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Triumph of the Swoosh
Donald Katz
August 16, 1993
With a keen sense of the power of sports and a genius for mythologizing athletes to help sell sneakers, Nike bestrides the world of sport like a marketing colossus
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August 16, 1993

Triumph Of The Swoosh

With a keen sense of the power of sports and a genius for mythologizing athletes to help sell sneakers, Nike bestrides the world of sport like a marketing colossus

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I. An Incident: During the Olympic summer of 1992, just days before the Dream Team was expected to receive its gold medals, the most casual of fans learned that certain members of team might ruin one of sports' most hallowed rituals because of their preference in footwear. Officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that if Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton and Chris Mullin—Nike guys making up half the superstar basketball team—did not wear official warmups bearing the emblem of Reebok, the shoe company against which Nike, Inc. has conducted a holy war for much of a decade, they would not be allowed atop the medal stand. But Jordan and the others refused to budge.

As news of the standoff" spread, phone calls began to stream into Nike headquarters, in Beaverton, Ore., most of them indicating that this time the mighty shoe machine had gone too far. Here was a moment meant to transcend the marketplace, an event indicative of sport's traditional purity of purpose, yet a handful of highly paid athletes seemed willing to deny the nation this experience because of loyalty not to the "glory of sport" or the "honor of our teams," as the Olympic oath has it, but to a company in Oregon that makes their shoes.

Barkley—a veritable Tocqueville when moved to observe a complex social phenomenon and distill its essence—underscored the sense that Mammon was about to triumph over patria in Barcelona by proclaiming that he had "two million reasons not to wear Reebok," the number referring to the dollars Barkley would receive during the year from Nike (though Charles managed to double the actual sum). If Barkley had more than a million reasons to refuse to be a human billboard for Reebok, then Jordan was in the process of accumulating 20 million reasons—$20 million over the course of a year for helping an athletic footwear and apparel company mark the look and the feel and even the popular fantasies of daily life as few organizations before it have done.

In a time when most Americans understand that Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan share more than initials and a first name, an era in which even most school kids realize that he doesn't wear a hat bearing a Nike logo just to keep his head warm, word still reached Beaverton that the Barcelona flap could destabilize the company's carefully nurtured relationship with those who regard Nike as synonymous with athletes and athletics. Seven years earlier, in the spring of 1985, when the first Air Jordan commercial appeared on TV, many Americans had never heard of a slender NBA rookie named Jordan. Then that spring a basketball rolled across an urban court and a handsome kid in baggy shorts standing at the center of the prime-time image caught the ball off the toe of one of his technicolor shoes. He began to move across the I blacktop to the keening sound of jet engines revving before take- off, and by the time the engines had roared at critical scream, Jordan was aloft in a slow-motion tableau so magically drawn out that children who couldn't generate the vertical leap to touch a doorknob could climb right inside the moment.

Jordan stayed in the air, his legs splayed, for 10 seconds, en-j chanting spectators who had never been to a basketball game, The 30 seconds of film moved people all over the country up close to Michael Jordan's genius and his grace, and because of a brilliant alchemy that has since made Nike such a profound force in the culture, the shoes on his feet became as magic carpets. So often since then have Jordan's singular physical gifts been decorated with a superhero's mythos that it is now difficult to locate a three-year-old—or, for that matter, a Trobriand Islander or an Inuit hunter—who can't tell you that Jordan is a Nike man. Schoolchildren recently surveyed in China agreed that the two greatest men in history were Zhou Enlai and Michael Jordan, who plays basketball for a living in Chicago, Illinois.

Inside Nike, Jordan and the dozens of other marquee athletes on its team of "consultants" are living representations of the company's belief in the highest moral tenor of athletic pursuit. "Michael holds us to our values," Nike executives will say. Those values inform the corporate goal of "enhancing people's lives through sports and fitness." Over and over these executives proclaim that Nike's success is predicated upon a commitment to "keeping the magic of sport alive."

Among the human passions that can be successfully draped over consumer products—sex, rock 'n' roll, money, sports—all the nobility and pathos of sport has been embraced by the people of Nike as an animating principle and reason for being. The chairman of Nike, Philip Knight, understands that the secret of Nike's success resides along a delicate and emotionally charged progression that connects the company, the consumers and the abiding fantasies that are tethered to sports. On their way to the feet and the closets of the world, the shoes pass through what Knight calls the "life force" of sport. Knight believes that sport "is the culture of the United States" and that, before long, it will define the culture of the entire world.

Knight and the other leaders of Nike were stunned by the perception that Jordan's loyalty to the corporate cause in Barcelona was bad for America and for sports. The whole idea of Nike had been to build a pedestal for sports such as the world had never seen. Nike employees labor for "an athlete's company," an organization run by and for athletes. Although company officials acknowledge that six of 10 Nike customers will never wear their shoes for their intended use, employees still work with the intensity of athletes on a roll, to serve not the consumer but the serious athlete who at least dwells in the imagination of millions of people living in these muscular and sports-minded times.

With impressive speed Nike has come to signify status, glamour, competitive edge and the myriad intricacies of cool. Especially for the young, Nike shoes conjure up a yearning and fascination that for much of the century has been inspired by cars. Just as generations coming of age during a loftier moment for industrial capitalism dwelled on the automobile, young people all over the world now grow up dreaming at night of Nikes. The company receives dozens of drawings every week from children who understand the technicalities of heel counters, crash pads and functional grooves in the way that many of their fathers understood overhead camshafts and four-barreled carbs. One eight-year-old scrawled "The New Air Jet, just $303!" across the bottom of a drawing of a combination basketball shoe and tactical-assault weapon that now hangs in the office of a Nike designer. A "brand power survey" that Nike commissions each year indicates that in a perfect world, the shoes that 77% of the teenage boys in America want—as opposed to ones they actually have or can afford—are Nikes.

Only weeks before Jordan and his Nike teammates sparked international controversy in Barcelona, a new palace of shoes called Nike Town opened in downtown Chicago. The 68,000 square feet of retail space is replete with a basketball court, giant tanks of tropical fish and vivid Nike imagery from ceiling to floor. Within a few weeks Nike Town had supplanted the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium as the most popular tourist attraction in Chicago.

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