Just do it? For Nike in Kenya, it might be more like "Just Bribe it." | WBEZ
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Just do it? For Nike in Kenya, it might be more like "Just Bribe it."

Shoe company Nike's famous slogan is "Just Do It." But Kenyan investigators are wondering if it should be Just Bribe It.

For years, many top Kenyan runners wore the Swoosh while competing in the Olympics. But recently, a Chinese footwear company called Li Ning has tried to challenge Nike's dominance.

Both companies are now in the spotlight for payments to the group in charge of sponsorship in Kenya, a group known as Athletics Kenya. The money, according to Nike, was to be spent on athletes and helping athletes use running to get out of poverty. But Kenyan officials say the money was taken by officials at Athletics Kenya and used for their personal benefit.

While Nike hasn't been formally accused of wrongdoing, Kenyan officials are suspicious. Kenyan investigators told the New York Times that Nike has declined to provide information it has requested.

This is all a high-stakes game to control the footwear worn by some of the greatest track athletes in the world. Kenyans dominate in distance events. Their runners are like celebrities.

Nike has sponsored Kenyan runners for decades. It makes you think Nikes are the only footwear runners wear. Not so. Most every footwear company has a presence in the racing scene.

"The up-and-coming athletes are often wearing hand-me-downs," says Tom Ratcliffe, director of Kimbia, a sports agency that represents some of the top distance runners in the world. "If you go to the hub of athletics in the Rift Valley, there may be 200 to 300 athletes at any given day wearing a variety of products, some Nike, some not Nike. But the Nike models would range from the latest model to some that are 10 years old."

Ratcliffe says there are still Kenyan runners who go barefoot. What you don't really see are runners wearing Li Ning shoes. "No," he says. 

That may be why it was so strange to hear Athletics Kenya nearly make the brand their shoe of choice for their national team. It'd certainly help with name recognition. Before hearing about the controversy, I'd never heard of the brand. Nor did I realize it was linked to a former Chinese gymnast of the same name.

But if I saw it on the track winning gold medals, that'd be a different story. Hence, the battle. 

As for Kenyan runners, Ratcliffe believes this controversy is actually good. "I think the Kenyan federation have ruled athletes with an iron fist. Athletes didn't have a voice. And I think the positive about this is the athletes, former athletes and current athletes, are now voicing the need for change."


From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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