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In Nagano, Nike Swoosh Rivals Rings for Exposure

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page C6

 Kenyan Philip Boit finishes last in the 10-kilometer classical cross-country race, but would not have been at the Olympics — or on skis — with sponsorship by Nike. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
NAGANO, Feb. 12 — It looks like a 1950s car dealership, a squat white building with "Car Town" in old-fashioned blue script over the frosted glass doors. The only hint that this is Nike headquarters at the Winter Olympics is one tiny red emblem on the door: a Nike swoosh.

The exterior stealth is designed to keep the masses away from the athletes who are trying to relax with a cup of latte and a few video games in just about the only Swoosh-Free Zone at the Olympics. Nike has been a major presence at every summer Olympics for a decade, and now that it has dived into hockey and skiing in a big way, this is its first big push at a Winter Games.

Its presence here is a show of clever gimmicks, high visibility and corporate muscle, its gear visible at virtually every competition site and on every television picture at the Games.

Almost a quarter of the athletes here — 600 out of about 2,600 — are competing in Nike gear. Every hockey player here, men and women, including all the big NHL stars, will be wearing Nike uniforms during their prime-time coverage on CBS (except the Canadians, who will be wearing uniforms by Bauer, a Nike subsidiary). All-time great Wayne Gretzky, who plays for Canada, will wear Nike skates; U.S. Alpine skier Picabo Street is competing in Nike gear, as are snowboarders and skiers and skaters from countries all over the world.

Nike has also outfitted all 1,800 CBS employees who are working in Nagano. They have become the most easily recognizable people in town, wearing their black and orange Nike "All Conditions Gear" — jackets with prominent swooshes.

But Nike is not an official Olympic sponsor, so it is not authorized to use Olympic logos. The breast patch on the CBS gear says "CBS, Winter Games 1998," with a Nike logo in the shape of mountains. Nowhere does it mention the words "Nagano" or "Olympics," and it does not include the five-ringed Olympic logo, which is reserved for official sponsors.

CBS News officials have banned their reporters here from wearing the Nike logo on the air. But CBS Sports officials are allowing their reporters to continue wearing the swoosh, as long as they wear only one clothing item with a swoosh while they're on camera.

"This is sports television in the '90s; it's just part of the process these days," said CBS spokesman Dana McClintock, who noted that Columbia Sportswear had the same contract with CBS during the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer and nobody complained.

Nike is sponsoring two Kenyan cross-country skiers, Philip Boit and Henry Bitok, Kenyan distance runners who agreed to Nike's suggestion that they give Nordic skiing a try. Bitok did not qualify for the competition but Boit raced Thursday in the 10-kilometer classical cross-country race, finishing dead last. The company has invested heavily in the two athletes in the past two years, sending them from balmy Kenya to frigid Finland for training, designing uniforms in the colors of the Kenyan flag and trotting them out for the media this week at Car Town.

There is no doubt that the two Kenyans are remarkable athletes who have become respectable skiers just two years after the first time they ever saw snow. Boit's courageous finish earned the admiration of Norway's Bjorn Dahlie, perhaps the greatest cross-country skier in history, who greeted him at the finish line despite having won the gold medal 20 minutes earlier. But they also are a brilliant business coup for Nike, which has created a TV-perfect Olympic story.

Nike spokeswoman Martha Benson said Nike is simply interested in opening new opportunities for athletes everywhere. "There is definitely a marketing benefit," she said. "But that's not what this is about. Nike firmly believes that sports should have no boundaries."

In the 1996 Atlanta Games, Nike and other companies were accused by competitors of using the Games and athletes with Nike endorsements to promote their goods, even though they were not official Olympic sponsors.

Michael Payne, marketing director for the International Olympic Committee, said today such criticism was unfair. He said that Nike may not be giving its millions to the Olympic organizing committee, but it is still supporting athletes and indirectly helping keep the Olympics healthy.

"We need the teams and athletes as much as we need the stadiums," Payne said.

However, Payne said that after the excessive commercialism of the Atlanta Games, the IOC signed a new Olympic marketing code with sporting goods companies to control the nature of marketing at the Games. The agreement, signed by Nike, Reebok, adidas and others, says that advertising should be conducted "in a dignified and coordinated manner with relevant local authorities."

Of course, Nike isn't the only company strutting its stuff at the Olympics. Official sponsors such as Visa, Kodak and IBM have signs and people all over Nagano. Donna Karan has supplied clothes to the CBS on-air personalities.

Mizuno, a Japanese sporting good manufacturer, is the official athletic wear supplier of the Nagano Games, which allows it exclusive use of the Olympic logo and the words Nagano and Olympics on sporting clothes and goods. Mizuno paid about $16 million for the privilege of providing uniforms for more than 26,000 Nagano Olympics staff members, as well as uniforms and equipment for athletes from 12 countries, including U.S. speedskaters.

Mizuno officials are watching Nike carefully, but so far they're happy with the company's approach.

"We do not think the present activities of Nike are ambush marketing," said Mizuno spokesman Noriko Hato. "However ... in case they use the word Olympics for their promotion, we will cope with it right away."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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