The first track spikes date back to the 1850’s. They were made by runners looking to increase traction on dirt tracks. The first ‘spikes’ consisted of little more than nails driven through the sole of the shoe. Kangaroo leather, touted for its strength and low weight, found its way into the uppers of early spikes. This leather would continue to see widespread use in the uppers of competition shoes until the 1970’s. The pair above, belonging to Earl Spencer of Wimbledon during the 1860’s, more closely resembles a traditional dress oxford than a running shoe.
The time: Early 1900’s. The place: a rural Bavarian town called Herzogenaurach. The story: A cobbler by the name of Adi Dassler begins handcrafting sports shoes, including track spikes. His shoes become known for their build quality, and with the money he earns he goes on to found Adidas, today one of the largest sportswear companies in the world. The pair shown above was one of Dassler’s early spikes, dating back to 1930. For the full story on Adi and his brother Rudi (founder of Puma), we highly recommend Sneaker Wars, by Barbara Smit.
In 1936, Adi Dassler took note of the Olympic Trials performances of an American by the name of Jesse Owens. Despite the risk of being caught by the Nazi regime, Dassler contacted Owens and convinced him to use his spikes during the upcoming Games in Berlin. Owens won four gold medals wearing Dassler’s spikes, catching the attention of athletes around the globe and putting adidas on the map as a frontrunner in athletic footwear.
Fast forward to 1960, when American sprinter Wilma Rudolph, heralded as the fastest woman in the world, wore spikes featuring a midfoot shank and a nylon spike plate. Structure was provided by a heel cup and adidas’ iconic 3-stripes logo (purchased from Finnish brand Karhu Sports for about $200 and two bottles of whiskey in 1949). Rudolph wore spikes like those shown above when winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay during the 1960 Olympic Games.
.Decathlete Willi Holdorf took home the gold in the 1964 Olympic Games donning spikes featuring a raised heel and a full length midsole. Designed by Adi Dassler to keep runners on their toes during longer distances, Holdorf’s shoes take the shape of the first modern distance spike.
.Though removable spikes were first developed around the 1930’s, fixed spikes remained in favor due to their strength and weight for several decades. The spikes worn by Alberto Juantorena in the 1976 Olympic Games were among the first to feature a modern removable spike system, allowing for the customization of the spike configuration for track surface and personal preference. Juantorena went on to win gold medals in both the 400m and the 800m, the latter win in world record time.
Take another leap 20 years and you have Michael Johnson’s iconic gold Nikes. These shoes caught the world’s collective eye during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Made of Zytel – a lightweight combination of nylon and fiberglass, these spikes tipped the scale at a meager 90g (less than 3.2 oz) and were designed to last through a single use. Johnson went through six pairs on his way to medals of the color matching his shoes in the 200m and 400m.
And here we are in 2012. Since Nike’s founding in 1964 (as Blue Ribbon Sports – the name change occurred in 1978), the company has darted to the front of the pack in developing innovative competition footwear. Worn by numerous athletes during the 2012 London Olympics, the Nike Zoom Victory Elite is one such shoe, featuring a dynamic lacing system to adapt to the changing shape of the foot through the gait cycle, as well as a carbon fiber spike plate for responsiveness. At about 100g, the Victory Elite is one of the highest performing middle distance spikes currently available. If this is the pinnacle of track spike innovation today, we can only wonder what’s coming next.