Michael Phelps, at the age of 31, has won four gold medals in Rio, and is swimming for a fifth after this story goes to press. That makes 22 career gold medals, and 26 in total. He’s also officially broken a literally legendary 2,168-year-old Olympic record formerly held by Leonidas of Rhodes. It was set during the original Greek Games in 152 BC.
Michael Phelps may actually be part fish.
As is Katie Ledecky. She’s won three gold medals, one silver and is swimming for her fourth gold after this story goes to press.
Simone Biles is not a fish, but should be checked out for being part bird since she is two Olympic gold medals in for gymnastics, with three more to compete for. She is also quite clearly able to fly.
With all the upfront drama, stamina, thrilling victory and crushing defeat out there on the field easily available for public consumption, it can be easy to miss the backend drama that can sometimes give what goes on in front of the cameras a run for its money.
Because more than an opportunity for the best of the best in sports to come together and leave it all out on the field, the Olympics is also a chance for brands of all stripes and types to get out there on the world stage and connect their product to the spirit of ascendancy and triumph on display.
But jumping on to the Olympics bandwagon isn’t as simple as you might think, unless one happens to be at a big firm with exceptionally deep pockets. In 2016, brands that officially sponsored the Olympics paid between $100 million and $200 million for the privilege of doing so.
But for the clever and creative, there are other ways to fix one’s star to the Olympic wagon — and Nike is the reigning champion at capturing the Olympic magic without actually paying to sponsor the Olympics.
Didn’t notice? Well, that’s part of winning — doing it with subtle style.
Nike 1996: The Gold Standard In Stealing The Spotlight (Part 1)
In 1996, Nike got a picture-perfect Olympic moment for its brand. Sprinter Michael Johnson took the gold in the 400-meter dash, and looked astonishingly good doing it.
Especially because he was wearing a particularly stylish pair of $30K custom Nike shoes — gold colored (how appropriate) with a bright red, prominently displayed Nike swoosh. Those shoes caught the eyes of millions of Americans, particularly when they made an extra appearance slung over his shoulder on the cover of TIME a week later. A craze was born and sales spiked.
There is just one problem with that perfect Olympic moment: Nike pretty much stole it from Reebok, the official sponsor of the 1996 games.
And so the rules changed.
Athletes are still allowed to wear the brands of their choosing for race day apparel like shoes, but, thanks to Nike and Johnson, if an athlete's gear isn’t made by the Game’s official sponsor (Adidas) then the home audience won’t see a logo.
So, of course, Nike got the message and never again tried to steal the Olympic spotlight. If they wanted the biggest stage in the world they learned they had to pay through the nose for it, just like everyone else. Right?
Nope, Nike just went back to the gym, trained hard and got back on the field.
Nike 2012: The Gold Standard In Stealing The Spotlight (Part 2)
After 1996, the IOC made some changes and while the stricter rules were effective for a while, in 2012 Nike managed its second gold medal in spotlight stealing. This time Nike overshadowed Adidas, the firm that also sponsored the London Games in 2012. Nike — once again — was not an official sponsor, instead taking a much lower-priced Tier Three sponsorship contract which allowed them to dress a few of the American teams and the entire Brazilian team. It cost far less than the $127 million Adidas spent.
But then Nike pulled off one of the greatest feats of ambush marketing in history. It shot a bunch of ads in places on Earth that also happened to be named London and showed everyday athletes training — all under the message “Just Do It.” Those ads were released in conjunction with the start of the Games and ran against Adidas' Olympic campaign showing athletes performing amazing feats.
Nike’s campaign: “Find Your Greatness”
Adidas' Campaign: “Take The Stage”
Guess which one won the hearts and minds of global consumers?
If you guessed Nike, you get a gold.
According to Ad Age, 37 percent of people believed Nike was an Olympic sponsor, whereas only 24 percent thought Adidas was. A majority (54 percent) of respondents said the Olympic sponsorship made them feel more positively about Nike. Other figures indicated Nike got better social media traction than Adidas with its campaign both during and after the Olympics. Google searches for “London Athletes” trended in Nike’s direction. Nike also had more #Olympic tweets and posts on Facebook. And yes, people did just love sharing those inspirational ads.
Will Nike add to the collection this year?
Nike 2016: The Gold Standard In Stealing The Spotlight (Part 3?)
Nike is certainly committed to making its mark on this Olympics. They’ve been handing out American flags all over Rio, making sure the signature Nike swoosh is prominently displayed, and they’ve made sure all their athletes' uniforms (with legally allowable Nike logos displayed prominently) are shot out all over social media at an almost alarming rate.
And then there is the bound to get clicks “Unlimited You” advertising campaign.
The ad features Oscar Isaac, of "Star Wars" fame, narrating athletes of all levels (from literal infant to Serena Williams) testing their limits in awesome, hilarious and occasionally terrifying ways.
Of course Nike isn’t the only brand in the Olympic race, and Adidas has certainly shown equal levels of commitment, but Nike certainly has shown the will to succeed.
So can Nike pull a Michael Phelps and medal at three different Olympics in the game of cleverly stealing a competitor’s thunder?
The Games are still in the early stages, but we’ll keep you posted on the numbers when the flame goes out for another few years.
We will say this, though: They certainly seem to know how to find their greatness.