Two-time 800-meter Olympian Nick Symmonds qualified for the 2015 World Championships team by winning the U.S. Championship in June, but he’s off the team. Symmonds refused to sign the USA Track & Field contract requiring Team USA members to wear only Nike-branded gear at all “official” (and the quotation marks are USATF’s, not mine) events in Beijing, including while hanging out in the hotel, at press conferences, and in training and competition.
By putting quotes around the word official, USATF makes it seem like it’s not in charge of defining which events in their program fall under the Nike sponsorship agreement, that the call is someone else’s. Nike’s perhaps.
Symmonds, who is primarily sponsored by Brooks, took issue with the vagueness of the contract, saying that, together with a letter he received previously from USATF asking athletes to pack ONLY Nike-branded underwear and outerwear for the trip, it sounded like every minute of the three-week trip was to be an official Nike-logoed event. And that having to wear head-to-toe swoosh at all times made him a pretty sucky investment for Brooks. He was willing to wear the Nike-branded Team USA gear at press conferences and while training in Beijing and in competition—no sweat. He just thought he should be able to wear whatever he wants to while hanging around the hotel. And sleeping. And dancing. And playing video games. Nike’s not the boss of him all the time, right?
But USATF is, and during the World Championship trip that’s the same thing.
The national governing body of track and field (you know, in charge of rules and promoting the sport) gets an average of $20 million a year, of a total annual budget of $28 million to $30 million, from Nike to ensure that Nike will be the sole provider of Team USA gear with the exception of sunglasses, watches and shoes. (Symmonds, who has taken on the IOC before, also takes issue with the fact that elite runners see only eight percent of USATF revenue, compared with 50 percent or so in most major sports.)
Increasingly, it seems, the number of “official” events and the scope of Nike’s ownership has expanded. But it wasn’t always this way. As Jim Ferstle recalls on Down The Backstretch, in 1991, Nike employee Steve Miller called out sprinter Carl Lewis and another Santa Monica Track Club athlete for wearing Santa Monica TC shirts during a workout prior to the World Championship instead of the Nike-branded Team USA shirt. Then-exective director of USATF Ollan Cassell told Miller, “They [the athletes] don’t belong to you.” In essence, Cassell/USATF told Miller/Nike to back off, and they did.
Twenty-four years later, it’s hard to imagine that happening. Coincidentally, Steve Miller is now on USATF’s board of directors. In fact, USATF would not even clarify for Symmonds which events were official swoosh-wearing functions and what portion of the athletes’ days in Beijing, if any, did not require being Nike-swathed.
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