Thursday, February 12, 1997
Nike to Kenyans: Just do it

The Cincinnati Enquirer

As he finishes last in the 10k cross country race,, Kenya's Phillip Boit is greeted by the winner, Norway's Bjoern Dahlie.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - Charles Mukora walked purposefully to the podium. He wore a sharp blue suit and conveyed a clear sense of control.

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The chairman of the Kenyan Olympic Committee would answer the question before it was asked. He wanted the world to know that the Kenyan Cross-Country Ski Team was not simply another Nike publicity stunt; that it is here to stay whether it ever snows in Nairobi or not.

''I can assure you,'' Mukora said, ''this is not a gimmick.''

He was speaking to a crowd instinctively suspicious of the Oregon shoe company, and its increasingly pervasive influence in international sport. That is to say, this was a press conference. It was conducted in a building converted by Nike -- at considerable cost -- to a base of operations for the Nagano Games.

Kenyan delicacies were arranged on large trays, and Kenya's first Winter Olympians were put on exhibit in their snappy new uniforms. Philip Boit and his alternate, Henry Bitok, sat on black stools and recounted their first experiences with snow. They were perfectly charming and carefully prompted. A Nike executive controlled the microphone and asked most of the questions, and another one was there to whisk the athletes away as reporters tried to follow up.

It was a spectacle out of Media Manipulation 101, and the flower of American journalism - Japan bureau simply would not stand for it. Some went so far as to indignantly refuse the free T-shirts presented as parting gifts.

Something about the Nike swoosh breeds cynicism. Some of it has to do with a sportswear empire built largely on sweatshop labor and some with a marketing strategy that has made some athletes so wealthy that they become more beholden to a shoe manufacturer than to their own teams, nations and consciences.

Jerry Rice, the peerless pass receiver, thought he was unfairly ambushed when asked to reconcile Nike's Third World labor policies at a store opening in San Francisco. Michael Jordan, who persistenly fails to use his power to temper Nike's excesses, always acts as if the issues are out of his hands.

The Kenyan Cross-Country Ski Team, consequently, has a lot of image obstacles to overcome. Unlike the Jamaican bobsledders, who appeared in Calgary in 1988 as a novelty act, the Kenyan skiers bear a burden of proof. If you were guessing, you'd tend to think they were a gimmick.

The idea was born at Nike's corporate offices in Beaverton, Ore., in 1995, when Vice President Rudy Chapa asked aloud if the Kenyans' capacity for endurance running could be converted to winter sports.

It was, on the face of it, a fair question, and perhaps even a perceptive one. Accustomed to training at altitude, Kenyan runners have dominated the world's distance events since the 1960s. Kenya has won the past 12 world team cross country titles. To wonder whether their endurance might be useful at other endeavors is not proof of a sinister plot. What it shows, primarily, is intelligence.

But because the idea originated with Nike, the question of motive always arises. It turns out that technique is more crucial to cross-country skiing than lung capacity, but it is not inconceivable that the Kenyans will one day be competitive. Hakeem Olajuwon was a Nigerian soccer player before someone wondered if his size might be suitable to basketball.

Boit and Bitok had never seen snow before they flew to Finland on Feb. 2, 1996, and their first reaction was to freeze. They lacked the proper clothes to deal with the climate, and they did not start to adapt until after their toenails and fingernails began to fall off.

''It was terrible,'' Boit said. ''We didn't think we could make it. Even putting on skis was a big problem. We couldn't stand.'' ''We were about to tell our coach to change our tickets,'' Bitok said.

But when the worst of their culture shock was over, the Kenyan skiers realized the Winter Games offered them opportunities they could never have attained as track athletes. They stuck with the program, for unspecified compensation, and Boit would qualify to compete in the Olympics.

The publicity surrounding Boits efforts in Nagano will probably repay Nike's investment in Kenyan skiing, which has been estimated at over $200,000. That doesn't necessarily make it wrong. It just makes you wonder.

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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