When the entire world’s paying attention, you better have something great to say, and the sneaker industry has used the Olympics as its platform to communicate its most powerful messages. It’s an opportunity for the major brands to introduce their most forward-thinking designs all in the name of one-upping their competition. And, God, is it beautiful.
Nearly every great sneaker was once created for sports, whether it’s an Adidas Stan Smith, Nike Air Force 1, or Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star. Even though we use these shoes for lifestyle purposes these days, their innovation lies within the world of athletics. This means that footwear brands have to base themselves within the realm of sporting innovation if they want to keep their business moving. With athletes competing against each other from around the world, the Olympics has served as an event that’s able not inspire people from different nations, but as a forum for opposing brands to display their dominance over the competition: to show who reigns superior; who’s won the gold medal in footwear creation and marketing.
In the past, Nike has give an "Olympic" version of the Air Jordan VII to wear while he dunked on the rest of the world in Barcelona in 1992, and Reebok launched a wildly popular “Dan and Dave” campaign, which failed when Dan O’Brien didn’t make the games. But the Olympics are bigger than just the latest ad campaign or shoe colorway, they’re the platform that shapes the sneaker industry. Whatever happens is going to get noticed by the entire world and set the path for the footwear world to follow.
Remember when Michael Johnson won a gold medal wearing matching Nike track spikes at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta? Even further back, Adi Dassler personally made a pair of track spikes for Jesse Owens, a black athlete, to wear in front of Nazi Germany for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
These moments transcend sneakers from beyond something worn on a person’s feet to items that can unify or, at the least, bring together people from across the world and from all walks of life. Putting red, white, and blue (with a touch of Olympic gold) on a pair of sneakers can stir up feelings in nearly every American. The Olympics are a time where we put aside our differences and collectively cheer on whatever nation we call home, and this is the perfect opportunity for sneaker brands to bring forth product that’s going to excite everyone.
Adidas did this for the 1972 Munich Olympics with its SL 72 sneaker, a shoe that leaves a better lasting impression than the terror attacks that plagued the games. The brand also did the same for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, aptly naming the sneaker the “Rom,” which still has a solid following today.
But, as of late, the Olympic games have been about innovation. Flyknit has been commercially huge for Nike, and it only made more sense that America’s greatest athletes wore the Volt-colored Flyknit Racers as they accepted their medals. Not only were they achieving the highest sporting honor, but they also had the best sneakers on their feet. The same goes for the U.S. Men’s Basketball’s “Redeem Team” wearing the Nike Hyperdunk in 2008, which saw Nike debut Lunar and Flywire technology at those games.
All of these moments have given the respective brands publicity to their best sneakers and ultimately boosted their sales, but other instances have thrust sneakers into the limelight in more forceful ways. Mark Spitz, at the advice of Adidas founder Adi Dassler’s son, Horst Dassler, held his Gazelles in the air on the podium of the ‘72 games. Spitz didn’t want his baggy trackpants to cover his shoes, so he put them where the world could see them. This guerilla marketing didn’t turn the Gazelle into the sneaker it is today, but it didn’t hurt.
The Rio games have already had their fair share of sporting drama, but the biggest sneaker moments are yet to come. Nike plans to unveil some groundbreaking technology, while Adidas is using the Olympics to give select athletes a black version of its 3D-printed Futurecraft shoe. They’re doing something revolutionary, but that’s the beauty of the Olympics. Athletes and sneaker brands need to put everything on the line to achieve glory.