Tag Archives: Nike

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.

When athletes spoke their minds (2)

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Thanks again to Jules Boycoff, for sparking off my interest the complex, ambiguous figure of Steve Prefontaine, a name unknown to me as recently as a month ago.

After reading Prefontaine’s attacks on the stupidity of the US athletics federation and of the patriotism behind which it sheltered, I recently started watching “Fire on the Track”, a documentary which tells Prefontaine’s story from his emergence as a track athlete through to the 5,000 metres at the 1972 Olympics, at which Prefontaine attacked and attacked, trying quite suicidally to break the sprint finish of the eventual winner Lasse Virén.

One thing I enjoy about the film is its focus on college athletics in Oregon. In sport the regional, rather than the national, is so often the level where there is the most intimate relationship between a star performer and her audience. (Think CLR James, Learie Constantine and Nelson). “Pre” starred on an Oregon stage which had witnessed international stars and world record holders; people took to him in vast numbers. They did so in part because of his determination to run from the front, a signature theme which gave him charisma as a runner.

My favourite line in the film is Prefontaine’s refusal to run on the professional track circuit: “I run best when I am running free”.

Many of the people in his audience were themselves amateur runners, encouraged into the sport by the local emergence of the Nike “joggers'” shoe, pioneered by Pre’s own coach Bill Bowerman.

Pre to his great credit seems to have been engaged in a constant love-hate generational battle with Bowerman, pre-empting the bigger conflict with the entire US athletics establishment which is the context to Pre’s attacks on “the old red, white and blue and all that bull”.

Yet the limits to Pre’s radicalism are also apparent both in his conflict with Bowerman and with US athletics. He was never William Kunstler, Pre fought with Bowerman, but his objective was to control the relationship with his coach, not to end it.

When I watch the footage of Prefontaine’s defeat at the 1972 Olympics, I see his legs moving faster and faster over the last 600 metres, so that he “ought” to be quicker than Virén, but (like Ovett in the 1500 metres final 8 years later) he never is. I will him on, but he never wins.

The image at the top of this post is the first of five sections of “Fire on the Track”, all of which have been posted on Youtube.

The second half of the film gives a sense of how Prefontaine responded to defeat, which was to go back to his Oregon base, deepening his relationship with athletics fans. During this period, he was clearly desperately poor.  Hence the edge of his attacks on US athletics.

He also took a job with Nike, become its public face, and driving its expansion towards becoming the behemoth we all know. In this part of his life, he was unforgivably the perfect fit, his spats with the Olympic authorities giving Nike the vague radical veneer that it was able to claim again later from Joschka Fischer in 1985, Magic Johnson, etc.

This is one of the unacknowledged moments in running history: the point at which millions of people were caught up in a sporting boom which was based on around a device which made people dramatically more likely to be injured, and ultimately slowed them down as they ran.

You won’t find out about Nike’s malign history in Fire on the Track, but it is a major theme of two books which I’ve discussed before on this blog, Running with the Kenyans and Running Wild.

I forgive him arbitrarily, but essentially on the basis that the shoes in which he was running were as light as they could be made. I doubt anyone properly explained to him the physical basis of Nike’s success.

Ultimately, what I admire is Pre’s running: every running career has a touch of Prefontaine’s about it; but few make it onto the screen. It is the typicality that I enjoy, the sense of watching a screen like a mirror reflecting my own and my friend’s lives (a bit faster, better photographed) staring back at me.