Tag Archives: Amateur vs Professional

“Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight

I read a lot of business books and listen to podcasts about entrepreneurs. I know, I know. That makes me a Boring-Arse Business B*stard. Forgive me, but until I find a way to monetise this website of fart joke reviews, I need to have a day job. Ugh, I just used the word ‘monetise’. Yes, I hate myself, although I at least spelt it without a -ize suffix.

Anyway, having imbibed a lot of business literature, I am aware that virtually every successful company has a foundation myth. Some sort of story about how it emerged by accident or eureka moment, or how it was built from the ground up while the founder lived in a shipping container. Examples include Apple being started in Steve Jobs’ garage, Clif Bars starting after the founder did a day-long cycle ride and hated the energy bars he took with him, or the first bookings for Airbnb literally being for an airbed (and breakfast), so that the founders could pay their exorbitant San Francisco rent.

Shoe Dog is effectively one big foundation myth, telling the story of Nike from Phil Knight’s original vision in 1962 through to going public in 1980 and making him a multi-millionaire.

By ‘myth’ I don’t mean that there isn’t truth here, just that the sharp edges have been smoothed out. Scores are settled, we hear one side of the various arguments – often legal in nature – and the question of Nike’s culpability in sweatshops is relegated to a brief “we try our best to improve things” statement towards the end.

Accept this for what it is – a story. And what a well-written, entertaining story it is. In 1968 the sports shoe world was dominated by Adidas and Puma, and hardly anyone ran for fun. It was a terrible time to start a sports shoe company, but during his MBA Phil Knight hit on the realisation that Japanese shoes were of good quality and cheaper than the established brands. He bluffed his way into an exclusive distribution deal with the Japanese firm Onitsuka, and began selling their Tiger shoes in the US out the back of his car. One of the surprises of the book is that Nike did not create their own products for many years, and much of the early section of the book is dedicated to the pitfalls of doing business in Japan.

For those readers interested in running their own business, the story of Nike becomes a lesson in the importance of understanding money…as in really understanding it. When Knight established the company, he had very little cash, and only one bank willing to lend him any capital. Even once it was experiencing double-digit growth and generating $8m a year, he still only had one bank willing to lend him cash and struggled to pay the bills; Nike nearly went under in 1975 when all of their cheques bounced simultaneously. Shoe Dog is one of the best textbooks I have ever read on liquidity, cash flow and how fluctuating exchange rates can seriously screw you over, no matter how successful your business seems.

If that all sounds rather dry, trust me when I say it reads like an adventure story. There is some running in here of course. Knight himself points out the irony that half the leadership of Nike in its heyday were morbidly obese, but in the 1970s they had the most famous runner in the world on staff: Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Shoe Dog provides a much better description of Pre’s appeal than in Tom Jordan’s biography: “Most runners are introverts, but Pre was an obvious, joyous extrovert…He was always putting on a show, always conscious of the spotlight”. As an amateur runner, Pre was not paid to run, and therefore lived in a trailer on food stamps. By offering him a job, Nike preserved his amateur status and lifted him out of poverty…but in a cruel twist paid for the fast car that would ultimately kill him.

There are other good stories here too. Nike’s breakthrough shoe was invented when coach Bill Bowerman used his waffle iron to create a new kind of sole. The terrible alternative company names that were floated before they settled on the name of the Greek goddess of victory. Dimension Six anyone? The fact that in 1977 no-one thought anyone would sponsor an athlete for $100k, only for Adidas to nab Illie Nastase, the bad boy of tennis, leading to today’s sponsorship arms race.

But for me, the biggest thing I took away from this is that, when years later Phil Knight was staying at Michael Jordan’s house, he picked up the phone in the night and was offered room service. Yes, Michael Jordan has 24-hour room service in his own flipping house. Of all the stories in this book, I really, really hope that one isn’t a myth.

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“Tea with Mr Newton: 100,000 Miles – the Longest ‘Protest March’ in History” by Rob Hadgraft

Have I mentioned that I ran a sub-3-hour marathon earlier this year? It’s one of my proudest running achievements and one, indirectly, I probably owe to a stubborn old goat who died in 1959. Arthur Newton (1883-1959) was a trailblazer in ultra-running and responsible for placing an emphasis on high mileage and The Long Slow Run in training for distance events. Later coaches (such as Arthur Lydiard) would take these principles and refine them, all leading to me running 80-mile weeks in the early months of 2018 and achieving something I once thought impossible.

