An Illustrated Guide To Olympic Sneaker History

The Olympic moments that made the sneakers.


Illustrations by Oliver Robert Holmes

Thanks to the breadth of athletes competing in so many sports, the Summer Olympics offer the perfect platform for brands to release cross-category innovations. As you’ll see, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

The earlier days of the Olympics may not have had the multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns and Innovation Summits of today, but it’s long been a place for brands to showcase their best technology (and athletes) on a world stage.

In celebration of the 2016 Rio Olympics, we’ve compiled a guide to the most important shoes in Olympic history and the moments that made them. 

Adi Dassler Sticks It To Hitler

Who: Jesse Owens 
Where: Berlin, 1936
He came. He saw. He conquered. Jesse Owens did something no man had ever done before at the 1936 Berlin Olympics—winning not one, not two, not three, but four gold medals. 
No track and field Olympic athlete has done it since. Owens achieved it at a time when the world was on edge and desperately needed a hero to stick it to Germany's Hitler. Owens equaled the world record (10.3 seconds) in the 100-meter race and broke the world records in the 200-meter race (20.7 seconds) and in the broad jump (26 feet 5 3/8 inches) while also recording a record team victory in the 400 meter relay.

Adi Dassler got Jesse Owens to wear Dassler shoes that were hand crafted by Adi himself, who would go on to be the founder of adidas. Owens became the first African American athlete to receive an endorsement in doing so. During a time filled with hateful political circumstances there was a lot of risk that went into giving German products to an American, but even more than that, an African American. 

Owens in his Dassler track cleats had done more than just win four gold medals but he did so with honor and a gutsy fortitude, ironically beating the Germans at their own game with their own shoes. The fastest man alive, the biggest name in the sports world, and now an Olympic champion, Jesse Owens changed the Olympics forever and made America proud. 

The Golden Slam

Who: Steffi Graf
Where: Seoul, 1988
It’s what happened before of the Olympics that make what happened at the 1988 Seoul Games so significant for Steffi Graf.

Graf kicked off 1988 with a dominant performance at the Australian Open, which she won without losing a single set. Next came the French Open, where she didn’t give up a single game in the final match. A month later at Wimbledon, Graf came from behind to make it three straight. She next went on to win the U.S. Open and complete the Grand Slam.

Still not satisfied, Graf took things a step further and competed in the Olympic tournament. In the final match, she took on Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini – the same opponent she’d just defeated in the finals of the U.S. Open. She once again beat Sabatini, this time in just two sets, making her the first and only tennis player ever to win the Grand Slam and gold medal in the same year–a feat that was named the “Golden Slam.” It’s an achievement that hasn’t been repeated since.

En route to her gold medal, Graf wore the fittingly titled adidas Grand Slam. Introduced in 1984, the Grand Slam was as high tech as things got at the time for adidas. The shoe featured a system of holes in the midsole with swappable pegs, allowing the wearer to tune the cushioning to a desired density.

The technology was featured in running and training shoes as well, but its biggest moment came on the feet of Graf and her still-unmatched Golden Slam.

Greatest player, greatest team

Who: Michael Jordan
Where: Barcelona, 1992
The United States Men’s basketball team traded off gold medals with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia during the
’70s and ’80s, but a rule change in 1989 would forever change the direction of Olympic basketball.

After the 1988 team, comprised of NCAA players, finished in third place, FIBA rules were changed to allow NBA players to compete in Olympic basketball. While pros from other countries were previously allowed to compete, this NBA exclusion had been put in place in order to help keep the tournament competitive.

There was a good argument for that rule, because competitive it wasn’t when it came to the Dream Team. The squad went on to become known as the greatest basketball team to ever be assembled, and were never challenged in the ’92 Games, winning each of their eight games by an average of 43.8 points–with the closest by 32. It was comprised of a who’s who of NBA legends. Bird. Johnson. Robinson. Pippen. And, of course, MJ.

Jordan was no stranger to Olympic basketball when he took the court in Barcelona in the summer of ’92. He’d previously won a gold medal in the ’84 Games, following his last season at UNC. Jordan’s numbers were actually better in ’84, in large part due to playing limited minutes thanks to the regular blowouts.

Jordan wore a special Olympic colorway of the Air Jordan 7 while on the Dream Team, which featured his team colors of red, white, and blue, with the inexplicable addition of silver–hardly the correct color for a team poised for gold.

The most notable element on his Olympic sneaker was the number on the shoe’s heel. Rather than the “23” which his previous editions had, the new version was changed to reflect his #9 Team USA jersey. FIBA rules regulate which numbers players can wear, and limit them to 4-15. Jordan had worn #45 in high school, and arrived at 9 by adding the digits together, since his #23 was disallowed by the guidelines.

