Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast ever, has signed an agreement to represent women’s clothing brand Athleta and is leaving Nike, her longtime sponsor, just three months before the Summer Olympics begin in Tokyo.
The deal, announced Friday, also includes arrangements for Athleta to fund a post-Olympic gymnastics exhibition tour organized by Biles that will represent a direct financial challenge to USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body.
In interviews, Biles suggested she felt better aligned with the values of Athleta, a division of clothing retailer Gap, than with those of Nike. “I think they stand for everything that I stand for,” she said of Athleta to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the agreement.
Over the past several years, Nike has faced a number of scandals over how it treats female employees and sponsored athletes. Women have spoken up about a toxic atmosphere at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and about sponsorship contracts that penalize athletes who become pregnant. Also, a Nike coach was accused of verbally abusing female runners and was suspended by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
Biles joined a trickle of athletes who recently left Nike.
This week, the estate of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who died in a helicopter crash last year, allowed his contract with the company to expire, and his widow, Vanessa Bryant, said she would pursue a new deal.
By sponsoring Biles’ Gold Over America Tour, Athleta provides financial muscle for her to more directly undercut USA Gymnastics, an organization that she has repeatedly said cannot be trusted given its failure to keep girls and women safe from Lawrence Nassar, the national team doctor who was convicted on multiple counts of sexually abusing athletes.
A spokesperson for USA Gymnastics, which traditionally organizes a tour after the Olympics, said the organization had no such plan for this year.
Athleta will also develop an activewear line with Biles, who will collaborate with the company’s design team. Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
“It is more than just a sports apparel sponsorship,” said Mary Beth Laughton, Athleta’s president. “We really view it as a way to support Simone in her full life. As she takes on the next stage in her career in Tokyo and beyond, we really want to support that as well.”
Biles originally signed with Nike in 2015, shortly after she turned professional and won the individual all-around title at the world championships.
She represented Nike at the 2016 Olympics, where she won five medals, including four golds. She is a favorite to add to her medal haul at the Tokyo Games.
It is widely believed that this will be the final Olympics for Biles, 24, though she recently suggested that she might compete at the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
“Our contract with Simone Biles has ended, and we wish her the very best,” a Nike spokesperson, Josh Benedek, said in a statement.
At Athleta, Biles will join track sprinter Allyson Felix, a fellow American who has won nine Olympic medals and who was also sponsored by Nike for several years. Felix signed with Athleta in 2019, shortly after participating in a blistering video that criticized Nike for financially penalizing athletes who became pregnant.
Nike changed its policies shortly afterwards.
In recent months, Nike has not renewed the contracts of several other track and field athletes, like long-jumper Tianna Bartoletta and pole-vaulter Piotr Lisek, both of whom hope to compete at the Olympics this summer.
The Olympics are the single biggest marketing stage for Nike and for its competitors, like Adidas and Puma. Sports brands compete fiercely to sponsor anticipated medalists and entire governing bodies of a sport.
Even without Biles and Felix, Nike’s swoosh will be omnipresent in Tokyo, where it will be represented by hundreds of athletes as well as numerous national governing bodies sending teams to the games, including the U.S. Soccer Federation and USA Track & Field.
By: Kevin Draper
c.2021 The New York Times Company
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