One of the feel-good stories of the Nagano Olympics began two years ago with a brainstorm at Nike's marketing department: What if we transform a couple of Kenyan runners into cross-country skiers?
Now Nike's backing of the two athletes may have backfired, with some accusing the company of going too far to put its swoosh on a good story."These are not athletes clearing hurdles to reach their Olympic dream," wrote Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski. "These are marketing pawns financed by well-heeled publicity-seekers."
Details of Nike's involvement began to emerge even before one of the great photo moments of the game - Kenyan cross-country skier Philip Boit crossing the finish line dead last in the 10-kilometer race Thursday and being embraced by the gold medal winner from Norway.
Nike, which had its signature swoosh on Boit's hat, collar and sweater, hatched the idea to send Kenyan distance runners Boit and Henry Bitok to Finland to learn cross-country skiing.
They would be like the Jamaican bobsledders in 1988.
Nike paid for their move and spent a reported $200,000 for their lodging and a Finnish coach. The athletes even got custom ski uniforms, courtesy of the company.
Nike spokeswoman Martha Benson said Nike has financially backed Kenyan runners since 1991 and the move into cross-country skiing came out of a series of meetings between Nike and Kenyan running officials.
It was Rudy Chapa, Nike's vice president for U.S. sports marketing, who first suggested cross-country skiing, Benson said. Nike also sponsors top Finnish athletes. Finnish runners travel to Kenya to train. Why not send Kenyan runners to Finland to ski?
"Nike has always felt sports shouldn't have boundaries," Benson said.
Steve Miller, a senior Nike executive in Japan, conceded that less idealistic goals also figured into the company's support.
"People forget, we are a business, and part of our objective as a business is to get attention," he said.