The Modern Athletic Shoe

Rubber-soled shoes were first mass-marketed as canvas top "sneakers" by U.S. Rubber, with its Keds® in 1917. But the elevation of athletic shoe manufacturing to both a science and a fashion was largely due to Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman of Oregon.

In 1958, Phil Knight, a business major at the University of Oregon and a miler on the track team, shared with his coach, Bill Bowerman, a dissatisfaction with the clumsiness of American running shoes. They formed a company in 1964 to market a lighter and more comfortable shoe designed by Bowerman. In 1968, this company became NIKE, Inc. – named for the Greek goddess of Victory. At first, Knight and Bowerman sold their shoes in person, at track meets across the Western U.S.

Their company thrived through a classic combination of entrepreneurship and innovation. Bowerman's most memorable technical breakthrough was the optimal traction of the waffle soles that he invented by shaping rubber in the waffle iron in his kitchen in 1972. Other essential innovations were the wedged heel, the cushioned mid-sole, and nylon uppers. Knight's first great marketing ploy was announcing that "four of the top seven finishers" in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Trials had worn NIKEs. (The first three runners had, in fact, worn West German Adidas®). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, NIKE's advertisements helped make the company by far the foremost retailer of athletic shoes worldwide, thanks to endorsements from superstars like Michael Jordan and catchy slogans like "Just Do It."

After dozens of years, patents, and commercials, NIKE and its competitors created an absolute mania for elaborate athletic shoes in the U.S. and abroad. Though fashion remains a matter of taste, it is undeniable that both world-class athletes and even the average aerobics enthusiast owe a debt to the innovations of Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman and to the industry that they inspired.