Tag Archives: Steve Prefontaine

“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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“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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