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From the starting blocks to Finish Line: A history of Nike’s retro running shoes

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Like so many people grappling with an inordinate amount of time spent at home during the coronavirus pandemic, I have binged on TV shows as if it was a competitive sport.

Nothing has been off limits — Seinfeld reruns, The Mandalorian, Lovecraft Country, and an avalanche of the latest true crime series.

Even the odd episode of The O.C. (OK, every episode, including those in seasons three and four) got a play to help whittle away the hours spent during multiple lockdown periods.

But the shows that stood out most for me while confined to my apartment were the 1980s classics Cheers and Family Ties, and not just because they were childhood favorites of my mine.

While they each brought back fond memories of being a carefree kid, they also provided a welcomed hit of sneaker nostalgia served up by the cavalcade of classic Nike styles worn by several characters in both shows.

Whether it was Carla chewing out Cliff while working the Cheers bar in a pair of Terra TCs, or Mallory sporting the Cortez as she argued with Alex in Family Ties, I could not help but be reminded of Nike’s impact on footwear — first through running and then leisure — and the significance so many of their models still have in the sneaker life we enjoy today.

Take the Nike Cortez for example.

In his excellent 2003 book about the history of sneakers titled Trainers, Neal Heard compiled a “Hall of Fame”, a selection of models that he believed were “groundbreaking in some major way – either technically or aesthetically – and so have influenced the course of trainer development.”

The Cortez is one of five Nike entries to make the cut of 20, an impressive feat considering the company’s youthfulness when compared to older brands who have also left their imprint on the history of athletic shoes and sneakers, such as adidas and Converse.

The Cortez was born as a running shoe and its history dates back to the days when what we now know as Nike operated under the name Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), with Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman at the helm.

Bowerman, the University of Oregon’s revered head track and field coach, and BRS came up with the Cortez design in the 1960s during a working relationship with Onitsuka Tiger, with the shoe first sold as part of the Japanese footwear giant’s range.

 After BRS was rebranded Nike in 1971, the company wanted to sell the Cortez via its new label, a move that led to a legal dispute with Onitsuka Tiger but ultimately worked out in its favor.

The Onitsuka Tiger model became known as the famous Corsair, while the Nike Cortez was launched at the National Sporting Goods Association Show in Chicago in early 1972, featuring the now famous Swoosh designed by Carolyn Davidson. 

Later that year, the Cortez gained international exposure via the US track and field team (of which Bowerman was head coach) at the Munich Olympics, and the late Steve Prefontaine gave it further credibility when the shoes graced his record-breaking feet during his career.

The Cortez has also been released in nylon and suede, female and male models, and in varying colours over the years. 

It was massively popular with various crowds, ranging from joggers — who were a part of the 1970s running boom — to Los Angeles gang members in the following decades, while it got a kick-along in popularity in the mid-1990s courtesy of an appearance in Forrest Gump.

It is still relevant today as a classic casual sneaker with its understated appearance, but its infiltration of the growing running market in the US almost 50 years ago no doubt helped lay the groundwork for several of Nike’s most memorable models, such as the Tailwind.

Competitive long-distance running afficionados may find this unfair, but the 1978 Honolulu Marathon is best remembered not for the respective victories achieved in the men’s and women’s events by US Olympian Don Kardong and eventual four-time winner Patti Lyons.

Instead, the sixth edition of the marathon, which is still run today (the 2020 race was not held because of coronavirus), marked the launch of the Tailwind and Nike’s famous Air cushioning system.

The incredible reception that met the Tailwind was both a victory for Nike’s shoemakers and its marketing team.

According to Nike’s website, its shoemakers at first only produced 250 pairs of the Tailwind, which were sent to six Hawaiian running stores for the marathon and sold out inside a day at $50 a pop.

In the week prior to the limited release, an advertisement in the local newspaper Honolulu Star-Bulletin helped kickstart the hype, highlighting an event at a high school auditorium in Honolulu held by Nike, the marathon organisers and one of the selected stores.

“See…The Tailwind by Nike” read the advertisement, which invited readers to attend what was described as the first public introduction of the company’s “most revolutionary, innovative, running shoe.”

Cushioning in soles is now taken for granted, but when aerospace engineer Marion Franklin Rudy was putting the finishing touches to his Air concept – described by Nike as “tiny air bags in the soles of athletic shoes to soften impact” – ahead of the Tailwind’s launch it was regarded as a major innovation.

Technology in running shoes, as suggested in a news snippet in the LA Times in late 1978, was considered to be decades away from where it should have been.

The Times quoted biomechanist and Israeli Olympian Gideon Ariel – who was then designing a shoe for Pony – as saying: “There’s not a good shoe on the market today. Manufacturers are 50 years behind the times compared to, say, the tire industry.”

Despite the technological advancement it provided, the Tailwind is often overlooked when it comes to discussing iconic sneakers, but its significance should not be forgotten, given the lineage of so many of Nike’s most famous models can be traced back to this underrated shoe.

The release of the Air Tailwind 79 (a nod to the year of the Tailwind’s wider public release, 1979) in recent years — featuring several fresh and updated colorways — is a fitting tribute.

Not only does it aim to capture the lightweight feel of the original Tailwind with its Air unit, but it also uses the legendary waffle traction patterning on its outsole.

This throwback to one of Nike’s classic design ideas – thought of by Bowerman one morning as he ate breakfast – is also shared by the Daybreak and Challenger models.

The Daybreak and Challenger were released to critical acclaim in 1979 at the same time as when the Tailwind was wooing the masses.

In that year, the now-defunct Running Times magazine took it upon itself to conduct a survey of running and racing shoes for men and women, testing for features such as shock absorption at the heel and forefoot, as well as motion control in both areas.

Among the running shoes, the men’s Daybreak was one of several to earn the highest rating, while the Challenger was given the same glowing review among women’s racing models (the survey was scathing of others, with one of the reviewers using the term “cheap imposter” to describe their quality).

Perhaps the Daybreak’s greatest endorsement as a running/racing shoe came five years later via the streets of Los Angeles.

The women’s marathon was making its long-awaited Olympic debut at the 1984 LA Games and anyone old enough to remember its maiden five-ring appearance will recall the sense of history that surrounded the event.

In the early-August summer heat, Maine’s Joan Benoit Samuelson burst clear of the field not long into the race wearing a custom-designed pair of Daybreaks, before running into a packed LA Memorial Coliseum to clinch gold for the host nation.

Nike declared the more recently released DBreak Type was a reverential nod to the Daybreak, and it too carries a version of Bowerman’s waffle outsole, the invention that prompted Knight to describe his business colleague and former coach as the “Daedalus of Sneakers”.

Barbara Bowerman’s breakfast-making waffle iron in the early 1970s provided the inspiration for her husband’s idea of designing a lightweight rubber outsole that better suited runners.

The name of the popular dish has featured among Nike’s range since that time, with the esteemed Waffle Racer and its updated model the Waffle One examples of those carrying on the legacy established by Bowerman, who died in 1999.

Bowerman and many others at Nike deserve praise for the rich heritage they have provided when it comes to running shoes and sneakers.

From the Cortez through to the Tailwind, Daybreak, Challenger, Waffle Racer, and their reimagined successors, it is a history worth embracing.

Secure yourself a pair of some of the greatest sneakers in history with the Nike retro running collection, available in Men’s, Women’s and Kids’ sizing at finishline.com.

We’ve recently partnered with Afterpay, giving you the option to cop now and pay over time. Take advantage and build the closet of your dreams.


Lucas Scott is a sportswriter and longtime sneaker enthusiast from Tree Hill, North Carolina.

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