Obituary: Bill Bowerman

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The Independent Culture
SIMPLE ARITHMETIC lay behind one of the greatest sporting innovations of the 20th century. Bill Bowerman, the track coach at the University of Oregon for 23 years, was convinced that, if he could reduce the weight of his athletes' running shoes by just one ounce, it would have the effect of saving the runners 200 pounds of effort in a mile race and so bring them closer to victory.

Sports shoes had remained largely unchanged since the beginning of the century - canvas tops and a rubber sole, what we recognise as "plimsolls". Through the 1960s, Bowerman worked on a well-cushioned lightweight sole made with latex, and using his wife's waffle iron. In 1964, in partnership with one of his former students, Bowerman set up a business called Blue Ribbon Sports to apply his ideas. Together, they imported shoes from Japan, and sold them, some with their own new developments, out of their car's boot at track meetings along the north-western seaboard. The student was called Phil Knight, and in 1968 the company changed its name to Nike.

The running boom in America is said to have been inspired by Frank Shorter's Olympic Marathon victory in Munich in 1972. Bowerman and Knight seized hold of that enthusiasm, boxed it and marketed it to the world as Nike, today's billion-dollar business which has made it fashionable to be seen wearing the now ubiquitous Swoosh logo on tracksuits or a pair of Air Jordans. Their initial investment was $500 each.

Typical of Nike's often brash approach was the advertising adopted in 1972, when the company claimed, totally legitimately, that four of the first seven finishers at the US Olympic marathon trial race had worn Nike shoes. This simply overlooked the fact that the first three finishers all wore German-made Adidas.

Bowerman started coaching at Oregon in 1949. In the post-war United States, track and field athletics was principally a college sport - in that respect little has changed today - and the dynasty Bowerman created at Oregon was as dominant in its own field as Manchester United are in today's English football. Bowerman coached 24 National Collegiate Athletic Association individual champions and four NCAA team champions in 1962, 1964, 1965 and 1970.

Among those champions was Kenny Moore, one of America's top marathon runners and now one of its leading sportswriters, and Bill Dellinger, who won the Olympic bronze medal at 5,000 metres in 1964 and succeeded Bowerman as coach at Oregon. Among Dellinger's charges was Alberto Salazar, who in the early 1980s, when the running boom was taking on global proportions, twice won the New York Marathon, once in a world best time. Naturally, Salazar did so wearing Nike shoes. The company slogan, "Just Do It", seemed perfectly to fit the culture at Oregon which Bowerman had developed.

Bowerman had sought to introduce jogging to a mass audience in a book published in 1967, but it was in the 1970s that the audience for his no- nonsense approach to running began to number millions. "God determines how fast you're going to run," Bowerman once said. "I can only help with the mechanics."

He would drive on his charges. "Once he bet me a case of Nutrament that I couldn't break two minutes for the 880 yards on a freezing Saturday morning," Kenny Moore remembers:

I ran with control, hitting the 440 in 60 seconds. I could feel myself accelerating in the last lap. Near the finish I knew I'd done it. I slowed and turned, gasping to hear the time. "2:00.3," he said. "Good try." I leapt on him, screaming, made insane by outrage. He allowed me to wrestle the watch away from him. It read 1:56.6.

Bowerman was the US head coach at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where another Oregon runner, Steve Prefontaine just missed out on a medal at 5,000 metres. "Pre" offered the American running boom its rock 'n' roll figure, its James Dean icon, following his death in a car crash in 1975, aged 24, with his athletic potential unfulfilled. When Prefontaine's life was turned into a 1998 film, Without Limits, by the director Robert Towne, Donald Sutherland played Bowerman.

Bill Bowerman only stood down from the Nike board in the summer, and the company has already planned a range of shoes named after its co-founder. The plans include for once supplanting the trademark Swoosh with a silhouette of Bowerman wearing his favoured Tyrolean hat.

William Bowerman, athletics coach and businessman: born Portland, Oregon 1911; married (three sons); died Fossil, Oregon 24 December 1999.