Tag Archives: injury

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.

On (not) running

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I have taken a month off running in the hope that my absence shall allow my weakened right calf to recover. In my inactivity several friends have been telling me unexpectedly just how much they enjoy running: from R who jogs extraordinary distances on treadmills (on the advice of a physio who tells him this is the best way to protect his knees) and has sights on a sub-25 minute 5k; to Fin, racing 4 miles each evening; and another friend F, jogging in anticipation of moving to the US (I visualise her pacing around Central Park).

In four weeks’ absence I have already gained a pound or two. After months of deep sleep, I find myself waking more often. I have begun to suffer occasional nightmares – the word is probably too grand – but frantic dreams full of exotic monsters. They flit through my memory; I recall the anxiety and my raised heartbeat on waking far more vividly than the dreams themselves.

My legs remain in some similarly deep and vague sense wrong; I practice circulating my toes around my calf – as I type – and can feel residual knots in my leg. They are my own private barriers.

A concerned reader asks

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A concerned reader of the book asks: “I read the entries about your sons and their injuries. I spent my childhood falling down stairs and twisting my ankles . I gave various inherited weaknesses and also I couldn’t see straight. So I felt much empathy with them. In your book your son mentions ‘when I was born in a cafe ‘. Is this a misprint or for real?”

Answer: it is not a misprint; the boy (who was 2 when he said it) genuinely decided that he had been born in a cafe. The boy was wrong.

Running in the rain

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On Friday, I took part in the Serpentine end of the month 5k race; finishing in the perfectly average time of 22 minutes 47 seconds – about 10 seconds faster than I had run last autumn, which was the only timed race I’ve been in since I started running again roughly a year ago.

I like the Serpentine club: it is a huge club of around 2000 people, big enough so that there are always enough volunteers to marshal, time, organise, maintain a website, etc, etc, etc. There is a steady through-flow of people, but also a core of familair faces, some of whom I recall from my very first Serpentine runs which must have been 9 or so years ago. The club is by far the largest in London and has some of the city’s personality: frantic, focussed. As a runner, you learn gratitude for the other people who give you the opportunity to run. And there is nothing bad about being left along to focus on your own race; this is something that Steve Ovett was very mindful of, when he set up his own running club in Brighton in the early 1980s – the need to give a chance for people to run by themselves. It is a solitary activity.

The club does have its critics (the 10k-er who sold me my new Brooks; put it nicely on Monday; “that’s what I like about Serpentine, you show up at an event and there will be 10 Serpie runners, and only one or two from all the other clubs taking part.”)  And, if I’m honest, I’d like to know more people there. But the club has involved more people in running in London, and given more running visitors a temporary home, than anybody else could do.

I had hoped to meet a friend Ed at the race but missed him. Steve Platt (ex of the New Statesman) was running; but although we’ve spoken online, I’ve never spoken to him in the flesh. Hopefully we shall meet at another event.

As for the race itself: we were between showers, the ground was wet underfoot, and Hyde park unusually empty.

I know little about the top finishers – Jake Waldron won in 15:43 and 2nd, 3rd and 4th were all veterans coming in at in or about 16 minutes. But I was happy with my own running. After the best part of a month injured with a calf problem, and after feeling the same problem flare up again at around 800 metres, I was not at all certain I would finish. Instead, I ran my pace down until I was comfortable enough to continue and was even able to pick things up in the last 800 metres or so. And my last kilometre at 4 minutes 11 made me hopeful of better things to come in the summer.

Kilometre splits as follows: 4.46, 4.56, 4.24, 4.29, 4.11.

Achilles tendon injuries

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I was, as I explain in my book, a decent schoolboy athlete. I am, I happily acknowledge, a crock of an adult runner. By the age of eighteen, I had suffered repeated minor tears of my left achilles tendon. Runner’s guides distinguish between tendonitis, a condition where the tendon thickens but the thickening dissipates after a period of rest, and tendinosis, which is when the tendon suffers chronic, microscopic tears, a condition for which the ultimate cure is surgery. I had first been injured at the age of fourteen. Never since then had I enjoyed a full running season without even minor injury. My injuries had long since passed from the occasional to the chronic.

The range of my injuries, moreover, seemed to be spreading. I had already suffered one bout of exercise-related asthma, and for the next two years was prone to chest infections. My knees were often sore. There seemed to be some relationship between the recurring weakness in my left tendon and pains in my right knee. Had I wanted to continue, I should have asked to see a consultant specialising in sports injuries. I did not ask to see one.

Today, I sorely regret that indecision.