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Whether you call them sneakers, joggers, or something else (sand shoes?), there’s no denying the popularity of athletic footwear.
But with more than $30 billion in sales a year, it’s clear not everyone who buys a fresh pair is playing sports. And with most of the industry’s growth happening on the higher end, with shoes costing over $100, it’s not necessarily advised to put your investment to work on the court.
Sneaker culture went mainstream in the 1980s, when luxury brands like Gucci and superstar athletes like Michael Jordan got into the signature shoe business. Jordan’s decision to wear his namesake sneakers on the court defied NBA policy, but made Air Jordans the must-have footwear for thousands of soon-to-be sneakerheads.
Now sneakers are a default. The athleisure craze has made rubber soles acceptable in all but the most formal situations. Some sneakers are valued so highly that a 16-year-old became rich selling them. While others are so personally precious we’ll wear them until they absolutely fall apart.
From the high-end to low-end, high-tops to trainers, what makes a sneaker great, and what is it about athletic shoes that make them such a symbol of Americanness?
- Elizabeth Semmelhack Senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum; curator of the exhibition "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture." @esemmelhack
- Nicholas Smith Author, "Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers" @nicholasksmith
- D'Wayne Edwards Founder, Pensole Footwear Design Academy @Pensole_Academy
- Mellany Sanchez Stylist for Drake; former visual director, Kith @mellany_sanchez
Producer Paige Shops For Sneakers
Read an excerpt of "Kicks" by Nicholas Smith
In the spring of 1964, twenty-year-old Kenny Moore stood on the infield of the University of Oregon track with a pair of hands around his throat. The hands belonged to Bill Bowerman, his track coach. Moore had just finished running “an easy twelve miles” and was discussing his progress after coming off a bout of the flu. Bowerman, bear of a man that he was, had been taking Moore’s pulse moments before, when he slipped his callused hands around the middle-distance runner’s neck with an ultimatum.
“Mr. Moore, I’m going to ask you to take part in an experiment.” The coach began lifting most of the runner’s weight off his feet. Moore was not to run, jog, or otherwise move a single step faster than a walk for three weeks unless the Oregon coach himself was watching him in practice. If any of his teammates saw him putting in extra mileage, Moore would be off the team. Three weeks later, after following Bowerman’s “experiment,” Moore ran the 2 mile against Oregon State in 8:48, winning the race and clocking 27 seconds faster than he ever had before.
At the beginning of every track season, Bowerman would invite his athletes up to his ranch overlooking the McKenzie River. The meetings would always start the same way, with a parable about a motivational mule driver (or “skinner”) that summed up the track coach’s philosophy.
“Farmer can’t get his mule to plow,” Bowerman would say. “Can’t even get him to eat or drink. Finally calls in a mule skinner. Guy comes out, doesn’t even look at the mule. Goes in the barn, gets a two-by-four, and hits the mule as hard as he can between the ears. Mule goes to his knees. Mule skinner hits him again, between the eyes. Farmer drags the mule off. ‘That’s supposed to get him to plow? That’s supposed to get him to drink?’ the farmer asks. ‘I can see you don’t know a damn thing about mules,’ says the skinner. ‘First you have to get their attention.’ ”
For many University of Oregon athletes, getting that attention wasn’t as extreme as holding Kenny Moore nearly off the ground by the throat, but the message was the same: you changed your bad habits, or else you were off the team. “Fundamentally, that was the proof, that was my two-by-four, that I had to take those easy days.” Moore said. “That I’d just been wasting all that effort and not been getting any improvement for it.”
Coaching track involves more than telling athletes to run more quickly. Bowerman would look for any advantage to shave off precious seconds at the finish line. In addition to his unorthodox way of telling Moore he needed more rest after having had the flu, the coach had a lot of feelings about shoes.
In 1965, Moore was called in to Bowerman’s office. The runner had split his foot open during a track meet and the long run afterward (a quarter mile farther than Bowerman had prescribed) caused a stress fracture in his foot. “You will lay before me the shoes you wore,” Bowerman ordered Moore, who placed the blue-and-white flats on his coach’s desk. When not racing in spikes, runners often wear a different type of shoe called a flat, which, as the name suggests, has a thin, flat rubber sole. Bowerman ripped Moore’s shoe apart in front of him, revealing only a small amount of padding and no arch support. “If you set out to engineer a shoe to bend metatarsals until they snap you couldn’t do much better than this,” he said. “Not only that, the outer sole rubber wears away like cornbread. This is not a shit shoe, it’s a double-shit shoe.”
Six weeks later, Bowerman gave Moore a pair with the proper cushioning and arch support. He had made them himself.
Excerpted with permission from KICKS by Nicholas Smith. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Nicholas Smith.
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