July 30, 2012

Consuming Elite Athleticism

A woman smile at the cameraBy Janis Prince Inniss

The entrance to the Olympic trial fields.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 chief executive officer (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, each of which seemed more stylish than the one before. Whether the wearers were young or old, with an athletic build or not, the parade of Nikes was impressive. Nike's presence at the trials went far beyond the footwear of seemingly most of the 25,000 strong crowds of the days we attended. Many of the athletes have contracts A woman posing with her hands on the ground as if she was about to race poses in front of a window with mannequins in racing motionswith the sportswear 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 of the athlete in black 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 as his navigator, there was nothing else for me to do. 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 styles 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 this was the beginning of the end for me. I left the store with dreams of owning one, but put off the purchase for the last leg of the trip. (I Two buses with a Nike logoconfirmed that there was a similar store in Seattle—our last stop—and that it stocked one of the shoes that so captured my imagination.)

A glass sign with small textThe 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 buses were provided to shuttle us to the field. Every bus I saw had Nike ads on it. Once at the trials, we saw the famous Nike swoosh logo at every turn. There was Camp Victory, a walk-through advertisement/shrine to the athletes, and a general A large sign with the Nike Swoosh logo and the words 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 The front half of a van with a Nike logo. On the top of the van it reads 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 shoe 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, or at least 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..

An athletic shoe rests on a table. The front portion is green, the back is black, and there is a white Nike swoosh on the side. The table has a display that reads Nike Flyknit TrainerAn athletic shoe rests on a table. The shoe is a light green with gray stripes running vertically in the middle. There is a black Nike swoosh on the side. The table has a display that reads Nike 200M Elite VictoryAn athletic shoe rests on a table. The shoe is light green and there is a light gray swoosh on the side. The table has a display that has 2 words. The first is Nike, the second is illegible.

A woman poses as if she was running in front of a mannequin positioned in a running stance.Two men utilize a treadmill with a display above both of them with various numbers.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 showed the real-time speeds of the 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 had mounted a very successful marketing campaign, aligning its brand with high-performance athletes and helping customers feel like high-performance athletes themselves. Despite my noticing all 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 other colors to buy. And this from the sociologist who had 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 sports? About consumption more generally?

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