Gold is the color that most athletes have been focusing on over the last couple of weeks in London, but if you had only been watching the track and field competitors, you might not know it.
Have you noticed? A huge number of them—more than 400—have worn bright yellow fluorescent Nike shoes in competition. The range, called ‘Volt’, comes in the same hue as the kicks that the US athletes have been wearing to mount the podia and collect their medals.
But the prevalence of this retina-melting color isn’t only of interest to sporting fashionistas. In an Olympiad that has been partly characterised by the hegemony enjoyed by official sponsors, the visibility of these shoes—and, by extension, the visibility of Nike—is something of a marketing coup.
Adidas reportedly paid $155 million for the privilege of sponsoring the Games. Nike, on the other hand, haven’t spent a penny. But watch the athletes in the stadium during relays, with 32 runners on the track at the same time, and it’ll be clear which brand is getting more exposure.
Dr Alan Reichow, is the global research director of a department at Nike called sensory training & visibility. He explains that yellow is the most visible color to the human eye, largely because of “its position in the middle of the visible light spectrum. That’s the reason for yellow safety vests, road signs or emergency vehicles.” He says. “The color has a similar effect on visibility of the shoes, particularly against the red track, out on the pitch, and a specific shade of 'Volt' yellow was formulated to maximize this contrast."
But coming up with an eye-catching color is only half the battle for a brand that’s looking for a way to circumvent those advertising regulations (not that the company would admit that this is what they’re up to). Getting very nearly every Nike-sponsored track and field athlete to wear the same shoes is no mean feat. Think back to previous world championships and Olympics; Michael Johnson’s gold spikes stand out in the memory more than most, but there has been a vast array of styles and colorways on show over the years.
Team uniforms are compulsory attire, so for those who choose to eschew piercings, outré haircuts and the increasingly prevalent vogue for tattoos, an athlete’s choice of footwear is the only opportunity to display some individuality. So, how have Nike persuaded them all to wear the same ones?
When I call, they tell me that there is no contractual obligation, but most of the Olympians just think it’s “cool”. Anecdotally, comments do seem to suggest that some of them at least buy into the idea that the bright color promotes confidence and, therefore, performance. There are some exceptions, they say—athletes that have chosen to stick with older designs for various reasons—but they’re in the minority.
When I ask Nike for the name of an athlete that chose not to wear the new Volt shoes, they come up with Liu Xiang. The 110m hurdler won gold in Athens and has held the world record, but, wearing shoes in the colors of his native China, he didn’t fare so well in London. Quite literally, he fell at the first hurdle, failing to make it past the heats.
Of course, no one (Nike included) would suggest that his choice of footwear contributed to his fate, but it just goes to show; standing out from the crowd is a good thing, but only if you’re doing it for the right reasons.