Sneakers, Geared (and Gussied) Up

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Adidas 1 and Nike Free 5.0, two newfangled sneaker concepts, could hardly be more dissimilar. With a motor implanted below the arch, Adidas 1 constantly tightens and loosens itself to create a custom fit. A company official, with a straight face, calls it the "world's first intelligent shoe." It may also be the world's first $250 sneaker.

Nike Free, at the slightly more bearable price of $80, is built around an ultra-flexible sole, scored deeply from heel to toe, to mimic barefoot walking or running. Why pay for what is, essentially, an anti-shoe? Because navigating in it strengthens the foot, of course. "It's a weight room for your feet," says Nike engineer Tobie Hatfield.

Parents across the country are hoarse from trying to talk their kids out of buying eye-catching, gizmo-filled sneakers and into purchasing a pair of sturdy, no-frills cross-trainers. But it may be of no use. As the fevered back-to-school shopping binge begins, the country's top shoemakers are talking, perhaps more than ever, about technology, the innovations in shoe design that somehow create buzz every year or so.

Pumps (yes, they're back). Sensors. Shocks. (Or Shox, as Nike calls them.) Or ClimaCool, which Adidas says channels air through the sneaker to cool the foot.

The sci-fi-sounding bells and whistles are fueling a $15 billion athletic footwear industry that now cranks out a shoe for every activity, sport, season and lifestyle. Reebok's Zan Chi Yoga/Pilates slip-ons, for example, help you "find your inner 'chi,' " according to the company. In case you missed the cultural memo, the age of the all-purpose sneaker is over -- tossed out with the all-purpose handbag.

In 2004, consumers spent $237 million just on aerobic shoes (lightweight materials to prevent foot fatigue), $234 million on skateboarding shoes (thin soles to control the board) and $43 million on cheerleading shoes (finger notches to be grabbed during stunts), according to National Sporting Goods Association. Then there are the big categories: $3.5 billion on walking shoes (rigid fronts to protect toes), $1.9 billion on running shoes (thick soles to absorb impact) and $877 million on basketball shoes (high-tops to prevent ankle injuries).

This, in an industry that grew out of a slapdash foot cover constructed from leather and grass. As we learned from the Neolithic corpse found in 1991, man had created a snow-proof shoe sturdy enough to roam the Alps by around 3300 B.C. Rubber soles, a technological innovation of the 1800s, gave birth to the modern athletic shoe. Keds became the first mass-marketed "sneaker" -- a term coined circa 1917 by an advertising executive who noticed that rubber soles allowed people to sneak around unheard.

"When manufacturers come out with a new shoe, technology is where they begin," says Dan Kasen, manager of information services at the National Sporting Goods Association. "It is a critical consideration."

Take the proposed merger of Adidas-Salomon AG and Reebok International Ltd., both of which trail behind sneaker king Nike Inc.

When executives from both companies described the merger in a recent conference call, the word "technology" kept creeping into the conversation. "Adidas is a technology-driven company," said chief executive Herbert Hainer. At the same time, he said, Reebok has successfully fused "sports, entertainment and technology."

But what do the foot doctors, who presumably see patients after they've picked the wrong shoe, think about all of this technology? By and large, they think it confuses consumers. In interviews, several podiatrists offered roughly the same set of guidelines for sneaker buying: The shoe must have a strong sole and mid-sole (the thick area above the sole) to absorb the impact of everyday walking or running, a rigid heel counter (which curves around the heel) to keep the foot stable and a toe box that is big enough and high enough to prevent chafing.

"For the average person, buying any reputable shoe that adheres to these rules is perfect," says Harold Glickman, chief of podiatric surgery at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington and president of the American Podiatric Medical Association.

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