The Olympic Air Jordan 7s remain relevant to this very day, having released three additional times since the 1992 drop. An alternate version lands this summer to help celebrate the shoe’s legacy.

A 180 For Team USA

Who: Charles Barkley
Where: Barcelona, 1992
En route to Barcelona, Charles Barkley led the way in scoring for the Dream Team throughout the Tournament of the Americas. He averaged 16.3 points and 6.7 rebounds a game along with an eye-popping 71 percent shooting percentage from the field during the epic run.

Barkley laced up the Nike Air Force 180 in a red, white and blue colorway, with bits of gold to match Team USA's uniforms. The clunky '90s basketball sneaker was the perfect complement to Barkley’s gritty style of play with its midfoot lockdown strap and a visible 180 Air unit. It was the sneaker that Sir Charles wore for the majority of the '92 NBA season and came in both the mid-cut version, a high-top, and an even higher-cut version which featured a pump system. The sneaker was a watershed moment for Nike in terms of of design. Its gold medal history helped engrave the model’s legacy into the sneaker game forever. 

Dreaming of More

Who: Scottie Pippen
Where: Atlanta, 1996
The 1996 U.S. Olympic Basketball team followed in the footsteps of 1992's team and blew past the competition and went an undefeated 8-0 on their way to grab another gold medal for America​. This squad included the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, David Robinson, Penny Hardaway, John Stockton, and Karl Malone.

The 1996 Olympics were especially historic for Pippen, who became the first-ever player to win an NBA championship and and a gold medal in the same year, twice. He also had the most recognizable shoe that year in the Nike Air More Uptempo. Fresh off of winning 72 NBA games, the design of the More Uptempo was as bold as the NBA record Pippen helped set with the Chicago Bulls. Pippen himself even noted that he thought the sneaker was a bit arrogant when he first saw the design. The Olympic edition brought even more pop to the giant “AIR” branding thanks to the lettering coming in a contrasting white to the base navy. It also featured Pippen's Team USA #8 on the back of the shoe. 

The Man With the Golden Shoes

Who: Michael Johnson
Where: Atlanta, 1996
In the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Michael Johnson put on a show made for the history books. He stepped on to that track and field and earned two gold medals and the world record in the
200M dash with 19.32 second time and the Olympic record for the 400M with a time of 43.49 seconds. And he did it all in unforgettable golden Nikes that earned him the nickname "The Man with the Golden Shoes."

Funny enough, the shoe wasn't originally meant to be gold. After working with Nike on the shoe's design for a year and half prior to the '96 Olympics, Johnson originally had a track spike that had metallic-like fabrics making the shoe look like a mirror. Johnson's coach told him that the metallic effects on the shoe were lost while he was running and it looked silver. "That’s how I decided it was going to be gold. The idea that it was going to be gold was not the original idea. It came about in the very last minute after designing that shoe for a year and a half," Johnson told Complex

Sneaker collectors tend to reminisce about this piece of history just like the do any Olympic basketball shoe. In 1996 Johnson had the world talking not just about his feats on the track, but his actual feet on the track.

The beginning of a legacy

Who: Sheryl Swoopes
Where: Atlanta, 1996
The Dream Team 2 wasn’t the only USA Basketball squad to win gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The women’s team was just as dominant en route to their tournament victory. The circumstances, however, were much different.

The women’s team had suffered a semifinal loss to Russia in the 1992 Games, followed up by a loss in the 1994 World Championships to Brazil. This led to the formation of a long-term national team a year later, which went on tour to play against top NCAA programs as well as international teams. With the debut of the WNBA still two years away, this was the pinnacle of women’s basketball for U.S. players at the time.

The national team rode the success of their 52-0 tour record into Atlanta, where they were just as successful. They easily dispatched pool opponents, before eventually setting up a finals rematch with the team that beat them in the ’94 World Championships: Brazil. In front of a crowd of 33,000, the USA Women’s team came out swinging, averaging almost 72 percent from the field in the first half, and led by as much as 31 points. With a final score of 111-87, the team had successfully brought the gold back to the U.S. With soon-to-be WNBA stars Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie by her side, Sheryl Swoopes lead the team in scoring with 16 points in the gold medal game, while wearing her second signature sneaker, the Air Swoopes 2.

Swoopes, the first female athlete to have her own signature basketball shoe, wore the Air Swoopes 1 in tour play leading up to the Olympics, and even on the famous Sports Illustrated Olympic Preview cover. It was a groundbreaking sneaker, and was so successful that it spawned a series of seven models—the second of which were on Swoopes’ feet when she stepped on the podium to accept her gold medal.

The Air Swoopes 2 may not have the significance or the following of the original model, but its place in history can’t be overlooked. Twenty years ago, it helped lead the way to a gold medal, and the USA Women’s Basketball team hasn’t given up that gold ever since.