Newton’s story is remarkable because of what an eccentric crank he was. He only took up serious running in his late 30s, but then proceeded to win South Africa’s Comrades race 4 years in a row, and subsequently set several world records at the 100 mile-distance.

What prompted him to run was entirely idiosyncratic; his cotton and tobacco farm in colonial-era South Africa was failing, and he placed the blame on the government, whose policy of providing land to native South Africans around his farm was – from Newton’s perspective – making commercial farming impossible. There’s no escaping his racism here – Newton would use derogatory language to describe black Africans throughout his life. This, combined with his stiff-upper-lip formality means that in Rob Hadgraft’s excellent biography Newton comes across as an easy man to admire, but a difficult man to like. (See earlier reviews of Hadgraft’s books The Little Wonder, Deerfoot, and Plimsolls on Eyeballs Out).

Newton wanted the government to change its policy, or at least give him decent compensation, but he felt that he would never get a fair hearing while he remained a nobody. This introverted, limelight-avoiding man therefore decided that he needed to become famous, and the simplest way to do it was to become a successful runner. Obviously. At this point I was reminded of a scene in the Oscar-worthy masterpiece “Snakes on a Plane”, where the crime lord is asked whether he is certain that he wishes to go through with the titular plan, and his response is that “we have exhausted all other options”. Really? What about Bubonic Badgers on a Bus? Killer Kite-Flying Kittens?

But the extraordinary thing is that he achieved the fame he desired. After winning the first of his Comrades victories in 1922 he became one of the most famous men in the country…but still couldn’t get the government to change course. This became a recurring theme in Newton’s life – fame but no riches. Eventually this strict believer in the purity of amateurism was forced by poverty to switch to a paid professional career, joining the inaugural trans-America run, nicknamed the Bunion Derby, in 1928. This turned out to be a shambles of an event – effectively a travelling circus – that lost money and was unable to pay prizes to any of the 55 runners who completed the 84-day fiasco. Newton himself dropped out through injury early on, but he stayed and became a mentor to the other runners, forming a particularly close bond with working class runner Peter Gavuzzi The history of their friendship is chronicled in more depth in another excellent book “Running for their Lives”. Gavuzzi and Newton went on to form a pro-running partnership, competing in Canada.

Newton would go on to set his final 100-mile record in 1934 at the age of 51, and then he retired. Over the course of his 10-year career he had run an extraordinary 100,000 miles. Even in retirement he was running 600 a month! In later years he became a deliberately controversial columnist, with his views on the pointlessness of speedwork at odds with those of other coaches. Although Newton believed in training slowly, it’s worth pointing out that he was no plodder in races; during the London-Brighton 52-mile race he covered the marathon distance in 2:42.

In death he is now known as the Father of Comrades, and at the halfway point in the race runners will go pass Arthur’s Seat, where legend has it that doffing your cap to the great man will lead to a strong second half of the race. For my part, I will thank him for persuading me that running all those snowy 20- and 15- milers in February and March would be worth it in the end. Did I mention I broke 3 hours?

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“Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage” by Rob Hadgraft

On the social running website Fetcheveryone, you can make bets on how other Fetchies will perform in future races. I’ve never seen the point. Winning virtual credits won’t help me pay for my running shoes (see Running Free review). Back in the nineteenth century, things were different. People gambled cold, hard cash on running and walking races, with crowds of thousands gathering to drink, bet and watch professional athletes do laps of a track. In the pre-amateur, pre-Olympic world, this was the sport known as “pedestrianism”.

It was not an honourable or glamorous world. Upper class men shunned it. Women were actively discouraged from attending due to the alarming amount of male flesh on display (actual knees!). Born out of pub culture, and managed by a loose network of landlords, this was a firmly working-class sport.

I like to think about it as similar to professional wrestling. Runners had nicknames; the Gateshead Clipper; the Norwich Milkboy; and the…erm…Welsh Chicken. There was an element of theatre involved in order to drum up interest, even if the races themselves weren’t rigged.

Having flourished in the early part of the century, by the 1850s pedestrianism was in the doldrums. Cue George Martin, a maverick promotional genius. While travelling to America, he spotted a star – a fleet-footed Native American called Louis Bennett who had won a number of local races with impressive performances. Martin brought him back to the UK for what would turn out to be an extraordinary two years, a tale well told here by Rob Hadgraft, author of several biographies of historical runners.

