As Nike has grown, it has dominated track and field with the fervor of a team trying to run up the score: Don’t just win, crush the competition to send the message that elite athletes who win do so while wearing Nike.
Several visible changes have prompted athletes to question whether that is changing.
Athletes aren’t getting the same sponsorship deals.
Nike has long tried to gobble any track and field athlete who had even an outside shot at competing on the world stage. While other running brands, for example, sponsor a handful of distance runners or perhaps a group of them, Nike sponsors dozens of runners who run middle and long distances in three groups, as well as sprinters, field athletes and distance runners who are not part of one of the groups.
“Nike’s heritage is in track and field, and I think that was always a deep-down desire, they had to win, whether with U.S.A.T.F., the Pre Classic or Team USA,” said Michael Bergmann, a longtime Nike executive who now runs the Portland Track club.
Going into 2021, however, some competitive runners have been unusually critical of the company after their contracts were allowed to expire.
Tianna Bartoletta, who has won three Olympic gold medals in the long jump and sprint relays, is one of them. As she worked to regain fitness in 2020 after surgery on a benign tumor on her uterus, she had little contact with Nike, and one of her quarterly payments even failed to appear in her bank account.
“During that time I got a new manager and he called Nike, and Nike said, ‘Oh, it is because she did not compete at the Olympic Games in 2020,’” Bartoletta recalled. “At that point I let out the most maniacal laugh, the laugh was like a delirious laugh.”