VC Shox the World

Who: Vince Carter
Where: Sydney, 2000
It was the dunk heard around the world. That's the only way to sum up what Vince Carter did at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. It was there that the single greatest in-game dunk of all time took place when Carter scaled Frederic Weis of the French National Team, defying every law of gravity that ever existed. The dunk was the signature moment of Team USA's gold medal run, in which for the third Olympics straight, the U.S. went undefeated on their way to gold.

So what was Vince Carter wearing on his feet that allowed him to jump over a 7’2 human being? Jet pack infused shoes? No, it was the Nike Shox BB4. Vince Carter sported an Olympic colorway of the first Shox basketball shoe, which helped validate the then-new technology and helped create a legendary dunk.

Bolting for the Gold

Who: Usain Bolt
Where: Beijing, 2008
Dubbed the fastest man in the world in 2007, Usain Bolt went into the 2008 Beijing Olympics with high expectations, and he didn't disappoint. In a true act of showmanship, Bolt slowed up at the end of the record-breaking 100-meter race to smile for the cameras before crossing the finish line. As he told reporters after, “I just like to have fun. I like dancing away from the opposition.”

And have fun he did, setting world records in three races by winning gold in the 100M, 200M, and 4x100M events. Bolt posted a world record time of 9.69 in the 100M, beating his own record of 9.72 that he had set just a few weeks prior. After finishing the 200M with a time of 19.30 seconds, Bolt became the first runner since the beginning of electric timing to hold both the 100M and 200M medals at the same time. It became clear that the man was competing with himself at this point and was in a league of his own.

Bolt’s spikes of choice were the gold emblazoned PUMA Complete Theseus II. The shoe itself went through the normal lifecycle of product, but Bolt's accomplishment was a boon for Puma. For the first time in a long time, the brand had an elite endorser that could be the new face of the brand and its performance offerings. The lighting-fast sprinter took control of his destiny and never looked back, and will represent Jamaica this summer in Rio.

Hyper Redemption

Who: Kobe Bryant
Where: Beijing, 2008
Following the dominance of the Dream Team 1 and 2, and another gold in 2000 in Sydney, it appeared that USA Basketball might never lose a gamenfor the rest of time. But things all came crashing down four years later when they lost to Argentina in the tournament semifinals. While they won the Bronze Medal Game, it was hardly a consolation.

The 2004 team may have featured names like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson, but it also had names like Shawn Marion, Emeka Okafor, and Lamar Odom. Following the disappointment, Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo was named as the director of USA Basketball the next summer to help right the ship. He required players to make a three-year commitment that involved training in Las Vegas each summer leading up to the 2008 games. Colangelo was able to draw big names who’d sat out the previous Olympics, including Kobe Bryant.

Bryant had never competed for Team USA, and his presence helped signify the importance of redemption for the team. He also played a major role for Nike at the Olympics by leading their new Hyperdunk line.

Nike utilized Beijing as a platform for innovation, introducing both Flywire and Lunar cushioning for their athletes competing in the Games. The original Hyperdunk, which featured both technologies, was never technically a signature shoe, but has been closely associated with Bryant thanks to his leaping over a speeding Aston Martin while wearing a pair for viral marketing campaign. But Bryant wasn’t the only member of Team USA to wear the Hyperdunk. Other than signature athletes like James and Wade, and Dwight Howard who was then under contract with adidas, the entire team laced up the Hyperdunk for the 2008 tournament.

It wasn’t nearly as easy as it was for the storied teams that came before them, but Team USA eventually defeated Spain by 11 points in the finals, bringing the gold back to USA Basketball and earning the title of the “Redeem Team.”

The Neon ambush

Who: Michael Phelps
Where: London, 2012
If there's one thing you remember about the 2012 Summer Olympics in London from a footwear perspective, it's the volt colorways that were everywhere. It was on the feet of track and field runners, on the athletes walking around the Olympic Village, and of course, on the medal stand. Marketing experts called the move the "Neon Ambush." Not only was volt synonymous with Team Nike and the athletes and teams the company outfitted, but it also became the calling card for Flyknit—​the game-changing technology that the brand debuted that summer.

Nike's first Flyknit products—​the Flyknit Racer and the Flyknit Trainer—outfitted all of the of Nike-sponsored Team USA, including the likes of Olympic gold medalists Serena Williams, Ryan Lochte, and Michael Phelps. Given the success of Flyknit today and how it's expanded throughout all of Nike's product line, it's safe to say that the 2012 Olympics was the platform for one of the greatest sneaker debuts of all time. This year in Rio, Nike will look to replicate what it did in 2012 with the launch of the Unlimited colorway.

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