With swoosh, Kenyans buy into snow job


NAGANO, Japan -- It's Orwell at the Olympics, a test-tube baby sprung to sporting life. Meet the Kenyan cross country ski team, a Nike creation soon to be masquerading as a feel-good story of the Nagano Games.

No one forced Philip Boit and Henry Bitok to quit track and field for cross country skiing. Still, you should know that they're the products of a Nike brainstorm session, because CBS sure as heck isn't going to tell you.

CBS workers are parading around Nagano in winter coats with Nike swooshes. They wouldn't dare squeal on their corporate bedfellows when they're getting freebie apparel.

Of course, CBS isn't alone in selling out.

Prince Albert? Nike.

The People's Republic of China? Nike.

The moon, the stars and the heavens above? Nike.

Somehow, everyone's favorite shoe company missed the once-innocent, now-corrupted Jamaican bobsled team -- Reebok gets a crumb now and then. But not to be denied, the evil empire trotted out the Kenyans yesterday.

It was quite a scene at Nike's dazzling Olympic headquarters, a drab, gray building that once housed a car dealership. Slick videos, Kenyan food, Finnish coaches -- everything but geisha girls for the assembled media.

The interpreter wore Nike socks. The Kenyan uniforms hung on proud display. Former Olympic champion Kip Keino wore Mizuno boots, but rest assured, he won't make that mistake again.

Know what's amazing? Nike doesn't deny concocting this scheme. Its press release proudly recalls the day a company vice president asked, "Kenyans are such good runners. Why can't they become great cross country skiers?"

Corporate heads bobbed in unison, one call led to another, and an Olympic team was born.

"The impetus came in a partnership of discussions," said Steve Miller, Nike's director of Asian marketing. "Finnish athletes came BTC to Kenya to train. We sponsor the Finnish national team. The discussion grew out of that."

"We needed a lot of assistance. Nike decided to assist us."

Philip Boit, Kenyan cross country skier

You think the Kenyans volunteered for frostbite duty on their own?

They were urged to try the new sport by their former coach with the Kenyan national track and field team, who had moved on to Finland after getting fired.

Boit, the cousin of former 800-meter world-record holder Mike Boit, said they heard the term "cross country," and figured the sport would be like running.

And when they discovered otherwise?

"They were surprised," their Finnish coach, Jussi Lehtinen, said.

Surprised, and "really freezing so much," Bitok said.

The Kenyans were so unaccustomed to the cold, their toenails began to fall off. Nike just happened to locate a video of their first day of skiing. The Kenyans fell repeatedly, describing the experience with words like "terrible" and "embarrassing."

Their first time on snow was Feb. 2, 1996. Their first time on skis was Feb. 3, their first 10-kilometer run Feb. 4 and their first competition just over a year later.

"We didn't ask ourselves why," Boit said. "We have been runners. We know without a sponsor, you can't do it. We needed a lot of assistance. Nike decided to assist us.

"Traveling that far, trying to find where the snow is, is really difficult. Nobody can afford that. It's impossible. It was very nice for Nike to assist us."

In fairness, it wasn't a shotgun marriage -- Nike has sponsored Kenyan runners since the '70s. And if you want to talk exploitation, don't start with the skiers, start with Nike's third-world employees.

Boit, the 10-kilometer entrant, and Bitok, an alternate, wouldn't have reached the Olympics as runners. They couldn't stop beaming at the news conference. But truth be told, Nike basically bought their way to the Games.

Unable to qualify with their times, both Boit and Bitok achieved the minimum standard of competing in five pre-Olympic events involving five or more countries. International skiing rules allow for only one such berth per country.

Once upon a time, the Jamaican bobsled team raised money by selling T-shirts and practicing with a makeshift sled on wheels. The Nike-Kenyan-Finnish alliance isn't nearly that innocent, no matter what any of their shills say.

"I can assure you that it is not a gimmick," said Charles Mukora, chairman of the Kenyan National Olympic Committee. "You're going to hear a lot about Kenya and skiing.

"Although there is no snow in Kenya, we have very many youth studying in countries that have snow. We're going to appeal to them to take up winter sports. Those in Germany, Scandinavia, America, Canada, all of them will get this message through our embassies."

Why would a self-respecting nation want to turn its best and brightest students into Winter Olympians?

Because Nike is paying.

Because Big Brother is watching.

Because everyone else has lost his soul.

Pub Date: 2/11/98

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