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Why you’re seeing so much neon in this year’s Olympic Games

Nike didn’t want to reuse its old designs for a new Olympics. Here’s what happened next.

Why you’re seeing so much neon in this year’s Olympic Games
[Photos: Nike]
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It was just two months after the Rio Olympic Games that Nike’s chief design officer John Hoke and his team got to work. They had less than four years to figure out a plan for Tokyo 2020. It would be Hoke’s 8th Olympic Games working at Nike, so he knew how important the biggest global sports competition was to the biggest global shoe brand.

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[Photo: Nike]
The vision his team assembled didn’t disappoint. In February 2020, Nike launched its Olympic statement: The Space Hippie line, a radical, rough, and unpolished shoe collection that was pieced together from cutting-room floor scraps and old, ground-up sneakers. Nike, known for blinding colorways (remember the 2012 Volt-colored shoes donned by the women’s gymnastics team?), released the Space Hippie in “lint” color to save on dye. White track suits, cut with highly efficient patterns, to save on waste, were going to complement the Space Hippies on the podium.

[Photo: Nike]
Nike dubbed the restrained look “rawthentic.” Space Hippies sold out of their first run. And then?

Tokyo 2020 was postponed. The footwear designs, which would be 18 months old by the time the Games began, would no longer appear as cutting edge. They were simply too old to make the same splash.

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“Did it suck? Yeah, it did,” says Hoke of the Olympic delay. “We knew it was the right [decision]; we were just heartbroken to be in this position.”

Still, Hoke had to rally his team. “I used the analogy . . . sports teaches us many lessons and those are transferable into design . . . when you get knocked down, you have a challenge or difficulty, really great teams rally,” he says. “We can learn from these dramatic times, and turn that learning into a set of studies that get us completely new things.”

So the design team went back to the drawing board, refining its Olympic work. Some of that was the same sort of year-to-year functional improvement we’ve come to expect from companies like Nike. But over those 18 months, Nike also evolved the visual impact of its products at the Olympics.

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As a design language, rawthentic was out. Rawdacious was in. And now, the value of accessibility would get to share the podium with sustainability.

If rawthentic was about celebrating materials for what they were, rawdacious is about taking a highlighter to the Nike line, and blasting little bits of color in strategic spots only (still saving on dye). Meanwhile, the iconic Nike swoosh takes a back seat, rendered only in black thread. “Rawdacious takes a fluorescent pop and focuses the eye on the innovation platform,” says Hoke. “We’re trying to get the eye to see this is the innovation that’s helping athletes meet and exceed their ambitions.”

[Photo: Nike]
For instance, the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 38 is a running shoe with an extra-wide toe box and extra cushioning up front. So the shoe features a highlighter line just in the front under your toes. Meanwhile, the Nike Air Zoom G.T. Run stacks two Nike Zoom Air units for extra cushioning. The white shoe highlights these cushions with a zigzag gradient of orange to pink from your toe to the heel.

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[Photo: Nike]
And the most future forward of the shoes, the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% marathoner, mixes both of these approaches, while adding a fluorescent-green pair of air bubbles and pink and crimson lines calling out the full-foot carbon plate hiding inside.

[Photo: Nike]
Nike also claims all these colors are a symbol of unity. Perhaps that sounds like a stretch. However, as I imagine the Olympics, delayed a year for COVID, being depicted in lint footwear, that once bold environmental statement feels like it would be yet another sad sack compromise of the moment. Color feels welcome again. As for the rest of the sustainability story, that still plays out on the podium.

[Photo: Nike]
The new podium shoes are Nike’s accessible Flyease Glide, which are something like half of the full rawdacious statement. Built from 20% recycled material (with many of the same components we see in Space Hippie), they lack the neon highlights of Nike’s other Olympic shoes. But they do feature a bright crimson pop on the heel, highlighting its key innovation. The Glide features a stretchy back, which lets athletes slip it on easier. It’s something Nike believes will be especially appreciated by the Paralympic competitors in the coming weeks. (Nike offers the Flyease Glide to all Team USA members to wear on the podium if they wish.)

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[Photo: Nike]
Why not just blast the new shoes with a single colorway, though, like those 2012 Volt Nikes? Hoke points to evolving broadcast standards. 4K cameras and ever-improved lighting conditions mean that viewers can make out finer details of sneakers.

“That viewership environment led us to think, how can we help the eye travel to gaze on the things we think will really make a difference?” says Hoke. “Rather than turn everything to 11, let’s turn some things way down and let other parts of design composition do the healthy lifting.”

As such, Nike also spent the last year considering more about how its Olympic shoes are sculpted.

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[Photo: Nike]
“Think about the broadcast in the early 2010s, and things read as monolithic. Now they can read as mosaics,” says Hoke. “You can get the fidelity of a product down to a pixel level. Then we get a pixel to a voxel [a 3D pixel].”

You can see this sculpting particularly in the aforementioned Next% marathon shoe, which features a level of faceting and patterning on the outsole beyond anything Nike has done before. Stare too long at the hefty outsole, and its mind-bending visual tricks almost read like an Escher painting.

Now, with the Tokyo 2020 work now completed—twice—Nike is again doing what it always does, and quickly setting its sights on Paris 2024.

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“We’ll come out of these games, celebrate, then we get back to work,” says Hoke.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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