I’m going to say it: this month’s Runner’s World article on the relationship between Nike and Pre felt too much like an advertisement to be ultimately inspiring.
Ostensibly authored by Phil Knight, who is the founder of Nike and a man who changed the world of sports marketing in the process, the article holds a few gems about Pre and some honest observations as well. Knight acknowledges that Pre could have, and possibly should have, held off in the closing laps of the 1972 Olympics 5000 meters and settled for a solid Silver Medal. But Pre was having none of that. He ran close to a 4:00 mile trying to win gold and wound up fourth.
Knight was ‘right there’ through many of Pre’s accomplishments. So there is no question Knight has right to claim close association to Pre. Yet he also admits to an almost eclipsed style of relationship with the man. His sales guy Geoff Hollister was the one who actually got along best with Steve Prefontaine. Yet Knight admits to busting Hollister’s balls over compensation at the time, even as he was leveraging Hollister’s relationship with Pre.
Ultimately Hollister was sent on the road with Pre to pump up Nike shoes. Nike made Pre an employee of sorts because the world of amateur athletics and compensation was so disturbingly screwed up at the time. Amateur athletes were being held to ridiculously purist standards by organizations like the AAU. It caused many great athletes to needlessly suffer and jump through hoops just to do the sport they loved and represent America, to boot.
In the mix
I was no world class athlete. But I was right there when Nike broke into the running scene in the 1970s. We all tried on the Nike Corsairs or whatever, and things were changing fast in running shoes. In college, I wore Nike Waffle Trainers and the massive Nike LDVs with their wedged rubber heels. I raced in Nike Elite flats all the way through senior year of college and beyond. They were great shoes. And I adored my Nike Air Edges. Ran all my road PRs in them.
I also raced as a sponsored runner for a store called Running Unlimited that gave us free racing shoes and training shoes in exchange for racing 24 times in a year. I won twelve of those races and still have the singlet from the store. It’s a little tight because I weigh 30 pounds more these days than I did back then. But that singlet still makes me want to race.
Ultimately, I even got married in Nike Pegasus running shoes. I bought Pegasus for all the groomsman too.
So I’m not trying to bash Nike here. But something about that article by Phil Knight smacks too much of commercial interests. Nike is a company determined to dominate wherever they compete for market share. They’ve invested millions (if not billions) in endorsements and yet they’ve had to face down competition from burgeoning upstarts like Under Armor, who beat Nike to the punch on sleek-fitting gear.
But here’s the funny thing. There’s no way Phil Knight can tell his story without emphasis on the commercial aspects of his life’s endeavors. He has reason to be proud of Nike and its associations with great athletes like Pre and Michael Jordan. Knight plainly drew inspiration from Pre, there is no doubt about that. We all did.
I was a big Pre fan too. Modeled my look after the man for some time, including the mustache. I tried to mimic his racing style as well. Sometimes with success, and sometimes not.
Probably I looked more like Lasse Viren in some ways than Pre. At one point there was even a chin beard on my face similar to the Finn. Not a good look. But I also admired greatly the achievements of Frank Shorter, the man they called the Vertical Hyphen. The same could be said of Craig Virgin and Herb Lindsey, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. All these great runners provided some level of inspiration. Probably too much at times.
It is a strange world of vicarious joys and personal attempts at glory that we athletes occupy. And while I respect the seemingly parallel virtues of Pre and Nike, the cynical side of me suspects this article is a little too perfect, too planned, and too PR to be ultimately genuine. It is four full pages of content in a magazine that does not do that many long articles anymore. It makes me wonder if there is a monetary commitment somewhere in this mix. It has been said that 60% or more of the “news” we consume on a daily basis is public relations material submitted or brokered by moneyed interests. I’ve worked in PR. I know how this stuff works sometimes.
To be truthful and draw a parallel to the world of sports, we might call public relations a form of Editorial Doping.
But in the end, people don’t seem to care if the information they consume is all genuine or not. The Internet has turned the information world inside out in some ways. We’ve also survived the onslaught of good and bad publicity about Lance Armstrong, another Nike athlete, who essentially built a fortune on a combination of good public relations and carefully constructed lies. Yet at the same time, Lance won the Tour de France seven times. You simply can’t do that just because you put some extra blood in a bag, especially when everyone else on the Tour was doping too.
Better source of inspiration
So I guess the Nike and Pre article is fine. It’s an interesting read. But if you want a clean take on Steve Prefontaine, much better to read this article by my favorite running writer Kenny Moore, who was a college teammate of Steve Prefontaine. Moore wrote a biography on Bill Bowerman, the coach who helped Pre become the runner he was.
When the book came out, a friend and former college roommate/teammate of mine with connections to Oregon was visiting the City of Eugene with a running mate who ran for the Ducks back in the day. My friend purchased a signed copy of the Kenny Moore/Bowerman book for me. He knew I needed inspiration about life because we were in the midst of difficult times with my wife’s cancer. The book arrived at my home in a plain brown cardboard shipping envelope. I opened it up and saw the signature inside and just cried. And cried.
We all feel these connections to things past and present. We all draw inspiration in our own way from people like Steve Prefontaine. Some of us like Phil Knight go on to found massive companies like Nike. And some of us put on Nikes and go out for runs with tears in our eyes astonished that people can be so amazing.
Perhaps it’s cynical of me to doubt the genuine motivations for an article like the one in Runner’s World this month. It all has to happen somehow.
There’s just part of me that will always keep a suspicious eye open for the manipulation of the heart for commercial or political reasons. “And at Nike,” Knight observed about the origins of his company, “we were preparing to put our money where our emotions were.”
I guess that’s true of all of us in some way.