Run For Us.. Run!

The editor of the Michigan MileSplit site felt my track & field career had some interesting stories that crossed paths with historical figures and other track & field milestones and asked me to share some of those stories with you. I crossed one such milestone when I entered the elite level of my running career at the exact same time companies began sponsoring track & field athletes. 

For the first since time since the modern Olympics began, in 1978, an athlete’s Olympic team eligibility would not be put at risk if they openly received monetary or other assistance from a sponsor. Within four years, the notion an Olympic athlete must also be an amateur athlete, would finally become a non-issue.  

For years, there had been appearance fees, shoe and travel money being paid to the most elite athletes in the world, but usually under the table.  By 1978, for the very first time, not only the elite, but legions of nationally ranked athletes began receiving free shoes and gear from shoe company sponsors.

There were no NCAA compliance officers in 1978 at each NCAA Division I school like today. Back then, the closest thing we ever had to an NCAA rules meeting was a five minute talk telling us if we transferred to another school, we would lose a year of eligibility and they told us not to do drugs.

Onitsuka Tiger, Marathon, Circa 1973

In 1978, the running shoe company, Nike, became both the game-changer for track & field sponsorship AND the entire running shoe industry. The genesis of these changes happened when Nike incorporated in 1977. Nike started under a different company name ten years earlier with Bill Bowerman, track coach at Oregon and his former athlete, Phil Knight, selling Japanese shoes out of the back of their car.  For a decade, it was more of a hobby/resale business, the duo selling the Onitsuka Tiger, an iconic shoe usually made of a blue nylon upper and a thin, white rubber sole.  The two eventually decided they wanted to do more than resell Japanese shoes.  By the early 1970s Nike changed the industry with a waffle iron, some innovative thinking and a marketing philosophy that to this day, sets the standard for creative advertising excellence.

The game Nike changed from 1972 to 1978 was one historically dominated by the two shoe companies, Adidas and Puma. Up until 1972, the two companies, owned by feuding brothers, produced the only shoes worn in track and field or at the Olympic Games.   The two brothers had been feuding since the end of World War II, then in 1949, one brother split from Adidas to start Puma, Inc.  By time the 1972 Olympics were over, the children of the two brothers had driven the two great shoe companies into the ground.  While the children struggled for legal rights and family fortunes, they were blind-sided by the genius of Nike founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight.  It’s been said, Adi Dassler, owner of Adidas, all but ignored the flimsy rubber shoes glued together and built using a kitchen waffle iron.  Bowerman had stolen the waffle iron from his wife’s kitchen and used it to melt rubber to form the nubby soles of the first Nike Waffle Trainer running shoes.

Original Waffle Iron, Bowerman used to make the first Nike Waffle Trainer.

As Adidas and Puma slept at the wheel, Bowerman and Knight began cutting a path into the shoe industry with a great product that was lighter, durable and driven by a marketing genius that put the Nike brand in front of and literally ON their target market. 

Adidas and Puma continued producing shoes that were much heavier and sponsored only a few international superstars. But the Nike plan put their shoes on the feet of as many promising runners as they possibly could.  Nike believed any athlete that had the potential to be the next star was the perfect prospect to wear their shoes. Nike did this by flooding the market with great generosity. Nike began to outfit athletes like myself and others with their shoes as soon as we reached the national stage with the hope of discovering the next generation of Olympians.  At the time, I was a freshman in college and maybe ranked in the top 30 in the United States in the decathlon event.  This generous marketing tactic was the game changer that put Nike on the running shoe map and began to push Adidas and Puma from their spots as kings of the running shoe industry.  Nike seized the day. At the very moment it became, “Legal” to supply athletes with shoes, Nike did it on a grand scale.  The move was a stroke of marketing genius.   

