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.
Illustration: Constance Chou
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.
So for years, he said, he borrowed gear made by Asics and Li-Ning, a Chinese company, from a fellow javelin thrower.
He covered those logos with tape or with slices from wristbands that bore the Nike swoosh.
It was never a problem in the little-noticed event, Hazle said, until he won the US title and a photograph of him appeared in Track & Field News. His left foot was raised after a throw, revealing the check-mark logo of Li-Ning on the bottom of his shoe.
Nike was not pleased and exercised an option on his contract in 2012 to keep him from signing with another company, Hazle said, but offered only US$10,000 with no chance of bonuses.
It is unfortunate “if someone is paying your bills and you’re supposed to wear what they give you and it doesn’t work,” Hazle said from Afghanistan, where he is serving in the Air National Guard. “But at the end of the day, it’s going to compromise your performance, so you’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Nike said it did not comment on contracts, but expected that its sponsored athletes “will always wear Nike products unless there is some specific, mutually agreed exception.”
One high-profile exception took place last year. Christian Taylor of the US, who won the triple jump at the 2012 Olympics and signed with Nike last year, was permitted to wear Adidas shoes at the world track and field championships in Beijing while Nike customized shoes for him. Taylor, the triple jump favorite at this year’s Olympics, now wears Nikes.
Two medal favorites in the high jump, Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Derek Drouin of Canada, have also been permitted by Nike to wear shoes from other brands that are covered by elastic sleeves resembling spats that bear the Nike swoosh.
“As with any athlete, we are working closely with them to get the shoe that best suits their specific needs,” Charlie Brooks, a Nike spokesman, said in an e-mail. “There’s no issue with our shoes, it’s just a matter of personal customization for these athletes. We anticipate they’ll be jumping in Nike shoes soon.”
Camouflaging reflects the particular nature of track and field, which finds itself in the limelight every four years during the Summer Games.
Sprinters, pole-vaulters and steeplechasers generally do not receive annual salaries from teams the way professional football and basketball players do. Instead, they mostly rely on prize money and contracts with shoe companies, along with other endorsements.
The apparel companies, Nike in particular, wield strong influence. They equip athletes and keep the struggling sport afloat. However, they can also reduce payments when certain performance goals are not met. And, at certain meets like the Olympics, athletes are restricted from wearing competing sponsor logos on their uniforms and as temporary tattoos.
The number of track meets is dwindling, as are the available prize money and appearance fees, athletes and agents say.
Rampant doping has threatened the legitimacy of the sport. Income disparity is wide.
The sprinting champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica, track’s one global superstar, who is sponsored by Puma, makes US$32.5 million a year, including US$30 million in endorsements, according to an estimate by Forbes.
Far less visible but successful athletes say they might make as little as US$10,000 to US$25,000 annually.
Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist, who has had a long affiliation with Nike, said the camouflaging of shoes is “a microcosm of what the real issue is: Are we really creating a professional sport?”
“Why are we so dependent on just shoe companies?” said Lewis, an assistant coach at the University of Houston.
Some athletes said they considered it disrespectful and unprofessional to cover up the logo of a sponsor.
“If they’re paying money, the least we can do is respect their dollar,” said Wallace Spearmon of the US, a 200m sprinter and a former Nike athlete.
Other athletes owe no allegiance because they have no shoe sponsor.
Johnny Dutch of the US has run the fastest time in the world this year in the 400m hurdles.
However, he said he had been without a shoe sponsor for three years since his Nike contract ended.
At the Olympic track and field trials in July in Eugene, Oregon, Dutch wore shoes that were spray-painted neon orange to cover the logos of Nike and two other brands.
This was done, in part, to express his artistic side, said Dutch, 27, an aspiring filmmaker.
However, it was also his way of saying that, for him to display any shoe company logo, “they’ve got to support me,” he said. “They’ve got to give me something where I can live and pay my medical bills.”
Money had become so tight, Dutch said, that he had moved from Miami to live with his parents in Raleigh, North Carolina.
His chance to gain visibility and financial buoyancy as an Olympian disappeared when Dutch clipped the final hurdle in the 400m hurdles at the trials and faded from first place to fifth.
Only the top three advanced to Rio.
Disconsolate, Dutch said he intended to retire.
“I feel like I can’t do this no more,” he said. “I’ve been struggling financially. I don’t have a contract. I have no job.”
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