A Nike accessory for the new age of Paralympic glamour
- 23 February 2012
- From the section Magazine
Fashionable brands have long dominated the sportswear market, but up to now few have specifically targeted disability sports. Nike has now become the first to produce a sole for a blade used by amputee runners. Has the era of Paralympic chic dawned?
It's one of the most widely recognised, and lucrative, brands in the world. The distinctive Nike swoosh logo has adorned the kit of sporting greats such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal and Wayne Rooney, helping to sell billions of pounds of sportswear around the globe.
Many of the sportsmen and women Nike sponsors embody not just outstanding sporting achievement but also an ideal of physical perfection.
But for one of its newest products, Nike has teamed up with an athlete whose sporting prowess is based on her physical difference from her rivals.
Sarah Reinertsen, from Orange County in California, is a record-breaking sprinter, marathon runner, triathlete and Ironman competitor.
She also happens to be an above-knee amputee.
Born with a bone-growth disorder, Reinertsen underwent an amputation at the age of seven. She has collaborated with Nike in the design of a new lightweight sole, emblazoned with the famous swoosh logo, which clips on to a carbon-fibre running blade.
Previously, leg amputees would cut the soles off a regular pair of trainers and glue them to the bottom of their prosthesis. Some even used strips from old vehicle tyres to cushion them from the impact of the road.
Reinertsen admits that a partnership with the world's biggest sportswear firm is a far cry from her early days as a competitive athlete.
"For many years I didn't have any sponsors," she told BBC News.
"We'd do little local fundraisers in my town to try to raise some money just so I could compete."
The big money deals are still enjoyed by only a few Paralympians - most disabled athletes struggle to attract individual sponsors, even at the elite level. But marketing experts say there are clear signs that perceptions are changing.
Athletes like South African double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius are helping to lend some Olympic glamour to Paralympic sports, says Steve Sutherland, a sports marketing consultant based in London.
"I'm not surprised that huge brands are becoming more involved. There's a higher level of awareness of the Paralympics and the competitors are no longer being patronised - they're being taken seriously and seen as athletes in their own right, as they should be," he says.
"If I'd had to try and find sponsors (for disability sport) five or 10 years ago I might have got a sympathy vote but it wouldn't have been anything like the response we're seeing now."
The reason for the growing attraction of the Paralympics may lie in its position as what advertisers call a "challenger brand" - a smaller but potentially more nimble player in the marketplace.
It offers firms a chance to bask in the glow of the Olympic flame for a fraction of what it would cost to be involved in the able-bodied Games.
But for the sportswear companies, there is also the attraction of a big and growing market, and possibly a positive image from being seen to "help" the disabled community.
"We're the largest visible minority consumer group in North America," says Kimberley Barreda, an adventure sports enthusiast and double above-knee amputee from Montana.
"We spend $770bn a year.
"I wish companies would turn down the glow of the self-manufactured halo and just admit they have discovered a ridiculously huge untapped market, and they would love a piece of it."
The market looks set to expand still further in the years ahead.
Doctors fear that an expected rise in cases of diabetes will lead to more amputations in the coming decades.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, better medical care is saving lives, but many wounded soldiers are returning home with multiple limb loss after improvised explosive device attacks.
The result is a rise in the number of younger amputees looking to enjoy full and active lives.
This fact is helping to drive technological innovation. But one leading figure in the prosthetics industry is uneasy about the entry of "fashion" into this area.
"Young amputees, such as soldiers who have been injured in Afghanistan, are aspirational. Fashion is important to them because of their age," says Saeed Zahedi, visiting professor in prosthetics at the University of Surrey.
"Companies will do anything to increase their sales but these are medical devices.
"I'm sceptical about using fashion and branding to sell prosthetics unless there's clinical evidence to back it up."
He questions whether premium products such as the sole developed by Nike will offer better performance than the old vehicle tyres traditionally used by amputees.
"If you were walking you may feel a little difference, if you were running the difference would be less and by the time you started sprinting I doubt you'd see any difference at all," he says.
"Unless they've come up with a fantastic new material which no one else has got, which is designed specifically for running, I think this could be just a bit of marketing."
From humble beginnings as a form of physical therapy for injured war veterans at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948, the last time the UK hosted the Olympics, the Paralympics has grown into the second biggest sporting event in the world.
More than 4,000 athletes from more than 140 countries will compete in 20 sports in London this August and September, and demand for the 2m tickets available has been strong.
The Sainsbury's logo is likely to be everywhere in London, after the food retailer signed the biggest sponsorship deal in Paralympic history. Firms such as Lloyds, TSB, Cadbury and EDF Energy have also bought into the event.
Some fear the current wave of interest may be little more than a passing fad - but elite athlete Sarah Reinertsen believes disability sport is here to stay.
"I think this is only just the beginning," she predicts.
"I think we'll see a trickle down effect from the Paralympics where we have more programmes in schools and communities for people with disabilities.
"Disability may be the 'new cool' right now - but I think this trend is just going to continue to grow.
"Disabled people are not going to go away and neither is the Paralympics."