Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nike, Inc. And Myth-Making

See The Big Business of Fairy Tales: Nike Takes Fire Again Over One of Its Athletes by MATTHEW FUTTERMAN of the WSJ. This article is a reaction to the tragic shooting of the girl friend of Oscar Pistorius, the runner from South Africa.

It discusses the scandals of some athletes who have endorsed Nike products. According to Wikipedia, "In Greek mythology, Nike was a goddess who personified victory, also known as the Winged Goddess of Victory."So maybe it is not surprising that the company emphasizes the stories of victors. Excerpts:
"One by one, as major stars are unmasked, there is a growing sense that the practice of mythmaking may have to stop. There's a feeling that at some point, shame will set in. Embarrassment will do its job and customers will go elsewhere. "In a sense, this is the biggest lesson to learn: that there really aren't heroes," said Jason Richardson, a hurdler who won a silver medal in London. "We're too quick to elevate people into these hero roles and they're not allowed to be human."

There's a perception that Nike has somehow changed the rules of athletic success in a crass or craven way. Some accuse the company of commoditizing fame. The size of one's Nike contract is often seen as another form of scorekeeping for the modern athlete, alongside things like the size of their contracts or the number of Twitter followers they have.

The thing about Nike that rarely gets acknowledged is that it doesn't sell shoes, or even athletes, as much as it buys and sells stories, narratives, fairy tales. They aren't a shoe company as much as a giant abstraction—a condition of the aspirational mind.

In Nike's pantheon, success isn't merely about winning. It isn't about the traditional forms of scorekeeping in sports—things like trophies collected, points scored, bouts won, consecutive games played, or years served. What Nike said, when it signed Michael Jordan, is that the ultimate measure of any competitor is something else entirely: How irresistible his story is. Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, claims to have been cut from a high-school team.

Nike doesn't make racing bikes. It signed Armstrong because he had survived cancer and come back to win the most grueling race in the world. It didn't sell golf clubs when it signed Tiger Woods. Nike brought him aboard because he was a potentially transformative star who had the ability to break down racial barriers in the world's most staid sport.

If stories are the currency of Nike's business, Pistorius is the equivalent of a blank check. He's the kid who lost his lower legs before he could walk and was told he would never be able to play sports. He battled for the right to race with the fastest men in the world on a pair of carbon-fiber prostheses. He's the rare athlete who doesn't just challenge our notions of fitness, he forces us to reconsider the definition of disability.

Pistorius fits perfectly into Nike's view of the world: That the most powerful thing one can sell isn't comfortable, stylish performance sportswear, it's the concept of possibility."

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