So you can be the smartest person in the room next time you’re in a convo about the Swoosh, we present 25 facts and stories about Nike Running surely to blow your mind! From the controversial origins of the famed Cortez model to the unbelievable design fee paid out for the Nike Swoosh logo, if you’re big into trainers, we bet you’ll find a factoid or two you previously didn’t know about. Nike’s roots are grounded in track and running, and without Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman coming together to form Blue Ribbon Sports, the footwear landscape we know today would look drastically different.
Hey Coach (1955)
Prior to establishing the company that would eventually become the athletic wear behemoth known as Nike, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman met at the University of Oregon. Back in 1955, Knight was a young but talented distance runner, and Bowerman, a well respected track coach.
500 Bucks And A Handshake (1964)
After graduating from UofO and getting his Masters in Finance at Stanford, Phil Knight knew running shoes could be made cheaper in Asia. After cold-calling Japanese brand Onitsuka, and persuading them into making him a distributor, Knight sent his first samples to Bowerman at Oregon, hoping to make a sale. But, rather than buying sneakers, Bowerman wanted to become partners. They each pledged $500 and, on a handshake agreement, established Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964.
California Love (1967)
Despite being forever rooted in the Great Pacific Northwest, Nike’s (then Blue Ribbon) first retail shop opened in Santa Monica, California, in 1967.
Chicken or the Egg? (1968)
At what point does modification on enhancement become it’s own design? The story behind Blue Ribbon/Nike’s first on-track success story is a long and complicated one, especially depending on who you ask. But essentially, the shoe that kick started the Nike brand may (or may not) have been a rip-off. See, back in the mid-60s, Blue Ribbon was the exclusive US distributor of the popular Onitsuka Tiger shoes. At the time, Bill Bowerman had taken some of his favorite pieces of two popular Tiger models and stitched together his own prototype sneaker. Onitsuka loved it, and rushed the sneaker into production just in time for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. After a legal battle with adidas over the proposed name, the companies dubbed the new sneaker the Cortez.
But, after the success of the Cortez, the stories diverge. What we know, is that shortly after, Blue Ribbon Sports began making their own Cortez, under the Nike label (and, more importantly, without any of the Onitsuka branding). This lead to yet another legal battle wherein both companies were allowed to continue manufacturing the shoes, under differing names. Nike was awarded the Cortez name, while Onitsuka changed theirs to the Corsair. To this day, it’s the only shoe to be a best-seller for two different companies.
The Soul of Nike (1970)
While many believe Romainian tennis player Ilie Nastase to be Nike’s first sponsored athlete, if you ask Nike, it’s Steve Prefontaine. To the uninitiated, before a car accident cut his life short at just 24, Steve Prefontaine was a transcendent young University of Oregon track star in the early ’70s. With his coach Bill Bowerman essentially prototyping all his early track shoes with him in mind, he was essentially the face of Nike’s blossoming brand. Phil Knight would even later call Pre “the soul of Nike.” And while Nastase’s 1972 endorsement signing was actually done prior to Pre’s official Nike deal in 1974, Nike had openly been providing clothes and sneakers for Pre, who fought the AAU to retain his amateur status for years.
True Sole of Nike? (1971)
While his legacy will always be tied to Nike, Steve Prefontaine actually wore plenty of other brands. He even set a world record in 1971 while wearing Pumas and attended the 1972 Munich Olympics in adidas!
An Iconic Bargain (1971)
The iconic Nike Swoosh was originally designed by Portland State graphic design stundent Carolyn Davidson, who was paid just $35 dollars for her services. However, in the early 1980s, Phil Knight gave Davidson a gift of 500 shares of Nike stock. The value of that stock today? More than $600,000.
Nike is known for pushing the envelope on technology, creating countless breakthroughs that deservedly lead the footwear industry. But it all started in the kitchen. Specifically in the waffle iron of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman’s wife. Bowerman poured liquid rubber into the waffle iron, in an effort to create a new, reduced-weight runner sole. And, in doing so, he changed the world of footwear forever.
Moon Man (1972)
Speaking of waffles, while many assume the legendary Nike Waffle Racer to be the first sneaker to employ the revolutionary waffle sole, that honor goes to the excellently-named Nike Moon Shoe. Passed out to athletes competing in 1972’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, it quickly became a go-to for runners in the early ’70s.
A New Frontier (1978)
While most might attribute the birth of Air technology to the Air Max 87 (AM1) or Air Force 1, in fact it was 1978’s Tailwind that was the first Nike shoe to employ Nike’s revolutionary Air technology. Designed by an aerospace engineer named Frank Rudy, the Air Unit soles changed sneakers forever.
I Love LA (1984)
Another example of Nike’s ingenious marketing was during the 1984 Summer Olympics, hosted in Los Angeles. Not only was track icon Carl Lewis setting records wearing these sweet Nike Zoom Track Spikes, but they put “official” games sponsor Converse on blast. During the games, they dropped yet another legendary series of ads, with athletes dancing to Randy Newman’s super-80’s jam, “I Love LA.” When researchers polled people after the games, most thought Nike was the sponsor of the Olympics, not Converse. This one was actually a game-changer for the Olympics and the advertising industry as well. Ever since, the Olympics have had extremely strict rules on what other type of ads can air during the telecasts. #INFLUENCER
The Original Air Max Day (1987)
Of course we all know about the groundbreaking Air Max 87 (known nowadays as the Air Max 1). Though Nike’s Air technology had been around for almost a decade, the Air Max 87 was the first shoe to make that air bag visible. Designed by who else, Tinker Hatfield, the shoe was the definition of a game-changer. And the commercials for the kicks were just as special. The TV spots were actually the first time a Beatles song was ever used in a commercial ad. The song of choice? “Revolution 9.” A perfect fit.