It is hard to convey the sensation that “Deerfoot”, as he was rebranded, must have caused. Most Brits had barely travelled outside of their home towns or visited London, let alone gone abroad. Now they had the prospect of gawping at a real-life ‘savage’ in their midst, and thousands came to see him run as he toured the country. He single-handedly reinvigorated pedestrianism, attracting toffs, the Prince of Wales, and even – can you believe it – women to attend races. When he lined up at the start line, the 6-foot and 11-stone Deerfoot must have cut an awesome sight in comparison to his 5’6” and 8-stone competitors. The closest modern comparison I can think of is when the late, great Jonah Lomu performed the haka in 1995 and then destroyed the entire England rugby squad.

Of course, much of the presentation of Deerfoot was pure pantomime. In reality he was a Christian who wore western clothing, but on race day he was paraded around in traditional costume, headdress and all, and ran with a wampum belt of shell beads. His management actively encouraged his war whoops at the finish line when he won races. And he won virtually every race, beating the best that Britain could offer with his unprecedented surging tactics.

Some saw through the game. Allegations of match-fixing were rife, culminating in a court case where fellow runners admitted they had thrown races in order to let Deerfoot win and maintain crowd excitement. American newspapers poured big buckets of scorn on the whole enterprise, with the New York Herald exclaiming that the foolish Brits were being duped, and that Deerfoot was not the “savage” he was claimed to be.

In response to all of this controversy, Deerfoot let his running do the talking. The match-fixing cloud led to accusations of him being a third-class athlete, but this was a man who regularly ran 4.30 minute miles during distance races, and could comfortably run 10 miles in 52 mins. He would break the one hour distance world record three times during his stay in the UK, in honest races against the clock that could not be fixed. As author Rob Hadgraft laments, sadly the 1-hour race has gone out of fashion nowadays, despite the fact that the holders’ list is a who’s who of the greats; Alfred Shrubb, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Ron Clarke and Haile Gebrselassie, who set the current record in 2007. It’s time to bring it back.

As a 21st century reader, one has to ask the question of whether Deerfoot was being exploited. Clearly people were making money from him, and playing up his ‘primitive’ credentials in a circus sideshow manner that seems deeply offensive to us now. Equally, Deerfoot appears to have gone along with it all voluntarily, and earned a lot of money in the process (enough to buy a farm when he returned home), He was presented with unprecedented opportunities to travel. Yet 2 years away from his home and family, coupled with near-constant racing, caused cracks to appear in his modest demeanour. Pub brawls and at least one Eric Cantona-esque incident with a spectator suggested his mental state grew increasingly fragile, while his injury-plagued final races were a complete damp squib. Welcomed with cheers in 1861, and feted by high society in those glorious early months, Deerfoot sadly left Britain to a chorus of bored boos in 1863. He was no longer a novelty, and no longer invincible. Back in North America, he continued pro-running into his 40s, but eventually settled down to a life as farmer, dying in relative obscurity in 1897.

Rob Hadgraft’s book, like his earlier biography of Alfred Shrubb (reviewed here), offers a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten professional world before the amateur and Olympian ideals of sportsmanship took over. Was it exploitative? Yes. Were the results sometimes questionable? Undoubtedly. Yet were the sportsmen talented? Most definitely. And in our current era of doping in athletics, match-fixing allegations in tennis, and the spectre of Lance Armstrong, have we really moved on?

 

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“Pre: The story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine” by Tom Jordan

My closest brush with glory at university was when I nearly made it onto the baked beans eating team. Competitive baked beans eating is a highly skilled sport, requiring speed, dexterity with a toothpick and immunity to flatulence. I was good at it, arguably great. Alas, on the day of the final try-outs, several weeks of non-stop freshers’ drinking finally caught up with me, and my hands couldn’t stop shaking. I failed to make the team, and could only participate as a spectator a few weeks later when the crunch varsity match against Cambridge took place. Former Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright had inexplicably been drafted in as a celebrity judge. Despite supposedly being impartial, he came over to the Oxford table and allegedly said, “right lads, let’s stick it to the Tabs” (slang for Cambridge). Oxford won by a margin of several tins, a proud moment in a centuries-old inter-university rivalry.

