The upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio will serve as a showcase for some of the most awe-inspiring athletes on planet Earth who are all vying for gold medals which could completely change the trajectory of their lives. Although the Olympics have come to represent a way in which athletics can heal old wounds between countries which have festered for decades due to the ever-shifting political sphere and old war-time conflicts, the previous summer time festivities in 2012 in London actually served to enhance what has become one of the most heated sneaker rivalries: Nike vs. adidas.

With the London Olympics looming prominently in the future, Nike struck first in February 2012 with their yet-to-be-introduced Flyknit technology which at the time was a dream realized that was over 30-years in the making and stemmed from the desire to achieve the unthinkable in the running community.

The inspiration for Nike Flyknit was born from runner feedback which stated that they wanted a shoe that had the qualities of a sock. However, the features that make a sock desirable – like snug fit that goes virtually unnoticed to the wearer – proved to be a terrible choice since yarn generally has no structure or durability.

Nike’s 1985 silhouette, the Sock Dart Racer – a shoe favored mostly by triathletes at the time like Joanne Ernst, winner of the 1985 Hawaii Ironman – was an important shoe which embodied the initial spirit of what Nike would eventually achieve with Flyknit and spoke to themes of strapped-down sock on a sole with reductionism as a major tenet.

An official statement touting the release by Nike noted, “yarns and fabric variations are precisely engineered only where they are needed for a featherweight, formfitting and virtually seamless upper.”

Nike

In order to create Flyknit, Nike embarked on a four-year mission of micro-engineering static properties into pliable materials to create what they thought was “proprietary technology” that would both meet the challenge of creating something like a sock, but also wouldn’t break down. Additionally, they strived for a product that was far more lightweight and innovative than past sneaker elements like leather, mesh and plastic.

“Runners want performance without any distractions,” Tony Bignell, VP of footwear innovation at Nike, told The Guardian.

Nike

“So we started thinking: how could you make a running shoe feel like a sock? And how do you build structure and support into the sock without adding layers? Our goal was to innovate based on our ‘nature amplified’ design principles, which focus on the body’s movement in sport performance and aim to help realize the athlete’s natural ability.”

After working extensively with marathon runners, Nike ended up with two Flyknit silhouettes: the Racer and the Trainer. The former was lauded for only weighing a mere 160g (5.6 ounces) for a size 9, which was 19% lighter than the Nike Zoom Streak 3 – a shoe worn by first, second and third place athletes in the men’s marathon at the 2011 World Championships.

Nike

“There’s the leverage we get from a production standpoint, the sustainability story and then, of course, performance,” Nike CEO, Mark Parker, told analysts on a conference call in March 2012. “We do see this as a way not only to create a higher performance, more sustainable product but one that actually will gives us significantly better margins as we scale this. Flyknit has the potential to change everything. We’re at the very front end of the potential here.”

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Nike Flyknit technology was prominently on display both on tracks and podiums in at the London Olympics – evidenced in victories by USA’s gold medal decathlete, Ashton Eaton, and silver medalist, Trey Hardee, and Britain’s 1500m gold medalist, Mo Farah.

Additionally, when Michael Phelps won his 22nd medal to become the winningest medal-earner in Olympic history, he wore Flyknits to accept his record-breaking piece of hardware.

Nike also outfitted four Olympic athletes with Flyknits who participated in the Games as Independent Olympic Athletes (IOA) under the Olympic flag – Philipine van Aanholt, Liemarvin Bonevacia and Reginald de Windt of the Netherlands Antilles and Guor Marial of the South Sudan.

Needless to say, Flyknit’s unveil at the olympic was the perfect stage to move the needle on what was possible in the footwear realm.

adidas

In July 2012, right before the start of the Summer Olympics in London, adidas released their own iteration; Primeknit, which employed a similar, “one piece” approach which made the footwear both lightweight and eliminated manufacturing waste.

James Carnes, Head of Design for Sport Performance at adidas, spoke with us about the process of bringing Primeknit to the marketplace in August 2012.

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“We started this project in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics and we saw two things happening,” Carnes said. “One was we were creating product with adiZero which was about reducing weight and simplifying the process of the creation of the shoe, and we wanted different views on how to create the product differently. We brought in a couple of different industrial designers to give us different points of view and to start the project with us. And in 2008, we worked with Alex (Taylor) on this and he started working with us on the idea of knitting. We thought if we do this, we want to be able to uphold all the standards we have for performance and do something that is going to change the way we make shoes – not just bringing in or importing a process into the way we make shoes now. So it’s been a 4 year journey.”

The impetus for the creation of Primeknit were the Olympics, so fittingly, adidas always viewed the Summer Games as the logical choice to unveil their lofty project.

