quote from Coe reads: “I always had the feeling that when the gap began to disappear … the rivalry would become greater, and with it his need to prove himself,” and you wonder whether it was, in fact, Coe who needed to prove something not Ovett.

‘Lives; Running” is about more than Coe and Ovett though; while the themes of competition and relationships continue throughout the book it is Renton’s own development within and outside of sport that we learn about. Juxtaposed with this are portrayals of his father at an comparable age, viewed via diary extracts and memories, an Oxford Rowing Blue struggling to reconcile conflicting desires for flesh and faith. Ultimately, neither father nor son will continue competitively in his chosen sport beyond his academic years but both will eventually learn to participate at a recreational level.

Competitive sport is a bond, albeit it a fragile one, between parent and child: something that both can understand, even if it is from a different perspective. In time, sport as a bond begins to extend through to the next generation too, together with a new perception of the pride and pleasure it can bring – but it is not hard to imagine the short leap that is required to become a competitive, Peter Coe-like, parent either.

The highs and lows of winning and defeat are explored throughout “Lives; Running”, for the schoolboy, the recreational runner and the elite athletes but even this is not a simple analysis: how to compare the grimace of Coe against the clenched fist of Ovett? Or the schoolboy’s joy at destroying a field against a middle-aged runner overtaking contemporaries in a half marathon? Does it hurt more to lose the Boat Race or an Olympic Final? And would that pain be worse for, say, Coe whose father’s love was seemingly conditional on success than for Ovett, who would merely be angry at himself for defeat?

The conflicting emotions that the author has with running take years to reconcile and, even then, when the pain of defeat is no longer a concern, injuries will still hurt. The sudden, indiscriminate attack on an athlete of an injury is shown to affect both the elite, including Renton’s hero Ovett, and school runners and it is not just the discomfort that is suffered but the fact that running has been taken away. We learn about attempts at prevention but, in reality, this is often nothing more than a delay until the inevitable. Given that, the perspective that Ovett maintained will surely have helped: if running is part of life then an injury can be demoralising, if it is all that an athlete has then it will be utterly devastating.

The camaraderie – or lack of it – between Ovett and Coe is no secret but Renton shows that sport has the ability not only to provide credibility amongst peers but also to forge long-term friendships through his memoir. We find the author running in his thirties with friends he made in his teens and while other interests, such as music and politics, were key in the relationships, the role of sport is critical. But just as it helps develop friendships, running – and rowing for his father – “a life of movement” as Renton puts it offers an escape too: from school, parents, work, family and perhaps reality itself. The lone athlete will spend hours on his own, doing something he loves and, for that time, the world as he knows it does not exist.

Perhaps the whole of these sometimes conflicting attributes is that, as the author – and his father – conclude, the “life of movement…is a life fulfilled,” with the flip that “A sedentary life is a life voluntarily diminished.” And in a year when Coe’s LOCOG has drummed “inspire a generation” into the nation ad infinitum maybe this message, and the fact that a sport like running costs the participant virtually nothing in monetary terms, is one which should be heard just as much?