I’d like to think that this story of unfulfilled potential places me in the same pantheon as Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, the James Dean of American track running who died in a drink-driving accident in 1975 aged just 24. To someone like me, born after his death and outside of the US, the hero worship of Prefontaine has always felt a bit baffling. This was a man who never won a medal on a global stage, or set a world record. Why all the fuss?

Reading about Pre, you start to understand why he was the kind of runner who could get crowds genuinely thrilled by track running. The prevailing tendency in athletics to run steady for most of the race, and then kick on the last lap, is boring for most spectators – you’re essentially drumming your fingers until lap 13, when something finally happens. By contrast, Pre was a gutsy front-runner, leading out every race hard from the gun and daring other runners to keep pace with him. The closest modern-day comparison I can think of is David Rudisha, whose 800m victory in the 2012 Olympics is still the finest piece of running I have ever seen.

Pre comes across as the kind of supremely cocky sportsman to which British crowds rarely warm. Arrogant. Brash. A sore loser. On the other hand, it was that same extreme competitiveness that made him such a force during his brief time in the sport. He could handle fatigue and pain better than anyone else, remaining unbeaten in the US over 2 miles for several years, and setting a number of long-standing American records on the way.

And he did all of this despite having limited financial resources. He was an amateur athlete for his whole career, living in a trailer and reliant on food stamps. He fought with the Amateur Athletic Union  to win better rights and funding for athletes, but he ran for running’s sake, not because he expected it to make him rich. He referred to his talent as The Gift, and felt it was an insult to others who lacked The Gift if he didn’t to push himself to see how far he could go. There’s a purity in that mindset that has appeal across generations… and helps sell t-shirts and posters with his mustache on them.

There is a great book about Pre waiting to be written. Unfortunately, this is not it. Pre was a rock star of the running world, but for me Jordan fails to convey that excitement effectively. The book feels like a cobbled-together history of race reports and non-sequitur anecdotes from assorted contemporaries that tell us little about the man. You can learn so much more about the drama that Pre could inject into a race by simply watching the 1972 Olympic 5000m final, where his brave frontrunning probably cost him the bronze medal.

Right at the end of the book, Jordan throws in a couple of brief references to the fact that Pre set up a running club in his local prison and also trained teenagers at local schools, both voluntary activities that counter the impression the book gives of him as being a selfish loner off the track. Pre was also involved in the fledgeling years of a small company called Nike, becoming the world’s first sports marketing ambassador, long before Michael Jordan. More on all of this side of Pre’s life would have been welcome and fascinating.

Indeed, the Pre alluded to in these brief snippets sounds like a much more intriguing character than the one-dimensional racing fiend depicted in most of the book; beer-swilling, business-minded, and with a busy social life. A man who too, might one day see a toothpick, contemplate a tin of Heinz’s finest, and decide that he too would like to Stick it to the Tabs.

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“The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alfred Shrubb – World Champion Runner” by Rob Hadgraft

In 2014 I was ranked 24th in the UK at 15 miles. Twenty-fourth! This sounds especially impressive…until you realise that there was only one 15-mile event held in 2014 (the Banbury 15), and I came 24th in it. Still, I’ll take glory where I can get it.

I bring this up because, reading Rob Hadgraft’s biography of early 20th century runner Alfred Shrubb, I was struck by what our our PB-obsessed running culture has lost. By promoting ‘standard’ distances of 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon, we have consigned to history a far more interesting and diverse array of race lengths and terrains. Back in Shrubb’s day, runners would run an assortment of distances, including 2-mile, 7-mile, 11-mile and one-hour time trials.

During Shrubb’s glory years of 1902-4, he set world records for every distance from two to ten miles, and also held the record for furthest distance run in one hour. Most of these were not beaten until the Flying Finns of the 1920s came along, and some were not bettered until after the Second World War. What is doubly staggering is that it took 50 years – 50! – for another Brit to set a world record, when Gordon Pirie ran 28:19 for six miles in 1953.

In 1952, The Times ran an article entitled “A Veteran Runner Returns”, describing the visit of the now elderly Shrubb to his old club, South London Harriers, for a celebratory dinner. In the words of their correspondent:

“Shrubb’s distinctive style of running, and the astonishing bursts of speed with which he seldom, if ever, failed to shake off the opposition, as well as his numerous record-breaking times, made him one of the outstanding sporting personalities of his day.”