“We worked towards something innovative process by the Olympics,” Carnes said.

adidas launched with a limited run of 2,012 pairs costing 220 pounds ($350 YSD) a piece.

Matt Powell, a footwear industry analyst with SportsOneSource, said that while the products would undoubtedly be expensive at first, it could eventually become as big — at least in Nike terms — as the Nike Free running technology. Through June of that year, Nike Free sales had totaled more than $650 million USD, according to Powell’s figures.

Nike

In 2012, Nike filed a patent infringement claim in a District Court in Nuremberg, Germany, seeking to prohibit adidas from making and selling the Primeknit in Germany for the duration of the litigation. The suit was reserved solely for German courts as it was the only location that Primeknit was being manufactured and sold at the time.

“To our knowledge, this is not yet a product that has been launched globally by adidas,” Nike spokesperson, Mary Remuzzi said. “We intend to protect our rights globally in the future against further infringing acts, if appropriate.”

Nike also issued a statement saying it planned to push for a permanent injunction.

Nike

“Nike has a strong heritage of innovation and leadership in footwear design and development. Our patents are the foundation of that leadership and we protect them vigorously,” Nike said in a prepared statement. “In this case, the injunction helps protect the innovative Nike Flyknit footwear technology Nike introduced in February, 2012. We look forward to presenting our case for a permanent injunction to the court.”

The European patent in question (no. EP 1 571 938 B1), pointed to Bhupesh Dua as the inventor of Flyknit and Nike as the proprietor, and read in summary of his invention that, “The present invention is an article of footwear having a sole structure and an upper secured to the sole structure. The upper includes a textile that is at least partially formed from a plurality of first strands and a plurality of second strands, which may be filaments, fibers, or yarns that incorporate filaments or fibers, for example. The first strands are formed of a thermoplastic polymer material, and the textile includes a fused area wherein the first strands are fused to the second strands. The fused area may have increased stretch-resistance, stability, support, abrasion-resistance, durability, and stiffness, for example, when compared to areas of the textile that are unfused.”

In August 2012, the court granted Nike’s injunction, ordering that adidas halt the sale of all Primeknit offerings.

“adidas vigorously denies the alleged patent infringement,” they said in a statement.

As both companies postured in a court of law, adidas’ main defense was that both shoes featured intertwined yarns in the construction which stemmed from a technique that has been employed since the 1940s. The court agreed with adidas’ assertion and Nike’s patent was deemed invalid.

Following the ruling, a Nike spokeswoman said, “We will continue to aggressively protect our intellectual property rights, including through the conclusion of this interim injunction proceeding as well as in a formal infringement case.”

Buoyed by the European courts decision, adidas looked to infiltrate the American marketplace with Primeknit by challenging Nike’s Stateside patent (patent no. 7,347,011). Once again, the courts ruled in favor of adidas based on the belief that Nike was trying to patent technology that already existed and therefore could not be patented.

In December, 2014, Nike filed an appeal – noting that “Nike’s new shoe upper, which Nike markets under its FLYKNIT trade name, was recognized as a ‘quantum leap” in the field.”

adidas

With the World Cup as a backdrop. the Flyknit vs. Primenit rivalry was once again reignited after adidas announced the Primeknit FS, a boot-and-sock combo. The following day, Nike announced Magista, a shoe that was also a boot-and-sock combo. Not surprisingly, each featured a single piece of fabric for the upper that was attached to the sole.

Making matters even more dicey was that Nike designers Marc Dolce, Mark Miner, and Denis Dekovic were hired soon after by adidas for a new design office in Brooklyn. Dekovic actually headed the company’s global soccer footwear program ahead of the World Cup and led the creation of the Flyknit Magista cleat.

In a response to the defection of the three designers, Nike filed a lawsuit against the trio. Allegations centered on the days before Dekovic departed Nike when he told the company his laptop had stopped working.

Dekovic “took that broken laptop to an independent contractor,” the lawsuit said, “and had the contents of his Nike-issued laptop copied, including thousands of proprietary documents relating to Nike’s global football (soccer) footwear product lines. He then returned the broken laptop to Nike without uttering a word about the copy he had made.”

In 2015, Nike once again assumed the role of plaintiff when they filed a lawsuit against Skechers for eight trademark infringements based in large part off the aesthetics of the Skechers Burst, which appeared to be a clear fusion of a Nike Flyknit upper and an adidas Boost outer sole.

With the Rio Olympics right around the corner, Nike has insinuated that they would once again use the international platform for a major reveal.

“Remember the Flyknit debut in 2012? Look forward to Rio,” said the brand’s President of Product & Merchandising, Jeanne Jackson..

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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