Monday, June 4, 2012

Olympics: A brief history of running shoes

In the ancient games the competitors ran barefoot but as the Greek Empire extended more athletes from colder climates came to race, wearing sandals. At first spectators and barefoot competitors treated shod athletes as a novelty and sign of parochialism. When runners wearing shoes became winners then public opinion changed and sandal wearers were viewed with great suspicion and associated with cheating. Eventually once it was recognized the sole of the sandal increased ground traction and helped the leg propel forward with greater efficiency most athletes adopted the running sandal. The sole of the sandal needed to be securely attached to the foot with leather thongs wrapped to the ankle and above.

Between the Greek and Roman Civilizations during the Bronze Age (3200-600 BCE) a small, almost obscured civilization, known as the Etruscans (768 –264 BCE) developed a technique to attach the sole of the sandal to the upper of the shoe with metal tacks. The Romans stiffened their sandals with tacks to secure the sole to the upper. The more robust footwear was further strengthened with hobnails (or clavata). Prior to this, sandals were flimsy and would break easily but the tacks held the shoes together with vastly improved sole traction. This simple innovation was the beginning of the running shoe. A similar innovation would take place centuries later when spikes were added to running shoes.

As new events were added to the Ancient Games, such as chariot racing and archery, then being shod became the norm. After the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD the craft of sandal making was almost lost to the world. Ironically shoe makers on the periphery of the Empire carried on making sandals which kept the craft alive only to be rediscovered centuries later.

Throughout the Middle Ages sports were played in different cultures but it was the British in the 17th and 18th centuries that kept the Greek traditions of racing in a straight line. Resurgence in running brought about by the English in the 18th century meant the development of a light weight shoe which could grip the ground. As the influence of the British Empire, with its concentration on militaria and muscular Christianity, permeated throughout Europe and the colonies, many were taken with the idea of competition and fair play.

In 1832, Wait Webster patented a process whereby rubber soles could be attached to the shoes and boots. By the 1860s a croquet shoe was available made with a rubber sole and a canvas upper that fastened with laces. Movement in the canvas topped rubber shoes was noiseless and quickly adopted by sneak thieves, gaining the name “sneakers.” The pursuit of leisure became an important means of conveying ascent up the social ladder. tennis, croquet, and seaside holidays gained in popularity and so did interest in the equipment and clothing, including sneakers, required to pursue these amusements. It was rising middle class prosperity fueled by the Industrial Revolution that created the first market for sneakers.

Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin saw a window of opportunity to bring trading nations together on the field of athletics. This was a good commercial opportunity for suppliers to manufacture sport's clothing and footwear. At first the choice of footwear was of little importance but the popularity of cycling during the mid-1860s saw a rise in demand for lightweight cycling shoes.

Improved machinery meant the cost of mass produced footwear fell and by the 1880s no cyclist of repute went without lightweight heelless leather shoes with eight or ten eyelets. The big step to develop shoes specific to different sports probably came from shoe makers with specific interest in each discipline. The cycle shoe was easily adapted to running by adding metal spikes. The nineteenth century saw the introduction of an all leather spiked, running shoe. The need for greater speed in the modern games necessitated further refinement of lightweight shoes with improved traction. Competition shoes were made from leather and fitted tightly to the foot but because they were not waterproofed, wet conditions meant the shoes got heavier and the leather stretched which left the shoes too big to wear with comfort.

The earliest spiked running shoes made on a production basis is thought to date from 1865. These were low cut design and made from leather. Extremely lightweight at 280 grams there were three spikes under the forefoot and one under the heel, suggesting that the shoe was used as a distance running or a cross-country shoe. They also incorporated a broad toe band, which was a separate piece of leather, sewn into the welt of the shoe to add lateral stability.

In 1890, Joseph William Foster was a UK shoe maker and made a living making handmade running shoes. His passion was for running and he wanted to develop a shoe that would help increase speed. He came up with the idea to create a novelty spiked running shoe to help runners shave down their times. After his ideas progressed he joined with his sons to form the company, J.W. Foster and Sons, in 1895 and they made running shoes for some of the top runners at the time including the running spikes for Lord Burghley who competed in the 1924 Olympics. The shoes were lightweight made from rigid leather. Foster's grandson later took over in 1958 and renamed the firm, Reebok.

By 1894 the Spalding Company (US) featured three grades of spiked footwear in their catalogue. Low cut and made from kangaroo leather uppers, the soles had six spikes. These shoes cost $6.00. This was very expensive at the time with an average family of four survived on $11 per week. Competitive sports were very much the pastime of the upper middle class.

