The most decorated track & field athlete of all time showed up the corporation, and in the process became an even greater hero to women, girls & other humans worldwide.
What a great story it could have been for Nike. About doing the right thing. About loyalty. About empowering women. And not just superstar, superhuman athletes like Allyson Felix, but women and girls everywhere.
Instead, it became yet another cautionary tale for females who enter into contracts with money-hungry corporations, whether in athletics or some other field. And it’s a stain on the company that will forever remain, no matter what it does to try to make up for it.
More importantly, it became the fable of a strong, proud, determined woman and her refusal to sacrifice her values on the path to perfection, or at least as close as anyone likely will ever come again.
It is the story of a true hero.
“Just Do It”?
In the case of Felix, and by extension women and girls worldwide, the tagline might as well be, “Just Blew It.”
Felix was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia during her 2019 pregnancy, which, “left untreated… can lead to serious – even fatal – complications.” The condition forced an emergency c-section.
Her daughter, Camryn, was born.
Not long after, during negotiations with Nike regarding her 10-year-old sponsorship contract, Nike offered a 70 percent pay cut.
She launched her own shoe brand, instead, and began sharing her story.
“I’ve been one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes,” she wrote in a May 2019 op-ed in The New York Times. “If I can’t secure maternity protections, who can?”
A Hero’s Betrayal
There’s a story that floats around advertising and marketing circles about a former Nike executive who was asked about the secret to selling shoes. The man famously replied, “We don’t sell shoes. We sell heroes.”
And so it did. Quite well.
Felix was one of the heroes whose success and public persona served Nike for years, with “served Nike” as a euphemism for “made, like, a gazillion dollars” for the corporation.
The gifted sprinter who won her first Olympic medal, a silver, in the 200 meters at the Athens games in 2004 has competed in four more Olympic games since then. But “competed” isn’t quite the right word. “Crushed” has a better feel to it.
What she insists will be her final medal, a gold, came on 7 August 2021 in Tokyo, in the 4×400-meter relay. In between she won nine more. All told, she has seven gold medals, three silver and one bronze.
Which only makes her the most decorated Olympic track & field athlete of all time.
When she made history, Felix was wearing shoes created by her own company – Shaysh.
Tell a woman she can’t do something, then watch her just do it.
Now that’s a hero.
Always a Class Act
Imagine how the cloth of the official USA Olympic Team uniforms, Nike brand, must have burned against Felix’s skin in Tokyo. But you never would have known it; as always, Felix led with class and didn’t say a bad word about Nike.
To her credit, she kept the story focused on her role and actions more so than on Nike’s astounding failure, which justifiably can be called a betrayal. Obviously she had to mention Nike in telling her story, but she stuck to the fact – Nike wanted to cut her endorsement by 70 percent – and essentially disregarded the corporation otherwise.
She talked instead about the positive things she had done to keep moving forward without the shoe and clothing giant, her gratitude for being able to accomplish so much and the bright futures of her teammates, especially the three sprinters who took the gold with her in that final relay.
Above all, it seemed, she celebrated the life of her beautiful little girl.
This thing with Nike? It’s just made her an even greater hero in the eyes – and pocketbooks – of more women and girls around the world.
The manner in which she’s acquitted herself has been no surprise; Felix has been a class act since the moment she first stepped onto the Olympic stage. And now, in behaving so, she’s forced positive change.
In August 2019 Nike announced an upgraded maternity policy that “guarantees an athlete’s pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy.”
It’s good Nike came around, saw the light, finally joined the freakin’ 21st century and made a step in the right direction. But if “better late than never” is the best that can be said….
Never mind them.
A Victory Story
Felix, ever the humble hero, would probably take exception to the “superhuman” label. “Everywoman” might be preferable.
It certainly fits; she’s been fighting for the right of every woman to be valued appropriately and at the same level whether she’s pregnant or at the very peak of her physical form. She’s managed to illuminate a dark area of opportunities and treatment of females in the corporate world. Women have spoken up before, but because of her fame and status her spotlight has been especially bright.
She’s been lauded by writers, athletes and, most importantly, other human beings everywhere for using her voice and power in taking a stand.
The words of Erin Strout from Women’s Running, writing on Think by NBC, are representative:
“Felix’s fight for a more equitable and just society is as important as her feats on tracks around the world. Know her name.”
But, then, Felix doesn’t need anyone to speak on her behalf; listen to her own words:
“As an athlete who was told I was too old, as a woman who was told to know my place, as a mother who wasn’t sure I would live to raise my daughter… I hope you see that for me, it’s about so much more than what the clock says.”
In all ways and on every stage.
Now the rest of us wait to see what she accomplishes next. After all, as a human being, Allyson Felix is in peak form.
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