When people ask about my athletic career, they’re disappointed to learn neither my path to the Olympic trials, nor my personality match the poetic profile of athletes featured in those Olympic year Visa commercials.  The hilarious thing is, anyone that knows me, knows I’m not too serious, rarely plan ahead, I'm forgetful and downright, goofy. I liken my trip to becoming an elite level athlete much like the path movie character, Forrest Gump took to earn his athletic scholarship.  Though I hope I’m smarter than Forrest, I honestly saw some parallels between our lives. I ignored and had little interest in sports as a kid, I was a bench warmer but always had the ability to run fast and jump high.  Like Gump, who found himself in the middle of some historic moments like playing football for Bear Bryant and finding himself next to Governor George Wallace when he gave his segregation forever speech, my ability to run put me in similar proximity to some notable people and events. Like Forrest, the ability to run well just dropped in my lap as a result of good athletic genes. Like Gump, unaware he was entertaining the King of Rock and Roll in his mother’s boarding house, I was oblivious in 1978 that my transformation into an elite athlete was beginning as track and field finally had broken free of a tyrant’s 70 year control of the sport’s purse strings.  By 1978 athletes like myself, and others, were poised to become the first generation of track and field athletes to receive money for our efforts without fear of being kicked out of the sport. Like Gumps box of chocolates, I thought life was always that easy at the track:  You ran fast, sponsors opened the box of running shoes and provided you with the means to get to meets.  Pretty simple, right?  Wrong.

For the previous 75 years, receiving so much as a stick of gum or gas money to attend a meet from a sponsor or meet director got you a permanently banned from the sport.   The tyrant the sport had finally broken free from was former IOC President, Avery Brundage. For close to 50 years he served as the J. Edgar Hoover of the Olympic movement, policing and banning any athlete who dared receive a dime from his or her athletic skills or image. Best known as the enforcer of outdated amateurism rules, few realize his power as head of the international Olympic Committee made Brundage and the Olympic Games, two of the most powerful entities in the world. 

At the peak of his power in the 1950s, Brundage made the nations of China, the Soviet Union, and Germany obey any rule or law he drafted around them. Brundage had near presidential influence or at least power only reserved for State Department officials while IOC President.  

No individual athlete was ever going to challenge or win a fight against Brundage relating to amateurism rules (Being able to accept sponsorship) if he was able to make the nations of the world comply to Olympic Game rules he drafted and enforced himself. The few athletes that dared test his resolve to keep professionalism out of organizations that fed the Olympic qualifying teams were instantly disposed of by Brundage.  An Alpine skier, Brundage called, “A walking billboard,” was dealt with by immediate expulsion from the 1960 Olympic Games.  American, Wes Santee, one of the best milers in the world in 1955, was given a lifetime ban by Brundage for receiving $1,287.27 to travel to three track meets during the year.   

When Brundage retired from the IOC in 1973 it coincided with the rise of a brash, charismatic, group of talented runners and a revolutionary shoe company (Nike) emerging on the U.S. running scene, both located in Eugene, Oregon. The runners knew the Olympic Games were a lucrative business born on the backs of athletes whose performances were the draw and felt the time had come for athletes to share in the profits. The runners and Nike worked in unison. While the athletes ran, Nike invented a new way to flood the market with their product and realized the best billboard for their new brand was to put their shoes on the feet of the best runners in the country.

Using one or two star-athletes to endorse a product was nothing new in the advertising world. What was new and revolutionary, was the marketing plan that sponsored several hundred track and field athletes with the potential of becoming great runners and outfitting them all in Nike shoes and apparel.   Nike fully realized as the athletes traveled across the country and the globe to meets, so would the story of the Nike brand and product.

Also in 1978, Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act, giving athletes both a voice and a vote in the governance process of Olympic Sport. These laws weakened organizations like the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and others, who for years played a major role in creating regulations only American athletes had to adhere to.  

The NCAA Division I National Championships were being held in Eugene, Oregon in 1978.  I had heard about the new sponsorship program Nike had where you didn’t have to be the number one ranked athlete in your track event to be considered for sponsorship. I made a goal to find out more about the program while I was in Eugene for the NCAA meet. 

