Tyson Gay elicits comparisons to Jesse Owens|
4 December 2007
By Dave Ungrady
Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell entered the outdoor track and field world championships last August as headliners in a meet that ranks second in the sport only to the Summer Olympics. The hype surrounding their matchup radiated throughout Nagai stadium in Osaka, Japan. Would Gay, the newly crowned U.S. sprint superstar, beat Powell, the world-record holder but never a world or Olympic champion?
After Gay won the 100 meters over an unfocused Powell, the two friendly rivals talked congenially about the race at a news conference. Gracious humility, not personal hyperbole, permeated the overcrowded, steamy press room.
Gay's performance at the press gathering prompted connective thoughts about legendary sprinter Jesse Owens by a communications representative from Adidas who was in attendance. Adidas is Gay's primary sponsor. Owens was the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals at an Olympics, claiming four titles at the 1936 games in Berlin. He captured global interest as much for his mild manners and grace as for his fleet feet.
Adidas has proposed a promotional retail campaign that highlights the similarities between the two, with the hopes of spreading Owens and Gay comparisons throughout sport shops in the United States for the months preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When Owens won his four gold medals in Berlin, he wore Dassler track shoes, the two-striped precursor to the three-striped Adidas shoes of today. The shoes are named after the company's founder, Adi Dassler. Gay wore Adidas shoes during his triple gold medal effort at the recent world championships.
USA Track and Field recently awarded Gay its annual Jesse Owens Award due in large part to his triumphs in Osaka. The announcement of the award last month coincidentally came after Adidas in September decided to pursue the promotional campaign linking the two sprinters.
"If you look at Tyson's approach to running, it's very similar to Owens'," Spencer Nel, the head of global sports marketing for running and track and field who is spearheading the campaign, said by phone recently from Amsterdam. "Some of Jesse's quotes are similar to Tyson's quotes of late. Tyson is very humble. Jesse had a similar approach. And if you look at their height and weight, they're unbelievably close." Owens was 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds. Gay is 5-11 and 165 pounds.
During the press conference in Osaka, Gay made a point to praise Powell's efforts. "Nobody knows the pressure Asafa was under," he said then. "He knows why he's the world-record holder, and it's just a stepping-stone to Beijing. He knows the big picture."
Adidas plans to group only Gay from its stable of elite athletes with Owens as part of the campaign. The affiliation with Owens caps a triple play of honors for Gay in 2007. He also won the IAAF's Male Athlete of the Year Award. Meseret Defar, the world champion and world-record holder in the 5,000 meters, received the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year Award. The Global Athletics and Marketing firm in Boston represents both Gay and Defar. It was the first time in the history of the award that two athletes represented by the same marketing firm swept the annual IAAF athlete of the year awards.
"It's really an honor in every sense," said Marc Wetmore, the president of Global Athletics and Marketing. "It's only one year, but we don't want to read too much into it. It's a nice endorsement of the way we work with athletes. We're not over racing them, and we're keeping them focused on championships. The award is very much about them."
About half of GA&M's stable of track and field and running athletes are non-American, including the Ethiopian Defar, one of about a dozen from that country with GA&M. The company also manages the competitive business for about a half-dozen athletes form China, including men's world champion hurdler Liu Xiang.
As the Beijing games approach, no other GA&M athlete will likely attract as much attention as Gay. The firm will attempt to enhance Gay's profile by expanding his brand globally through promotional and marketing efforts that require minimal personal appearances by the sprinter outside of competition.
"A lot of what we do with Tyson is filter and screen media requests," said Wetmore. "If he did every interview request, he would do six a day. Our job is to protect him. We're trying to keep him from being overwhelmed."
On the marketing side, Wetmore says he expects to secure three new sponsorship deals for Gay by early 2008, including a mobile phone company. Gay's contract with Adidas, which began in 2005 and extends through 2011, serves as the promotional anchor that keeps the runner financially afloat.
"That's why he can make decisions to not have to race to make his income," Wetmore said. "He races to prepare for the Olympics and the world championships."
Wetmore added that Gay expressed interest in racing against Powell "a couple times this year, possibly once before the Olympics. It's good for the sport."
Similar promotional and competitive opportunities were not available to Owens after the Berlin games, the only Olympics in which he ran. Some have blamed his race as a deterrent from interest by potential sponsors. He was forced to run for money against horses, motorcycles and professional baseball players, sacrificing his eligibility in future Olympics. He supplemented his income with speaking engagements and with jobs helping disadvantaged youth, such as working as the director of the Chicago Boys Club.
Throughout his post-competitive life, Owens managed to manifest a reputation as a humble, mild-mannered and respectful man. Gay has showed that he can act like Owens off the track as well. He responded with the following quote after he it was announced he won the Owens award.
"This is the greatest honor of my career," he said. "Jesse Owens is a hero of mine for many reasons, and to have my name linked with his, and with the great athletes who have been honored before me, is humbling. I am very grateful."
When he accepted the Owens award last weekend in Hawaii at a USA Track and Field ceremony, the soft-spoken Gay credited Owens for helping break down racial barriers for blacks in athletics.
"I want to thank Jesse Owens, because if it were not for him I wouldn't be here tonight," he said.
Time will tell if Gay can forge a career similar to Owens. If this past year is any indication, he's on the right track.
Tale of the Tape
Born: Sept. 12, 1913 in Oakville, Ala.
World records: 100 yards (9.4), 220 yards (20.3), 220 low hurdles (22.6), long jump (26-8 3/4 )
Shoe company support: Dassler
College honors: Champion in the 100 yards, 220 yards, 220 low hurdles and long jump
Olympic champion: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, 4x100 relay
Honors: Associated Press track and field athlete for the first half of the 20th century (1950), U.S. Ambassador of Sports (1955), U.S. Medal of Freedom (1976), U.S. Living Legend Award (1979), U.S. Congressional Gold Medal (1990), Featured on U.S. postage stamp (2004)
Children: Three daughters
Born: Aug. 9, 1982 in Lexington, Ky.
Personal bests: 100 meters in 9.84; 200 meters in 19.62
National Honors: 100-meter champion 2006, 2007; 200-meter champion 2007
College honors: NCAA champion 100 meters
Shoe equipment sponsor: Adidas
World champion: 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 relay
Honors: 2007 IAAF Male Athlete of the Year; 2007 USATF Jesse Owens Award
Children: One daughter
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