Nancy Gillen

One of the most significant moments in the build-up to last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup was from a rather unexpected quarter.

Three months before the tournament began, Nike booked out the Palais Brongniart in Paris for its annual Innovation Summit. Most of the event was dominated by the kit launch for the 14 Nike-sponsored national teams competing in France that summer.

Through flashing strobe lights walked 28 international players, each wearing their new Nike home and away kits, watched on by fashionistas such as Virgil Abloh and Naomi Campbell. If the event was not already star-studded enough, big names in the sporting world such as British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, American basketball player Sue Bird and South African runner Caster Semenya were also on stage, donned in Nike apparel.

It was the first time kits had been specifically designed for a women’s football tournament, a far cry from the days when players wore baggy hand-me-downs from the men’s teams.

It was more the striking designs of the shirts that made headlines, however, with social media buzzing with discussion and opinions on the kits. Photos of France’s polka-dot affair, Australia’s outrageous yellow and green design, and England’s rose-patterned deep red shirt were shared widely among both kit aficionados and general football fans.

The kits were even featured in women's magazines such as Elle and Stylist, bringing football to a whole new audience.

This was probably the moment that people really became aware of the World Cup taking place just a few months later, with the Nike juggernaut giving the tournament unprecedented publicity. It showed the significance brands can have in growing excitement for a sporting event. 

Nike's star-studded kit launch for last year's FIFA Women's World Cup caused a buzz around the world ©Getty Images
Nike's star-studded kit launch for last year's FIFA Women's World Cup caused a buzz around the world ©Getty Images

The Olympic Games does not need such promotion, but any kind of positive media coverage is welcome, of course. Nike was a recent provider of this once again, holding the reveal of its Tokyo 2020 collection at a show during New York Fashion Week. Like the World Cup display in Paris, the event was sleek and cool and attended by stars such as renowned hip-hop artist Drake.

Among the designs was the uniform for the skateboarders, a sport making its Olympic debut in the Japanese capital. Nike partnered with Dutch artist and ex-skateboarder Piet Parra to create outfits for the United States, Brazil and France.

These quirky and somewhat edgy uniforms, comprising jumpsuits, baggy shorts, polo shirts and caps, caught the eye of many on social media. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

“The Olympic skateboarding uniforms from Nike and Parra are on another level,” one Twitter user posted. “Nike's Olympic skateboarding uniforms are a look, man,” said another. Others seemed to only just realise that skateboarding would be on the Olympic programme due to the kit reveal. Regardless, excitement for the sport’s debut seemed high, majorly boosted by the attention given to skateboarding by Nike.

This level of promotion is all the more important when considering one of the main reasons skateboarding was added to the Olympics. It is a sport strongly associated with young people and fits the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) desire keep the Games relevant.

Nike's skateboarding outfits for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were received well on social media ©Twitter
Nike's skateboarding outfits for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were received well on social media ©Twitter

The IOC’s attempts to “get down with the kids” have sometimes come across as slightly desperate and cringey, but Nike has now managed to give Olympic skateboarding significant credibility through its uniform launch.

Kits and uniforms may seem somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of the Olympics, with issues such as funding, infrastructure worries, heat issues and health scares probably a lot more pressing for both organisers and athletes. The importance of Nike outfit design to some was shown following the launch of the Kenyan kit at the event in New York, however. The red and green honeycomb pattern did not go down well with fans, who were quick to share their dismay on social media.

Questioned a Facebook user: "Did someone get paid for that?” 

"The laziest designer, there is no iota of creativity - return that thing, it doesn't befit Kenya."

The phrase “no such thing as bad publicity” comes to mind here. Kenya’s kit may have received some backlash but is still has created debate and therefore promotion for Tokyo 2020.

Of course, the negative side of Nike’s influence on the Olympic Games is also under scrutiny at the moment. The company recently released its new Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% shoe.

The shoe conveniently falls under the new regulations introduced by World Athletics at the start of last month. These prohibit the use of any shoe that has not been available for purchase by any athlete for a period of four months, while any shoe that has more than one carbon fibre plate, or a sole thicker than 40 millimetres, is also banned.  

Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours, wearing Nike Alphafly  prototypes as he did so ©Getty Images
Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours, wearing Nike Alphafly prototypes as he did so ©Getty Images

The Air Zoom Alphafly Next% only has one carbon fibre plate and a 39.5mm thick sole. Nike is currently waiting for confirmation from World Athletics that the shoes are eligible for competition, but it is expected they will be in use at Tokyo 2020.

It is already known that these shoes can boost performance, shown by Eliud Kipchoge’s record-breaking sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna in October, during which he was wearing prototypes of the Alphafly. Indeed, it is suggested the shoe can improve running economy by something like seven to eight per cent.

It is great news for athletes sponsored by Nike then, but what about those who are not? Those who have the benefit of being involved with Nike are now more likely to finish on the podium, meaning emphasis is swaying towards technological advantage rather than physical aptitude.

This is the slightly sinister side of Nike’s hold over the Olympics. Its ability to create hype and excitement around a sporting event is second to none, but the company is also threatening to have significant influence over the outcome of competition. Its ill-fated Oregon Project, shut down last year following the four-year doping ban given to its founder and coach, Alberto Salazar, was just yet another sign of this. 

World Athletics faces the brunt of this issue at the moment, with Nike's most recent technological advances mainly affecting the sport of athletics. It is debatable how much the Federation has tried to curb the company's influence so far, but regardless, the power of Nike may be too great to prevent its continued impact on the Games.