The First Modern Running Shoe: The Nike Cortez

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so intoned Shakespeare, all those decades ago.

But the founders of Nike may disagree.

And the founders of Blue-Ribbon Sports (BRS) would definitely disagree.

What’s the common thread between the two? Well, they’re the same company. Except you may have been bombarded by advertisements about the former on a daily basis, while you could go an entire lifetime without ever hearing about the latter.

Before being known for its over top marketing and association with the biggest sports personalities out there, Bill Bowerman, one of the co-founders of Nike and a former track and field coach, started BRS along with his partner Phil Knight, a Stanford alumnus.

Originally, the company began in the form of two people selling Japanese shoes at track and field events from inside a van. The big idea? To see whether the success of Japanese products in the camera market could be replicated in the footwear industry. Thus, the two partners began as the humble distributors of a Japanese athletic shoe brand called Onitsuka Tiger (now known as ASICS). Bill, however, believed that athletes deserved a better track shoe than what was available. After years of experimenting, the initial prototype of the Cortez was released named TG-24. It was created to be a comfortable running shoe that helped with long distances and rough terrain. In 1967, they decided to rename the TG-24 to Tiger Mexico. Why? Due to the 1968 Olympics which were to be hosted in Mexico. This led to a dispute between BRS and Onitsuka Tiger, leading the former to rebrand the shoe as Aztec inspired by Mexican history.

But that wasn’t to be the end of BRS’s troubles. Another German sports company – Adidas – had a tussle with the name, as it was too close to that of their own running shoes: Azteca Gold. Finally, Blue-Ribbon Sports decided to call their shoes ‘Cortez,’ inspired by the Spanish Conquistador Herman Cortes.

The shoe was well-received, the key to its comfort lay in the sole. The thick rubber sole was made for durability and the raised heel helped reduce injuries such as Achilles tendon strains. A revolution which was soon adopted by many Olympians. The shoe was also well-received by causal and serious runners, leading to a jogging movement which was aided and abetted by Bill Bowerman. Soon enough, the Cortez was the number one selling shoe in the history of BRS and Onitsuka Tiger.

Then, in 1971, BRS officially changed their name to Nike and by 1972 they ended their partnership with Onitsuka Tiger. Both got the rights to the design but only Nike retained the ‘Cortez’ naming rights. After this point, there was no turning back for the brand. Soon, the shoe was officially relaunched as the Nike Cortez during the 1972 Olympics.

Commonly associated with Pop Culture (most recognizably in the Academy Award-winning film Forrest Gump) and LA Gang Culture, the Cortez has undergone multiple design changes over the years and released in several materials such as leather and suede as well as the original nylon.

Soon enough, even some actual gangsters and mafiosos started donning the Nike Cortez on the streets of LA. Wearing it became a point of pride for some of them, and some, like the notorious gang MS-13 adopted the Nike Cortez as a part of their uniform. Following that, other gangs also started adopting the Cortez, wearing colours which represented them: For example, the Bloods were red, and the Crips were blue.

As gangster rap’s popularity waxed, so did that of the Cortez. In the hood, they became known as the ‘Dope Man Nikes’, named after the famous N.W.A. song, ‘The Dope Man.’ This infamy also lead to the shoes being banned in numerous schools across the city. Only recently, have the shoes become less notorious, but they still remain loved by fashion-savvy people and celebrities for their ignominious history.

This is how Bill Bowerman’s vision lead to the formation of the ‘modern’ running shoe, one which has inspired countless others – pretenders to the throne and rivals for the crown – in its long, 40-year reign.

  • Written by Hriday Sharma, edited by Pritesh Patil.

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