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Bracelet mania

Armstrong's yellow wrist bands have become cultural phenomenon

Posted: Friday September 10, 2004 5:01PM; Updated: Friday September 10, 2004 5:01PM
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Hicham El Guerrouj
Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco won the 5,000-meter gold medal in Athens.
Michael Steele/Getty Images

So there I was sitting in the Athens Olympic Stadium almost two weeks ago. It was raining yellow and I was feeling cynical, as reporters are wont to do. I was covering the last night of track and field events at the 2004 Games. In one race, 22-year-old Russian Yuriy Borzakovsky won the 800 meters with a brilliant finishing kick. Fans will remember the shock and elation on his face, but they will also remember the fluorescent yellow band on his wrist.

Half an hour later Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, the greatest middle distance runner in history, added the 5,000-meter gold medal to his victory in the 1,500 meters. He raised two fingers into the air to signify his double golds, but eyes were pulled to the yellow bracelet on his wrist.

In the last race of the night, the United States finished second in the 4x100-meter relay. The USA's second leg was Justin Gatlin, who six days earlier had won the fastest Olympic 100-meter race in history. He, too, wore a yellow band on his left wrist. He had it on during the 100 and on this night you could see it clearly, even through the chaos of runners and batons as he passed the stick to Coby Miller at the 200-meter mark in the race.

The yellow bracelets had been around for more than three months at that point, introduced on May 17 by the Lance Armstrong Foundation and funded initially by Nike. They bear Armstrong's LiveStrong motto and are sold for $1, with all proceeds going to the LAF to fund its cancer education, research and advocacy programs. Armstrong wore one in winning the Tour de France for the sixth time and said in mid-August that he will never take it off.

Yet, for me the last night of the Games was when the yellow bracelets crossed over into the realm of cultural phenomenon. Perhaps I was slow on the uptake, but suddenly it seemed that LiveStrong bracelets were everywhere. And I wasn't alone. "I don't know what it was with the Olympics, but something happened there,'' says Michelle Milford, associate director of public relations for the LAF. On the Monday after the Games, the LAF sold more than 300,000 bracelets in a single day. It is part of being a journalist to suspect ulterior motives in any statement, any occurrence, any product. The reporter's antennae are particularly sensitive to anything undertaken by sports marketing giants like Nike. (Or Coke. Or Gatorade. Or the NFL.)

Nike and its advertising partners have conceived some of the most brilliant marketing campaigns in history, beginning with Michael Jordan and Spike Lee/Mars Blackmon and straight on through to its association with Tiger Woods. Sometimes the giant from the Oregon woods is subtle, sometimes loud, sometimes wrongheaded. (Remember 1996's You Don't Win Silver, You Lose Gold billboard campaign? Awful.) But what Nike does better than any athletic footwear and apparel manufacturer in the world is spread its brand.

Back to the yellow bracelets. In Athens, many Nike athletes wore the bands -- which they were given in May. Many will surely continue to do the same in other sports. Successful brand marketing is all about swift and effective recognition by the public, and Nike, in this case, has partnered with a cause (the LAF) to create a product that's visible, popular and screams, among other things, "Nike!'' From the marketing end, it doesn't get much better than that. And Nike isn't even involved actively anymore; the company paid for the manufacture of the first five million LiveStrong bracelets and made a $1 million donation to the LAF, but stopped at that point.

And how popular are the yellow bracelets? The Lance Armstrong Foundation set an initial goal of selling five million bracelets; as of Friday, they had sold 12 million. A second manufacturing plant has been brought online to keep up with orders (the LAF pays 23 cents to make and ship each bracelet; the remaining 77 cents goes to the foundation). As of Friday afternoon, eBay had 35 pages of LiveStrong bracelets for sale, some for a dollar, but many, shamefully, for more than that. This, of course, is the ultimate validation.

Yet here is where the cynicism ends, because even if the LiveStrong bracelets have served to strengthen the mighty Nike brand and to make Armstrong even more popular than six Tour wins and two best-selling books have done, there is a greater good at work. Family members and friends of mine wear the yellow bands. Some of them are cancer survivors. Some have lost friends or family to the disease. (Find someone who has not.) My two teenaged children have ordered LiveStrong bracelets, and have become cranky because they are back ordered, and so many of their friends already have them.

Is this because they're cool? Sure it is. But rare is the product in American culture that can be both good and cool. That can find its way onto the limbs of fiercely trend-conscious youth and cause-driven adults. That can raise money -- $12 million is nothing to sneeze at -- in the fight to reduce the lives lost to a terrible disease. It is a just rubber band, dyed bright, but it has made people feel as if they are doing something helpful just by slipping it onto their wrists. The bracelts would be a bargain at many times the cost.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.