Every generation has a moment, that all-galvanizing event that changes everything and lifts the veil of innocence and all we take for granted. For some it was Watergate, the Warren Commission or the Iran Contra scandal. For a younger generation it may have been the ballot recounts of 2000, WMDs in Iraq or Too Big To Fail. I’m talking about that solitary moment where you realize the game is fixed, the dice are loaded, and you’re being deceived and subjugated to serve the will of those in power. It’s the heart of the 99 percent movement, that epiphany where we see the world as it really is, and realize our place within it. For me that moment was the Nike Air Pump.
During the 1980s Nike and Reebok battled for market supremacy. It was a two-party race and for one brief moment in history, there were only 2 kinds of people in the world: Nike people and Reebok people. The brand you chose said something about who you were: Nike had history and heritage but Reebok had fashion and style. And unlike the cola wars, this wasn’t simply about marketing - the sneaker industry was driven by genuine innovation, of design and technology. Every new line of sneakers held the promise of better comfort and better performance. Marketing was always a big part of the movement, and nobody does lifestyle marketing better than Nike (“Just Do It”) but for the first time in modern consumer culture, lifestyle marketing was driven by something tangible, something real. There was a genuine ethos at play, and that ethos culminated with the Pump.
Reebok released the first Pump sneaker in 1989 with what’s become known as the “Pump Bringback”. It was a big, bulky high-top with an inflatable bladder embedded in an outsized tongue. On the tongue you had a big, bulbous rubber ball, which you’d squeeze to pump air into the chambers, and around back there was a value to empty the air. The Pump represented evolution, it was Homo sapien to Nike’s Waffle Trainer’s Homo erectus, and Reebok eventually incorporated this superior technology into all their lines, from basketball to soccer, football, tennis and track. It was a better product, and they staked their future on it.
Nike released their version of the Pump right on the heels of Reebok, with the Nike Air Pressure. The original model had a giant cocoon grafted onto the back that looked like an alien laid eggs in your Achilles. The shoe came with a separate inflation device you’d affix to the back, as if pumping a bicycle tire. It didn’t sell very well. The next edition, the super-excellent Air Command Force, improved on the design and provided an embedded solution that seemed easy, convenient and functional. But ultimately the line only went one further with the less memorable Nike Air Force 180 Pump. And that’s it. No more pump for Nike. They’ve never even re-released it as a retro edition (though they have brought back the abomination that is the Air Huarache Basketball, which is absurd).
Reebok’s rediscovered this technology over the years, shifting a manual pump and bladder in the tongue to a self-regulating pump in the heel, with the Pump 2.0 in 2005. It was an ambitious design: with every five steps the pump actuator would be compressed, causing the shoe to automatically inflate, forming a custom fit around the runner’s foot. The Pump 2.0 was said to be designed by engineers from NASA and MIT. It was born in a laboratory where people study high-minded things like Applied Physics, Materials Science, and Kinesiology. I’ve never bought the Reebok pump, but I do believe in it now as I believed in it then. Because I believe in science. But Nike doesn’t believe in the Pump, and ultimately buried the Pump as the next big thing that never was. Which makes me feel like a sap… every time I think about it.