In 1907 the Spalding company produced shoes specifically for the game of basketball. Gradually running spikes grew longer until they were 2 inches in their heyday. The addition of spikes meant runners could adjust their performance to different conditions such grass or ash surfaces as well as dry and wet conditions. The ability to treat leather with synthetic waterproof compounds made significant contribution to sports footwear in general. In 1907 shoemakers began stitching separate leather strips around the top of runners to prevent unwanted stretching. This was also the beginning of the various dashes which now form standard design for modern sports shoes. The need for greater speed in the modern games necessitated further refinement of lightweight shoes with improved traction. During the 1920s various designs of sports footwear were created with various models of sports footwear being offered for different distances and types of running. The invention of foam rubber improved comfort and eventually inclusion of injected PVC and man made soles saw the decline of molded rubber shoes.

Between the Wars the demand for leisure footwear grew and by the 30s and physical culture sneakers became associated with sports and leisure activities. In 1936 the US Basketball Team adopted the Converse Chucks as the official shoe.

The father of the modern running shoe was Adolf Dassler who began making shoes in 1920.

By 1936 his shoes were internationally acknowledged as the best and were worn by athletes of the calibre of Jesse Owens.

Dassler specialised in shoes designed for sport. After the lean war years he continued to progress and developed the training shoe made from surplus tent canvas and rubber from fuel tanks.

In 1948 he founded Adidas but the company was soon to split into Addas (later known as Adidas) and Puma. To give support to the running shoe Dassler added three side strips to the shoe which first appeared in 1949.

By the 1950s famous runners were supplied shoes free and gratis by competing sports manufacturers. At the discretion of the athlete, they either wore socks or not. This would imply the shoe was a very tight fit.

The Melbourne Olympics (1956) was the first televised event and when the Eastern European athletes were filmed warming up in brightly coloured training shoes the world took notice. Competition between shoe companies was fierce and many athletes were unofficially approached to wear brand names. According to Jennings (1996), From the Melbourne Olympics, 1956, Adidas executives were alleged to have offered bribes to athletes to wear their shoes.

In 1962, New Balance introduced the first scientifically tested shoe which weighed 96 grams. Throughout the 1960s manufacturers experimented with new spike patterns and eventually brush spikes were introduced in 1968. Only 200 pairs were ever made and John Carlos and Lee Evans set world records at the Olympic trials wearing them. The records were later rescinded because brush spikes were eventually banned because the 68 spikes (pins) violated the rules governing spikes.

Track shoes began to incorporate tough mesh fabrics into the uppers combined with lightweight synthetic soles and much later new polymer spikes to match the new running tacks. Adi Dassler design a new style runner featuring a raised heel to keep runners on their toes during longer distances. Decathlete Willi Holdorf took home the gold in the 1964 Olympic Games wearing the spikes featuring a raised heel and a full length midsole.

Removable spikes were reintroduced in the 70s. These were first developed around the 1930’s, but fixed spikes were preferred due to their strength and weight. The spikes worn by Alberto Juantorena in the 1976 Olympic Games were among the first to feature a modern removable spike system, allowing for the customization of the spike configuration for track surface and personal preference. Juantorena went on to win gold medals in both the 400m and the 800m, the latter win in world record time.

The 1976 Montreal Olympics was the first time an athlete was photographed endorsing his running shoes after winning 10,000 metre race. Such public endorsement was well rewarded by the companies which produced the goods.

Phil Knight was a track athlete at the University of Oregon and Bill Bowerman (his coach) started Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964. The company distributed Japanese Onitsuka Tiger shoes in the US. When the arrangement came to an end, the pair started Nike in 1971. The company's first products were track running shoes. In 1974, Bill Bowerman came up with a novel idea and made a pair of running shoes without spikes inspired by waffles. These were called the Waffle Trainer. The company then diversified into all manner of sports and liesure footwear to become the biggest sports manufacturer in the world.

The emphasis of modern running shoes is weight (90 - 100g) The feather light shoes are constructed from lightweight mesh fabric uppers combined with synthetic soles chosen for maximum flexibility and comfort. The shoes incorporate a carbon fibre spike plate for responsiveness and dynamic lacing system capable of changing shape with the foot as it goes through the running cycle

Hunter B 1991 The game's afoot Brisbane; CopyRight Publishing
Jennings A 1996 The newlords of the rings London: Pocket Books
Pattison A Cawthorne N 1997 A century of shoes NSW: Universal International
Steele V Shoes: lexicon of style London : Scriptum Editions

Reviewed 2/02/2016


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