The idea that athletes some day will be as loyal to their corporate sponsors as to the countries they represent may seem terribly far-fetched. Yet given what's been happening in and around the Olympics, one can't help wondering.
Two shoe companies, Nike and Reebok, have placed themselves, heart and sole, into the fabric of the Games - literally so in some cases. Their competition alone is turning heads and surely raising questions about the proper level of integration into the Olympic sports landscape.
At Atlanta's Centennial Games, almost a third of all 10,000-plus entrants are competing in shoes and uniforms created by Massachusetts-based Reebok. Besides being an official supplier and licensee of these Olympics, Reebok is sponsoring the teams of seven established competing nations, including Russia, Ireland, and South Africa, as well as numerous delegations from such developing nations as Moldova, Namibia, and Uganda. The company also owns exclusive advertising rights for athletic footwear on NBC's coverage of the Games.
Reebok has the inside track, but Nike has not shrunk from the challenge presented by its main rival. The now-familiar "swoosh" insignia is on numerous billboards, posters, and buses around the city, plus it has established beachheads on two prime downtown properties. One is Nike Park, which features a basketball court, video theater, and retail store, and the other - three floors of office space - serves as sort of a high-tech clubhouse for its many big-name athletic endorsers (Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis, Sergei Bubka, et al) and the media, who can gain coveted access to these athletes during regular press conferences.
The commercial jostling between these shoemakers comes naturally says Alberto Salazar, a former world-class runner who now works for Nike. "It's like a race," he says. "A lot of people at Nike used to be athletes, so now we compete corporately in the sense of of wanting to be the No. 1 company."
Roberto Muller, former president of Reebok International and now president of a New York-based sports advisory company, says, "Brands now compete against each other at the Games almost to the extent that countries do, though for profits and market share rather than national pride."
Most athletes, of course, wear their national colors proudly, but their brand loyalty can run pretty deep, too, as became so apparent in 1992. That's when the major suspense in the one-sided men's basketball competition was not whether the US Dream Team would win the gold medal, but whether Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and other Nike-sponsored members would take the victory stand in Reebok garb.
At the last minute they agreed to do so, but in a compromising manner, covering up the Reebok logo even though Reebok was the sponsor of the US team.
"I found the conflicts between Reebok and Nike at the Olympics demeaning ..., but maybe the Games on that level are no longer demeanable," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. This embarrassing episode materialized partly because various Nike clients scratched out part of an agreement that said they would wear the official US garments in any victory ceremonies. The United States Olympic Committee, hoping to avoid another controversy, tried to close any loopholes. Michael Jordan, whose name is closely associated with Nike, is not on the team this time, but seven other Nike clients are.
Reebok has Shaquille O'Neal, who just signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the company has surprisingly made Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith a focus of its Olympic advertising. The rather whimsical campaign casts Smith as a strong lobbyist for adding football to the Olympics, a virtual impossibility given Olympic rules requiring broad international participation.
What Smith represents is a proven winner, a Super Bowl champion, which is one way to avoid what happened to Reebok in 1992, when they staked their Olympic-related ad campaign to decathlete Dan O'Brien, who failed to make the American track and field team. As a result, the wind was knocked right out of the "Dan and Dave" advertising that centered on the rivalry between Reebok clients O'Brien and Dave Johnson. O'Brien has since jumped ship, signing with Nike. But he also pledges his allegiance to Visa, sponsors for many years of the US decathlon team.
"Visa's sponsorship makes the difference for a talented young guy who needs the money to reach his best," O'Brien is quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It works for the company because they have a relationship with a future star. It works for the athlete because he can spend his energy on becoming that star."
Although this appears a win-win situation, some worry about the future if companies copy Visa in adopting a group of athletes in essentially training.
Will too much allegiance to a corporation be healthy? That question could need answering sooner than later, if a bandwagon effect occurs.