Sun, Aug 07, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Competing for Olympic fame, wearing brand X on their feet

Often supplied with inadequate footwear by their sponsors, track and field athletes wear other brands to the racetrack on condition that they cover the logos, or risk losing their paychecks

By Jere Longman and Joe Ward  /  NY Times News Service, RIO DE JANEIRO

Illustration: Constance Chou

The track and field events at the Rio Olympics this month are to showcase elite athletic talent and, if you look closely, creative subterfuge.

Tape, markers, elastic sleeves and maybe even paint will disguise some shoe brand logos in an Olympic sleight of foot.

In track and field, the centerpiece sport of the Summer Games, shoes are the most vital piece of equipment and serve purposes beyond performance: Supplying advertising billboards for apparel companies and providing financial footing for athletes. However, some athletes do not want the world to see the logos on their shoes, or they are prohibited from doing so by their sponsors if they wear competing brands.

Although US track and field athletes at the Rio Games must wear uniforms bearing the familiar swoosh of Nike, an official team sponsor, they are free to wear their own brand of shoes, disguised or not.

Take, for example, Jeremy Taiwo, a decathlete from Seattle who is to wear eight pairs of shoes in his 10 events, each with a function as specific as a golf club’s.

His shoe sponsor is Brooks, but the company does not make shoes designed for throwing and jumping events. So Taiwo also plans to wear shoes made by Nike, Adidas and Asics. He must cover the logos of those competing brands, which he plans to do with tape, elastic sleeves and cleverly shaded fabric.

“In terms of athletic performance, you have to have the right shoes to be able to meet your goals,” Taiwo, 26, said in a telephone interview before traveling to Rio de Janeiro. “And ultimately, you have to do well so you can get paid. If you make it, your shoes are largely responsible for that.”

The camouflaging demonstrates the power of the US$75 billion global athletic footwear industry, which closely monitors what athletes wear — and, with lawyers at its beck and call, what they do not.

Although it is unclear how many athletes will be disguising their footwear at the games, the practice is not uncommon at track meets, with the reasons for the cover-ups almost as varied as the shoes available.

Athletes who have no shoe sponsor might not want to give free advertising to any company, preferring to signal that they are free agents.

Taiwo called this an act of “no representation without compensation.”

Other athletes disguise shoes because they are transitioning from one company to another and are continuing to wear their old shoes while new ones are being perfected. Some, like Taiwo, participate in events for which their sponsor does not make shoes. Some athletes are simply dissatisfied with the gear made by their sponsor.

Sometimes, shoe companies give permission for athletes to wear another, disguised brand. Other times, they take umbrage and the controversy becomes public.

In a widely reported incident in 2013, Nike withdrew a contract offer to the US record-holder in the pole vault, Brad Walker, after Walker taped over a strap on his shoes and covered the swoosh logo.

Walker wrote on Facebook at the time that he was not trying to undermine Nike, but was using tape to “hold together a shoe that shouldn’t break down within six months.”

Nike did not say why the contract offer was rescinded, only that Walker “did not take up this option in a timely manner.” Walker put his gear up for sale on eBay.

Mike Hazle, the 2011 US champion in the javelin, said his Nike-made shoes were too narrow, causing his toenails to fall off and his feet to become numb.

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