Britton strikes the right Balance in World Cross Country bid

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

ATHLETICS:If your memory serves you well then there’s nothing new about New Balance looking after Irish athletes, nor is there anything new about the idea of running the smooth, warm indoor tracks as preparation for the climax of the cross country season.

Just ask John Treacy. It may just be coincidence, but it’s now 30 years since he returned to his former American base in Providence, Rhode Island, facing what is best described as a crossroads in his running career.

Not long married, with a new baby daughter too, Treacy’s form had taken a bit of a nosedive, not helped by a chronic back injury. Desperate to get things back on track, he left his job, rented out his house in Dundrum, and made the big, bold decision to start over.

Five years earlier, in his last year on scholarship at Providence College, Treacy went to the NCAA Indoor Championships in Detroit and won the three-mile in 13:10.81, which is, believe me, pretty fast.

Treacy’s next race was three weeks later, in Glasgow, when aged just 21, he won the World Cross Country.

That was the sort of form Treacy had in mind when he returned to Providence in 1983, although few people truly believed he could rediscover it. Among those that did were New Balance, who despite what their name suggests, are one of the oldest running shoe companies of the lot, founded in 1906, when Boston local William J Riley began making shoe inserts, inspired by the three-clawed feet of the chickens in his yard.

Shoe of choice

The business built up over the years, and in 1960 they manufactured the first ripple-soled runners, the “Trackster”, and when the Boston Marathon took off in the late 1970s, New Balance became the shoe of choice. When word got out that Treacy was looking for a new sponsor, to help fund his return to the US, the only company to offer him any sort of decent package was New Balance, and in fairness it was a bit of a gamble.

But just one year later Treacy repaid their faith, when he won the Olympic marathon silver medal, in Los Angeles, wearing a pair of custom-made New Balance, which he gladly held up for photographers afterwards.

Treacy’s shoe contract, needless to say, became substantially more lucrative after Los Angeles, and they stuck with him until the very end of his career, when he won the 1995 Dublin Marathon, also wearing New Balance.

Now he’ll kill me for saying this, but Treacy actually preferred to train in Asics shoes. Nonetheless, this was perfect symbiotic deal, Treacy getting great value out of New Balance, and New Balance getting great value out of him – which is the way all endorsement deals should work, except that they don’t.

Nike, for example, appear to have lost this balance, affording a single golfer an absolute fortune, while hardly, it seems, able to afford anything for the athletes anymore. The pity is that Nike were originally a true running brand, started up in 1971 when Bill Bowerman, coach at the University of Oregon, began constructing shoes for his athletes, such as Steve Prefontaine. Bowerman first used his wife’s waffle iron to mould the rubber sole, decided on the name Nike after the Greek goddess of victory, and decorated them with a simple swoosh.

Four-year contract

“Athletes just don’t sell shoes anymore,” Ian Chaney told me this week, after securing a new four-year contract, also with New Balance, for one of his athletes, Fionnuala Britton.

Chaney is still relatively new to the sports agency business, and has a small list of clients that also includes Linda Byrne and Brian Gregan and emerging junior Mark English, but he’s been around long enough to know that few athletes can be relying on the once widely lucrative shoe contracts – the obvious exception being the likes of Usain Bolt.

Chaney knows that Britton is one of the lucky ones: “It means she doesn’t have to wake up every morning wondering who’s paying for this, and will actually walk away from the sport with some money. But right now she’s the only Irish athlete in that position, and the best that the rest can hope for is maybe some free gear.”

The days of the million-dollar shoe bashes are long over, but at least for Britton, this is the perfect fit; New Balance investing in her for all the right reasons, also happy to promote her as the headline act of their new gear endorsement deal with Athletics Ireland.

Britton gets to test run her New Balance this afternoon, on the smooth, warm indoor track in Karlsruhe, over 3,000 metres, where the opposition includes world record holder Meseret Defar, from Ethiopia, who ran 8:23.72 six years ago.

Yet it’s still the climax of the cross country season that Britton has in mind, and the World Cross Country in Bydgoszcz, Poland, on March 24th, and perhaps mindful, too, this was the sort of preparation that served Treacy so well, in 1978, as indeed it did New Balance.

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