Skiers From Kenya? Just Do It -- Nike Gets Criticized For Initiating Feel-Good Story Of Winter Games

PORTLAND - The two cross-country skiers from Kenya appeared to be competing in the Olympic spirit of the Jamaican bobsled team.

However, what might have been one of the feel-good stories of the 1998 Nagano Olympics was an idea hatched two years ago in Nike's marketing department.

Now, Nike's backing of the two athletes might have backfired, with some accusing the company of going too far to put its swoosh on a good story.

"These are not athletes clearing hurdles to reach their Olympic dream," Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski wrote. "These are marketing pawns financed by well-heeled publicity seekers."

Details of Nike's involvement began to emerge even before one of the great photo moments of the Games - Kenyan skier Philip Boit crossing the finish line dead last in the 10-kilometer classical race Wednesday and being embraced by the gold medalist from Norway, Bjorn Dahlie.

Nike, which had its signature swoosh on Boit's hat, collar and sweater, decided two years ago to send Kenyan distance runners Boit and Henry Bitok to Finland to learn cross-country skiing. Nike paid for their move and spent a reported $200,000 for their lodging and a Finnish coach. The athletes also got custom ski uniforms, courtesy of the company.

Nike spokeswoman Martha Benson said Nike has financially backed Kenyan runners since 1991 and the move into cross-country skiing came out of a series of meetings between Nike and Kenyan running officials.

Rudy Chapa, Nike's vice president for U.S. sports marketing, first suggested cross-country skiing, Benson said. Nike also sponsors top Finnish athletes. Finnish runners travel to Kenya to train. Why not send Kenyan runners to Finland to ski?

"Nike has always felt sports shouldn't have boundaries," Benson said.

Steve Miller, a senior Nike executive in Japan, conceded that less idealistic goals also figured into the company's support.

"People forget, we are a business, and part of our objective as a business is to get attention," he said.

It's not the first time such efforts have brought the company bad publicity. Nike was criticized at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, after some Dream Teamers, most notably Nike endorser Michael Jordan, draped themselves with U.S. flags on the medal stand to cover the Reebok logo on their official warmup jackets.