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Bowerman & Knight

Bill Bowerman & Phil Knight

The Modern Athletic Shoe

Rubber-soled shoes were first mass-marketed as canvas-top "sneakers" by U.S. Rubber, with its Keds® in 1917. But the elevation of athletic shoe manufacture to both a science and a fashion was due largely due to Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman of Oregon.

In 1958, Phil Knight, a business major at the University of Oregon, and a miler on the track team, shared with his coach, Bill Bowerman, a dissatisfaction with the clumsiness of American running shoes. They formed a company in 1964 to market a lighter and more comfortable shoe designed by Bowerman. In 1968, this company became NIKE, Inc.---named for the Greek goddess of Victory. At first, Knight and Bowerman sold their shoes in person, at track meets across the Western US.

Their company thrived through a classic combination of entrepreneurship and innovation. Bowerman's most memorable technical breakthrough was the optimal traction of the waffle soles he invented by shaping rubber in the waffle iron in his kitchen (1972). Other essential innovations were the wedged heel, the cushioned mid-sole, and nylon uppers. Knight's first great marketing ploy was announcing that "four of the top seven finishers" in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Trials had worn NIKEs (the first three runners, in fact, had worn West German Adidas®). Through the 80s and 90s, NIKE's advertisements helped make it by far the foremost retailer of athletic shoes world-wide, thanks to endorsements from superstars like Michael Jordan, and catchy slogans like "Just Do It."

After dozens of years, patents, and commercials, NIKE and its competitors created an absolute mania for elaborate athletic shoes, in the US and abroad. Though fashion remains a matter of taste, it is undeniable that both world-class athletes and even the average aerobics enthusiast owe a debt to the innovations of Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, and to the industry they inspired.

[May 1997]

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