If you read my last article here, you know at the 1978 NCAA National Championships I had reached my first goal for the Eugene trip by placing in the top 20 at the NCAA Championships in the decathlon event my freshman year.  Now, on the morning of the third day in Eugene, I set out to attain my second goal of the trip: Trying to get Nike to sponsor me for some summer meets I was going to enter.  

I put on my running gear and set out for my unannounced meeting at the Nike offices to talk to the man in charge of sponsorships. I was surprised to find the offices were located in a small house, a 1930s Arts and Crafts style home.  Don’t forget, Nike was only formally incorporated the previous year, 1977; they weren’t yet the mega-corporation they are today.  They were still big enough even then that I still had NO business barging in unannounced asking for favors. But since the frontal lobes of an 18 year old boy’s brain aren’t fully developed until age 25, of course I walked into the offices of Nike, Inc. and asked if I could meet with the head cheese of sponsorship.

The secretary asked me if I had an appointment. So just in case I was about to get kicked out of the office for lack of an appointment, I took a long, deep breath and said in one, long sentence, “ My name is Gary Bastien and I am one of the first freshmen to ever qualify for the NCAA National Championships and I’m  pretty sure I am about to win the USA Junior National Championships and then after that I plan on winning the USA vs. USSR Championships and I was wondering if you would be interested in letting me wear your shoes on the USA junior team  over in Moscow, Russia?” Um…please?

The office area was small enough that Geoff Hollister slowly came out of his office as he heard me uncomfortably rattle off my stats, goals and request.  First, if Geoff ever reads this article, I want to thank you for your tact and kindness that morning.  I could tell by his body language he was taken aback by the way I bombed in on him unannounced and was irritated I would assume I’d get to see him. But God bless him, he handled my brash move with both grace and tact.  He told me we don’t just typically sign up guys to be sponsored who come off the street and usually not freshmen.  But he said my marks were good for my age and he would keep an eye on me and see what develops. 

I was out of the office as quickly as I entered.  By time I got back to my dorm room on the campus of the Oregon Ducks, the flop sweat had beaded up and rolled off my back like swamp water off the neck of a Mallard.  As gracious and polite as Hollister was, what I heard him say was, “You stink, get out of my office, you beginner-boy punk. No soup for you.” (And Seinfeld had yet to appear on Johnny Carson yet, let alone have his own show.)

I returned home from the Eugene trip and began training for the USA Junior qualifying meet. I was favored to win the USA junior meet that month and did.  I went directly from the junior qualifying meet to Moscow, Russia.  I flew to the USSR, won the USA vs. USSR Junior meet on the Fourth of July. I returned home three weeks later more appreciative of American life and society.

When I got home from the meet I was met at steps of my home with a 3 x 4 foot box sporting a huge Nike Logo on it. I’m still not sure if it was my performance at the junior qualifying meet or the win I had against the Soviets or if somehow Hollister told someone to mail shoes to that Forrest Gump ding-dong who stopped in a couple weeks ago just to keep me away from his office. Whatever his inspiration, I was geeked to open the cardboard box to reveal the bright, red/orange boxes holding several pairs of shoes, sweatshirts, wind breakers and duffle bags.  Once again, Forrest was oblivious to his good timing. 

In 1978, a majority of the Nike sponsored athletes were receiving only shoes, apparel, duffle bags, not usually any money.  We called it sponsorship because we had heard that’s how Prefontaine and others started and eventually they made appearance fees and training stipends from their sponsor.  Sponsorship with free shoes and equipment came with the realization we were competing in the early days of what might someday make track and field a professional sport. None of us yet knew what a professional track athlete or circuit might evolve into or look like.  We hoped it might closely resemble the professional tennis player or downhill skier model, where spectators would see the logos on our uniforms and our sponsors would get the exposure they were looking for.  In the beginning though, we were pleased to just get the free gear and use the money we saved from not buying it and put it toward expenses to get to meets in the summer.

