Tag Archives: running

Nike: making workers poor and runners lame


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.

17 June: still time to sign up


I’ve had half a dozen runners, of (I think) possibly quite differing standards, offer to join me this Saturday running the Green London Way (route above in green) from Cambridge Heath to Stratford. To recap, for anyone who missed my original post: Bob Gilbert’s book The Green London Way has been in print for 20 years. It contains a series of walking routes around the edges of London (or at least around the edges of zones 2 and 3), taking in rivers, canal and tow-paths, abandoned railway lines, urban footpaths, parks and common land. It is a Green and Red guide to London’s history, taking in urban riots, protests for public access to the land, polluters, strikes, etc.

The idea of running this stretch of The Green London Way was suggested to me by Mark Perryman, a fellow runner, the founder of Philosophy Football, and a contributor to this blog. On Friday July 27, while the Olympic nobs are attending the Games’ opening ceremony, Mark is organising an Alternative Olympic Party at the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green. A poet, a singer and a photographer have already walked the above route. Mark has invited me to run it myself and report what I see. I am particularly looking forward to getting a sense for myself of how much of the Olympic Park is still open to the public (the answer may well be not much).

I will be starting at 3pm on 17 June at Cambridge Heath station. Expect four miles or so of urban London at a gentle pace (c9-10 minutes per mile) depending on who joins in. Dear reader; would you care to join me?

It’s the Taking Part


With participation one of the main legacy claims of the London 2012 Games. Mark Perryman examines the credentials of the running boom as a better model to achieve this.

The Olympic Motto  “ The most important thing is not the winning but the taking part” represents many of the finest ideals not only of Olympism but any model of sport as democratic, participative and accessible. It is the kind of sentiment that in lots of ways describes the dynamic of the late 1970s running boom.

In the USA jogging took off following US athlete Frank Shorter’s victory in the Munich 1972 Olympic Marathon. Shorter’s success, together with Jim Fixx’s best-selling The Complete Book of Running, helped popularise what in effect was a social movement of sport. Fun runs, charity runs, road races, all became part of a glorious explosion of physical activity just for the sake of keeping fit and having a good time. Participation was the aim, not winning. Fixx’s book further boosted jogging’s dynamic growth by setting out the case for regular exercise as the most effective antidote to the threat of heart trouble. The social movement was transforming itself into a fitness revolution.

As with so many cultural phenomenon, what first began in the USA took off in the UK a few years later. Radio One DJ Jimmy Saville fronted a Sunday night BBC TV programme that aimed to persuade viewers of the virtues of long distance running. Bedecked in gold jewellery and puffing an occasional cigar, the middle-aged Saville was the opposite of what many would imagine a road runner to look like. But he regularly ran marathons to raise money for good causes, linking the very obvious joy he took from running to the benefits it could bring to others. Saville virtually invented the idea of the charity marathon runner and countless thousands followed his lead.

The enduring appeal of the Marathon, as well as the half-marathon or fun-runs that take place in towns and cities across the country, is that anyone can take part, provided they have a minimum of stamina and commitment. Thus the Olympic Creed, first read out during the 1908 Games and a vital part of the ceremonial traditions at Games ever since, acquires some popular meaning. When it comes to a marathon, everyone wins, merely by starting and finishing.

Now well into its second week the Olympic Torch Relay on the surface would seem to represent all of these kind of good sentiments as sport for all. Criss-crossing the country, coming to a city, town, or village near you. Isn’t this what ‘taking part’ should be all about? Instead it reveals the flimsy populism combined with chronic lack of ambition that London 2012 has come to symbolise. The Relay has of course proved popular, almost any event with this scale of publicity and coverage would surely attract inquisitive crowds. And the passion is entirely genuine. But how is that energy being connected to participation. Beyond waving a flag, cheering from the kerbside, providing a backdrop to the sponsors’ branding and celebrity torchbearers what opportunities are there to take part?