Nike’s very first “Just Do It” commercial ran in 1988, and starred an 80-year-old running icon Walt Stack.
Air Max III? (1990)
Did you know that the sneaker we know today as the Air Max 90, was actually called the Air Max III until as recently as 2000? Prior to it’s first retro it was renamed, naturally, after the year in which it originally released.
Speaking of the Air Max 90, we all know the Infrared colorway as one of the most beloved Nike sneakers of all time. But did you know that color we now know as “Infrared,” was initially called “Radiant Red”? Let’s just say we’re glad they made the switch.
The Hits Continue (1991)
Most of us already know that the excellent Nike Air Huarache was designed by Nike gawd Tinker Hatfield (because, of course it was). But what you might not have known, was the inspiration behind the iconic sneaker. Tinker got the idea for the shoe’s iconic sock-like neoprene lining while on vacation while water skiing.
Have You Hugged Your Foot Today? (1991)
Another awesome little nugget about the Nike Air Huarache is that it was actually cancelled by the suits at Nike. One of the most interesting things about the sneaker, from a design perspective, was the stark lack of any Nike branding, which obviously didn’t sit well with the higher-ups. And, after an initial sample order of just 5,000, the shoe was actually cancelled (the average order to justify production was 100,000). But one brave soul in Nike’s marketing department, took the gamble and got the initial 5,000 pairs produced. He then proceeded to sell them, guerrilla-style, at the New York Marathon. They sold out in just two days, and the rest is history.
Let's Keep It OG?! (1992)
Back in 1993, when the Air Max 1 was first being retroed, Nike began experimenting with “improvements” to the iconic silhouette a year prior. They took their years of experience from the Air Max 1’s successors like the AM90, even going as far as to produce samples with a complete Air Max 90 sole. We’re glad they nixed that idea.
Olympic Gold (1996)
The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were memorable for a lot of things. But the true legacy of those games is Michael Johnson and his four gold ‘medals.’ Well, he actually only won 3 golds, but we count his head-turning gold spikes too. Perhaps the single most famous pair of shoes in Olympic history, it was also one of Nike’s lightest ever to-date. Interestingly enough, the infamous gold spikes were designed by a Hatfield. But it wasn’t Tinker this time. No, Johnson’s famous gold spikes were the first shoe designed by Tinker’s brother, Tobie, a senior engineer at Nike’s Innovation Kitchen.
Initially created and dubbed Tensile Air, back in 1995, and used in the Zoom Flight basketball shoe, Nike’s Zoom Air (as it was later called) didn’t appear in the companies running portfolio until 1997, with the Nike Zoom Spiridon. A classic running shoe that we’d love to see retro soon.
Instant Happiness (2000)
The Nike Zoom Presto is one of our favorite sneakers from the early 2000s. Also conceived by Tobie Hatfield, the Presto didn’t just look different. With it’s super comfortable mesh-like internal sock, and unique sizing system, the Nike Presto was different. And, while it’s common nowadays to see celebrities and musicians laced with their own custom products, we thought it was cool that back in the day, Eric Clapton got his own special Prestos. That’s dope.
A First for Everything (2002)
Japanese streetwear brand atmos was actually the first brand to collaborate with Nike on an Air Max 1 silhouette. The result? The beautiful Air Safari-inspired gem you see here.
FREE THE FOOT (2004)
The design of Nike’s ground-breaking Free technology was inspired by a legendary track coach named Vin Lananna. While Lananna was coaching at Stanford, Tobie Hatfield and his team were observing a practice one day, and the light bulb clicked. Coach Lananna made his team practice barefoot on the grass, believing it made the foot, and stabilizing muscles around it, much stronger. And after confirming that hunch back at the Innovation Kitchen, Tobie and team drew up the Nike Free 5.0. Think about how revolutionary that articulating outsole is, and how many different applications in footwear the Free sole has touched. Just another Hatfield design. Man, what was in the water at those guys’ house?
Going Green (2006)
For nearly the first 30 years of production, the Air Max units that had been put in countless Nike shoes, and changed the course of athletic footwear, were made using SF6, a toxic greenhouse gas. This actually came to Nike’s attention back in 1992, but the problem was finding a suitable replacement. Nike struggled with the task for 14 years, until 2006, when they released the Air Max 360. Not only was it made using the first full length Air Max unit, but it was also done with environmentally friendly (and, conveniently lighter) Nitrogen.
The New Kid On The Block (2012)
In 2012, Nike introduced the world to yet another revolutionary footwear technology: Flyknit. The first silhouettes to get the innovative new woven technology were the now beloved Flyknit Racer and Flyknit Trainer models. Flyknit has been dubbed the future of Nike, and the embodiment of a goal Bill Bowerman set decades before the technology could catch up. Bowerman always preached that sneakers were an extension of the runner’s foot and that Nike’s job was to design a sneaker that acted like a “second skin” to the wearer. And, with Flyknit, they’ve hit their mark.