By 1980, it was standard for an athlete and his collegiate coach to go to the 6th floor of a hotel during the NCAA Championships and cruise the different rooms the various shoe companies had set up to see their shoes and product lines.  The venue was also used to openly discuss the athlete’s running performance and statistics. Some athletes would be picked up by a sponsor for the first time at these events; others would negotiate switching from one brand of shoe to another. This was all done under the premise that we were selecting our summer, off-season shoe sponsor. The coaches saw the free shoes as just on one less athlete the university had to outfit with shoes.   

I graduated from college in 1981.   From 1978-1981, some of my friends, mostly good middle distance and distance runners, gradually graduated to being paid travel and cost of living stipends and appearance money when they ran.  The distance athletes were in higher demand due to road racing leading the way for awarding prize money for winning races.  Money was starting to appear more in the open. The professional carrot dangled before the track & field athletes before the 1984 Olympic Games were gradually beginning to multiply.  

The financial changes became more visible and offered enough optimism to the track and field athletes to invest the next four years pursuing Olympic berths. We didn’t care if professionalism meant money to pay rent or if it evolved into a more lucrative pro tennis type model. Whatever the size of professional money to come we were prepared to accept, be it large or small.

After four years of college I graduated in December, 1981. I bypassed applying for a single job in the advertising profession I studied four years for.  Instead in January of 1982, my wife and I pursued our Olympic dream with whatever money we had at the time, a Nike shoe sponsorship we ‘Hoped,” would evolve into a paying contract and headed to Florida to train.  I spent $235 dollars on a used snowmobile trailer, and along with my wife and in-laws, built plywood walls on the trailer.  I loaded everything we owned into the trailer, lashed my pole vault poles, two javelins and our bed to the top of our Ford Pinto station wagon and headed south. All that was missing was Granny in a rocker on top of the bed.  As funny as this picture looks, it was one of the best days of my life because I was setting out to do what I loved.  I loved the sport and loved the challenge the chance of making the Olympic Team offered.

We made it down south, arrived with no jobs, but a strong sense that we were doing the right thing anyway.  I immediately hurt my foot and was able to compete in only one track meet that year.  Because I just disappeared off the radar, my sponsor, Nike, dropped me like a rock.  I don’t blame them.  I also thought the injury I had was career ending too.

That summer, 1982, I got a call from the Auburn University track coach, Mel Rosen, to become both the women’s assistant coach and the men’s graduate assistant.  The stability of that job led to me starting the next outdoor track season, 1983, with the highest score by a U.S. decathlete. 

I acted as my own agent and called around to different shoe companies for sponsorship. Because I had the highest American early season score, this time I immediately landed a new sponsor, Puma Shoe Company.  Both Adidas and Puma had seen the inroads Nike had made in market share and they both copied the more generous sponsorship programs Nike started.  Puma had teamed up with Ever Ready Battery to form the Puma Energizer Track Club and were now investing serious dollars in “real” professional sponsorship.  With my Puma sponsorship I was no longer just wearing their shoes.  I was paid enough money to pay my living expenses, travel to meets for free and buy a new car that could get me to meets. Our club appeared in advertisements like the Sunday Parade Magazine and other publications like the Millrose Games Programs.  This added support helped me tremendously.  I was able to finish the 1983 season qualifying for the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials, earned the bronze medal at the USA Track & Field Championships and a spot on the 1983 Pan American Games team.  

Thanks to the Puma Sponsorship, my good luck continued through the spring of 1984. Puma sent me up to Toronto, Canada to an Olympic Invitational where I represented the USA against England’s Olympic Gold Medalist, Daley Thompson and Canada’s 1988 Olympic Silver Medalist, Dave Steen.  I was on track to make the Olympic team.  About a month later I sustained a very bad injury and by time the Olympic trials came along I was not fit enough to perform the way I had previous to the injury. Part of the game is training smart enough to not get injured and I messed up.  The guys who made the Olympic team earned their spots on the team fair and square. 

An Olympic Team favorite in May, 1984 - Chicago Sun-Times

In one decade, from 1975 to 1985, track and field went from being a sport where athletes were barred from taking even a free night’s lodging or a stick of gum for fear of being labeled a professional, to becoming professional athletes.