Yet this athlete – the indisputable greatest runner of his generation – is virtually forgotten today. In his own time, he was world-famous in the English-speaking world, participating in running tours in Australia, the US and Canada, as well as dominating the British scene. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and P G Wodehouse referenced him in popular novels, with “Shrubb” used as shorthand for “speed”.

Rob Hadgraft aims to restore Alfred Shrubb back to his rightful place in sporting folklore. Shrubb’s talent was spotted by chance as an 18-year old, when he ran to the scene of a fire with the captain of the local athletics club. Very quickly he established himself as a local, then national, champion of the highest order, breaking records along the way. His approach to racing was unorthodox, and heavily criticised by the elder statesmen of the sport. Instead of even pacing, or holding something in reserve for the end, Shrubb was a passionate front-runner, and would throw seemingly suicidal bursts of speed into random laps. It clearly worked for him, and devastated his opponents.

Another element of Shrubb’s era we have lost is the concept of handicap races. Many of Shrubb’s races involved him giving a headstart to weaker opponents, which would have injected much more spectator excitement into an event that might otherwise have been a forgone conclusion. My own club does a monthly time trial along these lines, and the Hawaii Half-Marathon has a ‘locals vs Africans’ handicap contest, but in general most runners have little exposure to such races. What a great shame – it would be the perfect way to get spectators interested in the sport again, rather than losing interest because “their” runners don’t stand a chance against the Kenyans.

As seems to be the case with every elite runner I read about from this period, Shrubb eventually fell foul of the amateur code. Shrubb was a working-class man of small means, so it was inevitable that he would need to accept expenses in order to travel to races. However, by 1906 the Amateur Athletics Association perceived that these had crossed a line, and Shrubb was branded a professional. All of a sudden, as with “Ghost Runner” John Tarrant half a century later, most regular races were closed to Shrubb. No cross-country championships. No Crystal Palace meets. No Olympics. UK Athletics’ recent trend of shooting itself in the foot with team selection has long roots.

The book struggles at times with its mission of comprehensiveness. In the first half of the book I could have done without the reports and times of every single event that Shrubb raced, however much I admire Hadgraft’s diligence at finding these in primary sources. The pace of the book flags as a result. It’s the years where Shrubb competed as a professional where the narrative picks up. Shrubb “broke” America by fostering a rivalry with a Native American runner called Tom Longboat, who smashed the course record for the Boston Marathon in 1907. Over the course of at least 10 events the two men would hammer each other at different distances, and by all accounts, the races were genuinely exciting affairs. In their inaugural marathon contest, one man hit the wall at 22 miles and surrendered a colossal lead. The Times described it as “the most stirring and sensational distance race in a long time, and the 12,000 that filled every seat and all available standing room will look back in years to come at one of the great historic contests”.

12,000 spectators! What a time it must have been to be an elite athlete, either amateur or professional. Crowds of thousands attended long-distance track events, with indoor marathons proving especially popular. It is amazing to think that, once upon a time, people were prepared to spend 3+ hours watching men do endless laps of a 200m track. I can’t even get my family to watch the London Marathon on TV.

The flip side of this is that the conditions sound atrocious. Just about everyone in the audience smoked, at a time when the word “ventilation” was just something that would score reasonably in Scrabble. Shrubb himself remarked in interviews that tobacco fumes left him dazed and half-suffocated.

For the athletics fan, it’s an interesting slice of our sporting history. I have to admit though, that I found the character of Shrubb as depicted in the book curiously soul-less. In Hadgraft’s account you get very little sense of the man behind the legend, probably because the author was almost solely reliant on newspaper sources, rather than personal correspondence. Nevertheless, we catch glimpses that there was more to him than running. Despite his humble background, he was evidently very sharp, and what he lacked in education he compensated for with a strong entrepreneurial streak, using his success to set up a tobacconists in his hometown of Horsham, and later buy a stake in a mill in Canada. There is a poignant contrast here with his rival Longboat, who would blow all his riches on drink, fast cars and women (the rest he squandered) and end up as a street cleaner.

In his later years, Shrubb remained involved in athletics, acting as coach for both Harvard and subsequently Oxford University athletics teams. He retired to a quiet life in Canada, but remained in remarkable fitness until his death in 1964. Since 2003, his adopted Canadian hometown of Bowmanville has staged an annual Alfie Shrubb 8k, a pleasingly non-standard distance, where I can only hope that the person who comes 24th also has the joy of being ranked as the 24th best 8k runner in the country.

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