Outside magazine, October 1997
His big sell: Everyone's an athlete
By Donald Katz
A billionaire nearly six times over, and every cent of it born of entrepreneurial obsession and the abiding allure of movement and games. The Knight and Nike story begins nearly 35 years ago with a decent middle-distance track guy who didn't want a regular job driving his old Plymouth to local meets in Oregon and selling imported shoes out of the trunk. He said he would make equipment for athletes, and by the late 1970s ù as a vast generation turned to matters of conditioning and mortality and aerobic ways to inner peace ù he made millions of people willing to run or throw or hike or climb believe that they were athletes too.
Nike stuff became essential accoutrement for the best of modern lives, and Knight's true believers labored as part of a company many perceived as a cult. The company hoovered up Beatles songs and the playground jazz of urban cool and sprayed a discernible Nike look onto every vista. Anyone could, by force of little more than shoes that bore the ubiquitous swoosh, just do it. The power of Nike's marketing machine forced the shoes into childrens' dreams via television commercials that adorned athletes with the physical prowess of gods. And Knight, ever mysterious even to those who work down the hall, began to despair that the anticompany company culture he'd built outside Portland, Oregon, would go the way of the phone company or IBM. He regularly agonizes and makes adjustments inside the empire, but Nike continues to grow beyond the founder's reach, because ù as he's always maintained ù the idea of games played among the best is to always win.
In recent years it has often been said that Phil Knight has built Nike into an entity that owns the souls of players, controls the games they play ù that Nike is a company built in some large part on the exploited labor of Third World citizens working for less than two bucks a day. Knight has always had answers ù complex analyses of the harsh facts of economic development since World War II and historical observations that the realm of sport has not been pure of commercial essence for more than a century ù but he tends to remain absent from the debate. He stays back in the shadows overseeing a company designed to be better than the others, there to make sure that anyone in the world planning to run up a hill would just as soon do it in a pair of his shoes.
Photographs by William Coupon