I had unknowingly entered the elite ranks of the sport during an historic moment. In five short years we went from amateur athletes to professional ones.  By 1988 a large number of track and field athletes were being paid enough to make their training a lucrative, full- time job, with annual incomes most entry-level, post collegiate jobs would pay. Even the USOC was giving us additional modest training stipends for making the Pan American Games, World Championship and Olympic teams. By the 1988 Olympic Games those USOC stipends had tripled in size.  

By the early 1990s, athletes were making so much money, they no longer settled to make only one or two Olympic teams, they extended their running careers by making three and four Olympic teams. Backed by well-funded sponsors, it became financially feasible to make track & field your full-time occupation for eight, twelve or sixteen years.

Because athletes today choose to hang around for multiple Olympic trials, it is actually MUCH harder today to make a USA Olympic/World Championship team OR to attain a track and field sponsorship contract than it was thirty five years ago. How can this possibly be?

Before the 1976 Olympics, athletes rarely attempted to make more than the one or two Olympic teams other than the couple that fell in or near their four years of college eligibility.  For instance, if you were in college from 1977-1981, you would attempt to make the Olympic team that fell within your college years...(In this example 1980) and then, MAYBE the Olympic trials right after your college years. (In this example, the 1984 Olympics).   The athlete would be about 19-22 years of age during the first Olympic Games and 23-27 during the second.  

Let’s remember, track & field athletes who were 26-27 were considered old up until the early 1990s.(For a sprinter, 27 was considered ANCIENT) From 1990 or so on, track athletes as old as 34 have proven to be Olympic team members, even medalists. Once it was proven athletes could compete through the ages of 30-34, athletes began staying around for three and four Olympic Trials.   

From the 1980’s and before, every new Olympic trials brought a new generation of faces and athletes to replace the retiring Olympians.  There simply was not enough sponsorship money to justify an Olympian trying to make three and four Olympic teams.

Unlike when Nike was founded and they put shoes on anyone who showed potential, the new prerequisite for sponsorship has become whether you have become an Olympic or World Championship team member. If you haven’t made the team but have performed on the national stage consistently for four years, it has become very hard to attain sponsorship.
I know of several athletes who have made it to the Olympic trials finals in their event in consecutive Olympic trials.  In 1985 that accomplishment would have gotten you a four-year paid sponsorship. Today that accomplishment may not even get you free equipment for the next four years.

The days are gone when each new Olympic Trials brings an entirely new group of athletes to replace the previous Olympians who chose to retire. There is less speculation as to who will make the team when the Olympic Trials field is loaded with Olympians and World Championship team members.  Shoe companies no longer need to sponsor a slew of developing athletes when they can invest in athletes who’ve made three and four Olympics/World Championship teams.  Add to this, Nike is no longer introducing their product to market for first time like they were in 1978 either.  All these factors unfortunately add up to fewer developing athletes being sponsored than there were 35 years ago.

When I talk with my friends who were also sponsored athletes back in the 1980s, we know how fortunate we were to compete at a time when sponsorship money was more available to developing athletes. None of us would see a dime of sponsorship money had we been born into this era where track and field athletes make several USA Olympic and World Championship teams.  We fantasize how we could become more involved with the USATF and talk of organizing ways to charge a small fee to help support developing Olympic athletes. Then we return to reality and realize none of us clowns will ever do that. 

Then the smartest among us eventually points out, there will always be a cut-off point for the haves and have-nots in the battle for the track and field assistance dollar.  But he also reminds us there will also always be guys like we were; who will attempt making an Olympic team despite the odds or any financial hardship it might pose. 

There always will be Gumps who will pack their station wagons, tie beds to the roof and drag rickety, plywood trailers 800 miles, simply for love of the sport and love of the Olympic challenge that’s placed before them.  

Forrest Gump said, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

I guarantee future Gumpsters will know what love is and discover it’s their greatest asset and most reliable ally they’ll ever call on for support.

 

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