Nike's Notion of Greatness, and the Road Not Taken

Weight does not measure human worth. It is not an indicator of character. Bathroom scales are not designed to weigh merit. The boy in the Nike ad may well be full to the brim with greatness -- but none of it has anything to do with running.
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I have now been interviewed several times about those Nike "find your greatness" ads we all saw during the Olympics. The questions to me -- as the editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, among other things -- have been, in particular, about the ad that shows an obese boy running down a dirt road.

Personally, I think Nike may have meant well, but went down the wrong road.

We may reasonably commend Nike for good intentions. Of course, an athletic-ware company implying that we can all find greatness, but should do so along a course through some kind of athletic activity -- for which they, presumably, stand prepared to provide wardrobe and accessories -- may not be the purest form of altruism we've ever seen. Still, let's give Nike the benefit of that doubt, and say thank you for the concept.

For the execution, not so much.

The ad in question, suggesting that this obese boy is pursuing greatness as he runs down the road -- is presumably intended to remedy obesity bias. But it seems to me it may be propagating it. Obesity is not a barrier to greatness of many varieties. But it certainly is a barrier to great distance running.

I am concerned that the ad suggests that something for which obesity is a genuine barrier -- athletic prowess -- is what greatness is all about. This, of course, is near-sighted nonsense. I don't know for sure, but I bet Sir Isaac Newton did a truly lousy butterfly. I can't see Mother Teresa in the synchronized swim. And I bet Mozart wasn't much of a hurdler.

The boy in the ad, Nathan, made running look every bit as wretched as David Rudisha and Mo Farah made it look inspiring. If we pretend we saw greatness, or even the potential for it, in this ad, we may be buying into Nike's version of the Emperor's New Clothes.

The message that obesity is no barrier to greatness is both a good and important message. But did this poor boy running, looking like he was about to pass out or throw up (as, apparently, he actually did during filming) -- look like greatness to you? It looked like torture to me.

Even as we are trying to escape our cultural biases, they are in fact asserting themselves. Why does greatness need to be about running, or even athleticism? Why show that obesity is NOT a barrier to greatness, by picking a form of greatness to which obesity is clearly and objectively a barrier? As my friend and colleague Steve Blair points out routinely, fitness and fatness can of course go together. But severe obesity, as in this case, and distance running clearly do not.

In fact, as a physician, I would advise this young man AGAINST running until after he had lost considerable weight by lower-impact means, far less hazardous to his joints, connective tissues, and even cardiovascular system. The running this boy was doing looked not only horribly unpleasant, but also potentially dangerous, and ill-advised.

There are innumerable alternative roads to greatness. Perhaps this boy is a great writer, a great humanitarian. Perhaps he is the kindest person you could ever meet. Perhaps he is an orator, a singer, a musician, a composer, a poet, a painter, a chess master. There are countless ways this boy might be great -- and obesity would not be a barrier to any of them.

The ad could have shown a boy we were inclined to judge based on his appearance sitting down at a piano bench -- and stunning us with his virtuosity. That would have rocked our bias back on its heels and shown us, without muddling the message, that obesity and greatness can travel the same road.

If Nike wants to promote physical activity, per se, that's fine -- but that's not about greatness. Then the message is: Anyone can be active, and everyone can benefit from it (a message with which I agree wholeheartedly). Start small, do what you can do, and build from there. The message is that anyone can get to better health, and everyone deserves to do so. But health is not "greatness." And implying that doing anything at even a nominal level is "greatness" demeans what most of us want the term "greatness" to mean.

It might even suggest a double standard. To be a "great" runner if you are lean, you have to be actually great; to be a great runner if you are obese, you merely need to survive until the cameras stop rolling. I don't buy it.

Such a double standard propagates, rather than redresses, obesity bias by failing to look past Nathan's weight to all of the ways in which he might be truly great. Weight does not measure human worth. It is not an indicator of character. Bathroom scales are not designed to weigh merit. The boy in the Nike ad may well be full to the brim with greatness -- but none of it has anything to do with running.

Obesity is not a barrier to greatness. It is not a barometer of worth. But it does tend to impede running down a road, and often, achieving greatness in athletics per se. Pretending otherwise is about denying our biases, not fixing them.

Nike was right to suggest that we can all seek greatness, and that neither weight nor physical disabilities need preclude that. They were right to suggest that the boy in their ad could find greatness -- now or in the future.

But if so, it almost certainly lies along a road their ad did not take.


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