A Torch Relay for all would have started off with popular participation as its organising principle. Each 10k leg the roads and pathways closed for the torchbearer to be followed by fun runners and active walkers London Marathon or Great North Run style. This could have been the biggest venture ever in participative sport, yet none of this gets a look-in because it might deflect, literally overrun even, the sponsors message instead.  Villages towns, localities within a city  each given their stretch of the route to run or walk down. All this would have amounted to involving far more than the really quite limited numbers in the London 2012 version of the Torch Relay and directly connected to initiatives that provide the vital access to participation in sport the Olympics at its best can provide.

The irony of the Olympics is that not only does its structure forcefully limit the possibility to participate but also its model of what constitutes meaningful sport is as likely to discourage participation as encourage it. The challenge should be to propose a Games that breaks with these factors that so limit its capacity while increasing costs to no discernible impact on the supposed benefits.

Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Available at a 15% pre-publication discount from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

Running in the rain


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.

The physiology of middle- and long-distance runnning


The press coverage of the London Marathon focuses on two familiar stories: one is the triumph of Kenyan athletes, not just Wilson Kipsang in the men’s marathon, but Mary Keitany in the woman’s event. Behind their victory is a familiar story of Kenyan success: conventionally explained in terms of the pervasiveness of role models and of non-competitive running, and of the knowledge of running as a route out of poverty. The contrast is with Britain, where the avarage age of marathon runners is increasing, and the times of elite marathon runners are worsening and not improving.

The second story is the partial success of the Brits: including top-finishing British woman Claire Hallissey, who took 2 minutes off her personal best in running an Olympic qualifying time of 2 hrs 27 (9 minutes behind Keitany), and will almost certainly be picked as the third choice for the Olympic marathon squad. Compare Lee Merrien, who ran 2:13 in the men’s race (again, 9 minutes behind Kipsang), outside the 2:12 required to join Scott Overall in the men’s London 2012 team. It seems almost inevitable therefore that Team GP will have just 1 runner in the Olympic men’s marathon.

A number of friends have criticised a piece I posted here a month ago, arguing that middle- and long-distance runners have different builds and a different psychology.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at the records of Hallissey and Merrien.

I haven’t been able to find a record of Hallissey’s weight or height, but looking at a database of Hallissey’s top times, I see that she runs shorter distances often (she had her annual bests recorded for 800 metres over 5 of the last 9 years), but also relatively poorly. Her all-time best over 800 metres is 2 minutes 18 seconds. (This was the 307th best time run by a British woman that year, in other years Hallissey’s times would put her around 600-700th in the UK rankings).

In other words, she is a light runner with a very high proportion of slow-stretch muscle, and a relatively low-proportion of fast-stretch muscle. This shouldn’t be surprising, it explains why she is good at the marathon. (Presumably, she would be even better still at ultra-marathons). But it’s a very different physiology from a middle-distance runner, who needs a much more explosive finish, and who necessarily has a much higher proportion of fast-stretch muscle.

Lee Merrien is a more complex runner. Aged 32 (33 in a matter of days), for a long time he was ranked only as a middle-distance runner. Indeed his early times over 800 metres were dramatically faster than Hallissey’s: including a 1 minute 49 in the 800 metres. (There’s a 10% gap between their best times over the marathon but a 25% gap between their best times over 800 metres). But he’s been gradually shifting to longer distances: his best times over 800m and 1500m were reached when he was 27, he got his 10k pb at 29, and he’s just had his best time for a marathon.

Merrien’s height is recorded as 181 cm / 5’11”  and weight: 65 kg / 143 lbs.

While this isn’t as spindly as Kipsang, this is definitely a much lighter physique than say Steve Ovett (2 cm taller and 5 kg heavier at his peak).

Merrien is alos relatively lighter than Alberto Junatorena, Ovett’s nemesis at the 1976 Olympics, who was 9 cm taller and a full 25 kg heavier than him.

Natural middle-distance runners do just have a heavier build even than a reconditioned runner like Merrien who started off in the middle-distances before joining the marathon club relatively late in life.