Since the 1960s, runners from Kenya and Ethiopia have been dominating the distance running competitions. Alberto Salazar, a decorated runner in his time and a current Nike executive wanted to change this, and create a competitive United States distance team. People were beginning to accept that African runners were genetically superior, and other Continents could not compete, no matter how hard they trained. Salazar set out to squash this notion, and did so in my backyard. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, home of the Nike House, a home that elite team USA distance runners lived. It had a controlled altitude ranging from 9,000-14,000 feet. With Portland being at sea level, and the athletes living at high altitude, Salazar and the athletes were able to capitalize on living high, and training low.
One would assume that the Nike Oregon Project would be very isolated; they live in a special house, travel around the world for competitions, and have private coaching. But in actuality the opposite occurred, the Nike Oregon Project was not just about the small number of athletes on the USA distance team, it became a statewide movement. The project started in 2001, ironically the same year I began competitive distance running. At most all youth and community running events I competed at, guess who was there? Nike. Who build inner city running tracks out of recycled running shoes? Nike. Who provided running clothing and shoes to the state’s runners at a highly discounted rate? Nike. What brand of shoes and clothing do most runners wear in Oregon? Nike. Now you could make the argument that Nike did a really good job advertising within the state, but when Bill Bowerman (founder of Nike), Alberto Salazar, and many of the distance runners training in the state become household names, I believe you can argue the Nike Project becomes more than a marketing ploy, but a movement towards excellence. It started with a city, and has reached an entire nation. The progress that needs to be accomplished by the US distance team will never end, but isn’t that what makes sport?