Consuming Elite Athleticism
The story of how I, a self-respecting sociologist, came to be in receipt of four Nike shoes in the last two days is a long one. It started with a trip that my husband and I took to the track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Eugene is TrackTown, USA but also NikeTown! The relationship goes back to the history making collaboration between legendary track and field coach Bill Bowerman and Nike CEO Phil Knight, as I described here in a previous post. The apparent impact of this auspicious coupling is that everyone in Eugene wears Nike sneakers. This is not literally true, but I have never seen as many people in Nikes as I did there!
At the Olympic Trials (a natural place for athletic attire and shoes, my husband and I marveled at each successive pair of Nikes that seemed more stylish than the one before. Young and old, athletic build or not, the parade of Nikes was impressive. Nike's presence at the Trials went far beyond footwear of seemingly most of the 25,000 strong crowds of the days we attended. Many of the athletes have contracts with the giant and evidently refused to wear or are barred from donning the red Adidas jackets given to the top three of each race (see picture for an example).
My husband’s list of places to see was short, but visiting the Nike store was on that list. I accompanied him to the store because there was nothing else for me to do as his navigator. I was not prepared to be blown away by the merchandise, but I was. I saw some of the exciting footwear we noticed at the trials and was pleased to see that many cost less than I had imagined. It wouldn’t hurt to try one of the flashy neon pairs on, would it? You are right if you guessed that was the beginning of my end. I left the store with dreams of owning one, but put off the purchase for the last leg of the trip. (I confirmed that there was a similar store in Seattle—our last stop—and that it stocked one of the shoes that so captured my imagination.)
The Nike sales pitch began before we arrived at Hayward Field, where the event trials were being held. Parking for the trials was a few miles away, but busses were provided to shuttle us to the field. Every bus I saw had Nike sleeves on it. Once at the trials, we saw the famous Nike swoosh at every turn. There was Camp Victory, a walk through advertisement/shrine to the athletes, and general entertainment zone. Camp Victory replicated a track, connecting several trapezoid structures, each about 1,400 square feet, housing a different exhibition. (Read this article to learn more about the design of Camp Victory and the exhibits it housed.) Camp Victory also included a wall with up-to-date results (at least from the day before) of the top three athletes in every event; they all will represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
Included in Camp Victory was the Shoe Lab: a walk through exhibition of the latest Nike shoes, with knowledgeable staff explaining the new technology. (I learned that Nike sales staff from other cities were brought to work at the trials; why do you think the company chose to do so rather than hire locals for this event?)
In order to purchase the newest one there, you had to have made an appointment online. Why do you think that was so? The idea of being among the first people in the world to own shoes that would one day, I assume, make it to all/most parts of the world was tempered by the cost of being in such an exclusive club! The three shoes, which in my hands would have been displayed on one table, were the only features in an entire exhibit.
There was also a Treadmill Challenge, stocked with two treadmills powered by the runners’ momentum, where you could see an overhead readout of their effort. Another exhibition was the Speed Tunnel in which an LED screen gave us real time speeds of competitors. (When we walked through, we were told that Ashton Eaton, fresh off of his World Record performance, had just been through and was able to re-experience his performance on the field.) The Nike retail store in Camp Victory was stocked with all the athletic gear you would expect, and all of it advertised the event.
From my perspective, Nike mounted a very successful marketing campaign, aligning their brand with high performance athletes and helping customers feel like high-performance athletes themselves. Despite my noticing all of the things I have described, and recognizing them as advertisements for the company, when I saw an orange pair of sneakers on sale for half price in Seattle, I got so excited that I spent two hours in the store trying on different ones and trying to figure out how many and which colors to buy. This from the sociologist who scoffed at those wearing new shoes in this post. My husband? He bought two pairs, but now wishes he had bought more!
What does my experience teach us about the commercialization of sport? About consumption more generally?