What was Nike's role in Armstrong's fraud?

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 23/01/2013
WIN-WIN?: Lance Armstrong talks to Oprah Winfrey during an exclusive interview to screen this week.
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WIN-WIN?: Lance Armstrong talks to Oprah Winfrey during an exclusive interview to screen this week.

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OPINION: SWOOSH.

"I can push it, study it, tweak it, listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass, six times a day. What are you on?"

It's brilliant and it's cynical. It's Nike.

The giant American sportswear company knew exactly what it was doing when it pumped up Lance Armstrong's tyres at the start of this decade.

It was selling itself. And it was selling you and me. Nike didn't care about Armstrong's reputation. In fact it embraced it.

So who is going to investigate Nike? Just how complicit was Nike in helping Armstrong cheat his way to seven Tour de France titles? Nike has the corporate power to find out if Armstrong was doping. That leaves only two possible conclusions. Either Nike didn't want to know or it helped cover up.

Kathy LeMond, wife of the great American cyclist Greg, claims the latter. The New York Daily News has reported that Kathy testified under oath that Nike paid a former UCI president US$500,000 (NZ$596,000) to cover up a positive drug test. Nike vehemently denies the accusation.

USADA, the investigative agency that exposed Armstrong, claims it was offered a US$250,000 bribe to go away. That claim is against Armstrong and he also vehemently denies it. Maybe. But there's a whiff of cordite in the air.

And that's what Nike loves. It has always done edgy. The great, great advertising tag "Just Do It" derived its inspiration from "Let's do it", the last words of double murderer Gary Gilmore before he was executed. Gilmore became notorious because he pleaded for the death penalty. Bring it on.

That is right up Nike's back street. It has always backed athletes with attitude, preferably a bad one. Nike isn't the Greek goddess of victory, it's the American god of win at all costs. In the days when rap and hip-hop were redefining jazz-age cool and giving it a meaner edge, Nike went after the world's youth.

Grandmaster Swoosh didn't just want the rich kids, it wanted all the "smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers, pickpockets, peddlers even panhandlers". Nike started with Ilie Nastase, the Romanian bad boy of the tennis world, and progressed via the likes of John McEnroe until it hit pay dirt with Michael Jordan.

Founder Phil Knight said, "We could see that he was a charismatic guy who jumps over the moon". Air Jordan became the new leader of the brand, but street leaders need a gang. So you throw in the likes of Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman. Then you create a monster.

Jordan's Nike basketball shoes became such a must-have for the poor kids in the ghettoes that people were getting knifed and shot for them. Collateral damage, I guess, just like Tiger Woods after he was shown the seamy side of life by his new basketball mates.

IT all plays into Nike's dirty cool image. As Tiger fell, Big Corporate announced: "Tiger and his family have Nike's full support." Nike knew who left his swoosh hanging on the edge before the ball finally toppled into the hole on Augusta's 16th green. So what if Tiger had turned out to be a bad boy. It was all good.

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The kid was an ad man's dream. "Hello world" announced Tiger when he came on to golf's scene. This was the guy to make golf cool, to cross racial boundaries. Of course Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder had already crossed those boundaries, but Nike, and therefore the world, were not about back then.

AN or Anno Nike. And then there was Armstrong. Phil Knight bought into the story. In 1996 Knight's friend Tim Gullikson, the coach of Pete Sampras, was dying of brain cancer. Knight would pick up a bunch of pals and fly to see Gullikson every fortnight. But money can't always stop good people dying and in May, 1996, Gullikson died. Is it coincidence that Knight signed up Armstrong, a survivor of testicular cancer, in the same year?

The following year saw the foundation of the Livestrong cancer charity. For Knight that may have blurred the moral lines. Armstrong's success, never mind the methods used, was a force for good. It couldn't bring Gullikson back, but . . .

And so Armstrong became part of Nike's inner sanctum. Other people were expendable, whether they were Asian sweat shop workers or people like Betsy Andreu who claimed that Armstrong was a cheat.

Andreu says, "Lance didn't do it alone. How else could he pull off the biggest fraud in the history of sport. He had big corporations backing him, the cycling governing body, UCI, defending him."

Then it all came crashing down. For now.

When Oprah asked what was Lance's most humbling moment, he replied: "I believe it was a Wednesday. Nike called . . . I don't like thinking about it, but it was a 75 million day. All gone and probably never coming back."

Nike had cut Armstrong loose. It meant he had to resign from the Livestrong foundation. It was over.

"Everybody that gets caught is bummed out they got caught," he said. "I got a death penalty."

Like Gary Gilmore.

Just do it.

Then Phil Knight walked back into the room. Armstrong is finished? It's over, right?

"Never say never," says the chairman of Nike.

The Dark Knight knows no-one has the balls to take on Nike.

Slam dunk.

They even win when they lose.

Swoosh.

- Stuff

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