How Nike got its name

From the Goddess of Victory to Trainers

Nike is considered the most popular and respected brand in the sports industry a well as one of the most valued business brands in the world, ranking ahead of Intel and Mercedes-Benz.  How did this happen and where did it all start? Have you ever wondered how Nike got its name? What if we told you it didn’t start in the USA but in Greece thousands of years ago?!

The iconic tick or check mark is synonymous with the brand name, we don’t even need to see the name on the product to know it is Nike, like apple or macDonalds. It is incredible to think that the swoosh cost the owners of the company only €35 and the name was only decided five hours before the first shipment of shoes left the warehouse!

The Beginning…

Nike started life as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964, founded by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman.  Initially, they were just distributors of running shoes made by a Japanese company Onitsuka Tiger (now known as Asics).  A few years later they decided to go it alone and asked a graphic design student Carolyn Davidson to design a logo; she was paid $2 an hour to work on the design. 

How Nike got its name

The one chosen was the now iconic swoosh.  By July 1971 they were ready to market their own brand of sports shoe, but they needed a name.  Most of the suggestions echoed Puma and fast animals – Peregrine, Bengal.  Jeff Johnson, one the company’s first employees in Massachusetts had read an article about Xerox and Kleenex, suggesting a successful brand should be a short word maximum two syllables with an exotic letter.  Just 5 hours before the shipment was due to go out Johnson awoke with the name Nike.  “What’s a Nike” asked the President of the company?? “The Greek goddess of Victory” said Johnson.  No-one was particularly taken with the name but time was the of the essence.

How Nike got its name 1

Over the years Nike has grown enormously to become one of the most sought-after brands of sportswear, not to mention one of the largest grossing with over $39 billion revenue annually.

The name of Nike however spans over 3,000 years from Greece to Rome to an American sportswear brand.  In Ancient Greece Nike was the goddess of strength, speed, and victory and so is the perfect representative for a sportswear brand.  

Nike the Greek Goddess

According to Greek mythology Nike was the daughter of the Titan Pallas and the Goddess Styx; although some stories say she was the daughter of Mars – the God of War. 

During the ‘Clash of the Titans’ she was the charioteer of the Gods and is often depicted with other divinities, such as Zeus and Athena, or with victorious heroes whose horses she guides.

How Nike got its name 2
Greek God Nike

In ancient Greece she was depicted with famous athletes, symbolizing their victories in competitions.  At the athletic games held in Olympia over 2,500 years ago she awarded a laurel wreath to the winners.  

Today the medals of bronze, silver and gold awarded to the winners of the modern Olympic games bear her image.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medals
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medals

Sculptures of Nike were erected in public places as well as temples, celebrating not just speed and strength in competition but victory in war as well. Nike flew around battlefields rewarding the victors with glory and fame, symbolized by the same wreath of laurel leaves (bay leaves).

The Romans adopted gods and goddesses from Greek culture.  In Greece she was a winged figure depicted next to a hero, Zeus or Athene.  But in Rome, Nike became a goddess in her own right – Victoria.

Nike becomes Victoria

The concept of victory in battle was hugely important to the Romans as a militaristic society.  Strength, military might and conquest were central to Roman values so Victoria became an important goddess.  She was associated with the senate, who had the ultimate decision on going to war and many statues and temples were erected in her name.

Closely tied with military victory, she appears on triumphal arches erected for victorious generals as decoration, but statues of her in a chariot also topped the arches.  In Rome she even attended the triumphal parade.  When an Emperor returned from conquest a huge parade would welcome him into the city.  A slave dressed as Victoria with wings on her back rode behind the emperor in the quadriga (a four-horse chariot associated with victory) showing the people that victory was on Rome’s side.  

Nike on the Interior of the Arch of Titus
Nike on the Interior of the Arch of Titus

Victory riding behind Titus in the chariot     Arch of Titus – Rome

As the glory of Rome passed and the empire fell, the goddess of victory faded away. Yet she was not forgotten, she morphed and re-emerged under Christianity as an angel – still doing the bidding of god.

Nike on the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome

As you wander around the city of Rome today, you will see the goddess everywhere, not just on ancient monuments.  The ‘Vittoriano’ or ‘Altar of the fatherland’ in piazza Venezia is an imposing modern structure only 120 years old.  It celebrates the ‘unification of Italy’ in 1871 when the Republic of Italy brought down centuries of papal rule.  The building is topped by two bronze statues of Victoria in her four-horse chariot.

Roman god Vittoria

The ancient goddess of Victory rides again – revived anew atop one of the most modern monuments in an ancient city.  Directly in front of the ‘Vittoriano’ lies one of the major shopping streets in Rome, Via del Corso.  At number 476 you will find one of the seven Nike stores to be found in the city.  As you walk around the capital you will undoubtedly notice the Roman obsession with having the latest pair of trainers or sneakers. 

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