Bhagwan and Sheela
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh drives one of his Roll-Royces as Ma Anand Sheela walks alongside in this photo from The Oregonian archives.

He was a war hero in the Second World War, coming home to Oregon with a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars. He was one of the greatest track and field coaches of the 20th century – coaching his University of Oregon track and field teams to four NCAA titles, and over 30 Olympians. He would go on to co-found a company that would possess one of the greatest brands today – Nike.

Bill Bowerman was a giant in the world of sports.

And has been revealed in an amazing Netflix documentary series – Wild Wild Country – he was also an activist, standing tall in the face of a religious commune that tried to buy and build its way into a quiet farming and ranching community in central Oregon.

In 1981, a 64,000 acre plot of land called the Big Muddy Ranch was sold to an organization affiliated with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the leader of a religious movement founded in Pune, India. The organizers, led by charismatic secretary to the Bhagwan, Ma Anand Sheela, informed Margaret Hill, the mayor of Antelope, the closest town to Big Muddy Ranch, that the commune would have no more than 40 people employed on the ranch.

But in just a few years, the Rajneeshee’s built a small town literally from the ground up. According to the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, by Kenny Moore, a growing group of red-clad sannyasin (followers) cleared 3,000 acres of Big Muddy, grew fruit, wheat and vegetables, raised cows and chickens, built a dam, a 40-acre reservoir and an irrigation system, a power sub-station, a sewage system, a phone system, a runway for their airplanes, and a transportation system of 85 school buses.

True, they used 50 million dollars in contributions from its 200,000 worldwide followers, but their Rancho Rajneesh was a labor of love for the sannyasin, and an incredible achievement. And so proud were they about their creation, they were willing to fight to keep it.

However, the Oregonians living near and around Rancho Rajneesh were concerned about the strange religious “cult” that had invaded their quiet part of the world. Bowerman’s son, Jon, owned land bordering on Rancho Rajneesh. And over time, the Rajneeshee’s would ensure their safety by beefing up their security.

“They had armed guards watching us here constantly,” Jon would recall, “with big spotting scopes by day, searchlights by night. It was like being watched by the East German border guard in Berlin. The lights were as bright as 747 landing lights, and periodically they would shine them at our house.”

Bill Bowerman
Bill Bowerman

At first stunned at the scale of Rancho Rajneesh, and the brashness of their denizens, local citizens began to push back. Bill Bowerman, who was constantly in conversation with state and local authorities regarding the ongoings of the Rajneeshpuram, decided to form a non-profit organization, Citizens for Constitutional Cities, that raised funds to legally oppose the Rajneeshees. In his press release, he laid down the gauntlet.

My ancestors have lived in Oregon since 1845. My son Jon is a rancher in Wheeler County. Bowermans past, present, and future are deeply committed to this state. Thousands like me have become concerned about the effect this group has had on its neighbors. As an educator and coach at the University of Oregon, I have always welcomed and encouraged new ideas and diverse people to come and live in this great state, irrespective of race, creed, national origin, or religion.

Citizens for Constitutional Cities is going to monitor the activities of the Rajneeshee and challenge them in court if necessary to avoid the creation of unlawful cities in this state and protect our citizens from harassment and intimidation in violation of Oregon and United States Constitutions.

In the statement, Bowerman includes phrasing to diminish the idea that his organization was about religious discrimination, which the Rajneeshee’s claimed was the case.

As the documentary powerfully shows, the bigger issues may have been attempts by certain leaders within the Rajneeshees to win power in local municipalities in order to ensure their legal status as a city. According to the documentary, their tactics included importing people (primarily homeless people from across America) to vote on their behalf, harassment, mass poisoning, and attempted murder.

In the end, the Rajneeshees failed to convince the authorities that they were victims of religious discrimination. On the contrary, they were found to have violated the US Constitution’s directive to ensure separation of “Church and State,” as the incorporated entity of Rancho Rajneesh did not appear to clearly separate government leadership from religious leadership.

Bowerman was in the middle of this constitutional fight, and as he had done his entire life, he won.

I heavily encourage you to watch Wild, Wild Country.

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Nike Cortez and Onitsuka Tiger Corsair
Nike Cortez and Onitsuka Tiger Corsair

Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, co-founders of Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) had thrown down the gauntlet. Despite being in a successful relationship since 1964 with Japanese sports shoe manufacturer, Onitsuka Tiger, and in the middle of an exclusive 3-year agreement to market the increasingly popular Onitsuka Tiger sneakers in the United States, the relationship in early 1973 had disintegrated.

At the end of 1971, BRS produced and sold sneakers under its own brand – Nike, thus challenging the integrity of their agreement with Onitsuka. But it was BRS which fired the first legal shot, filing a suit against the Kobe-based manufacturer, Onitsuka Company. As explained in Sneaker Wars Part 8, Knight and Bowerman believed that Onitsuka had breached their agreement by soliciting other distributors in America before the end of their agreement. Onitsuka then countersued claiming that their trademarks were violated and that they did not solicit other partners in the US until after BRS began marketing Nikes.

According to Kenny Moore in his book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, BRS and the leaders of Nike were facing an existential crisis. “If Onitsuka won, BRS would lose the exclusive right to sell the shoes Bowerman had designed. ‘This lawsuit,” Bill said, ‘is win or die.'”

Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman

You can read up on the details of the trial in Moore’s book and various articles on the internet. In the end, a federal judge ruled in Blue Ribbon Sports’ favor, although allowing both companies to market the same shoes in the US, under the condition that BRS had the right to sell them under the trademarked names, including the Cortez, according to this article in The Oregonian.

In the end, Onitsuka Company agreed to pay BRS an out-of-court settlement to end their legal conflict. It took a while to agree to an amount acceptable to both parties, but they finally did. When it came time to sign the agreement and receive payment, Phil Knight and a member of his company’s board, Doug Houser, went to meet the lawyers from Onitsuka company. Houser went on to explain the bizarre interaction that ensued:

The Onitsuka lawyer explained the unorthodox payment method as the result of the difficulty of transferring money out of Japan. He encouraged Knight and Houser to sign some documents.

“And I said, ‘Is that X dollars?'” Houser said.

“And they gulped and said, ‘Well no. It’s illegal to bring that much money out of Japan. And we couldn’t’ bring it all. That’s all you get. But it’s a lot of money and you ought to sign.’ They knew we were desperate and needed money badly.

“But it was grossly unprofessional. Grossly wrong. Morally wrong. Everything about it stunk.

“And Knight said, ‘Eff you. We’re out of here.’

“And we left the conference room and went out into the lobby, punched the elevator button and just like in the movies, just when the elevator opened, the conference room door opened and they hollered, ‘Don’t leave. We’ve got the rest of the money.’

“So we went back into the conference room, they opened a door to an adjoining conference room where there was a second steamer trunk and they said, ‘Now sign the papers.’

After they had officials from BRS’ bankers count the money to assure that their agreed-upon amount was paid in full, Knight signed the papers that brought an end to their legal conflict, and breathed new life into BRS. From that point on, Nike, the goddess of Victory and an emerging brand, began to spread her wings and fly.

Blue Ribbon Sports ad marketing Onitsuka Tiger sneakers

It’s the end of 1969. Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) is selling Tigers well enough that he, the CEO, Phil Knight, decides to finally become a full-time employee of his own company. BRS has had a fruitful relationship with Japanese sneaker manufacturer, Onitsuka Tiger. The shoe that BRS co-founder, Bill Bowerman, designed – The Cortez – became a dominant running shoe in the run-up to the 1972 Munich Olympics, taking advantage of a running and jogging boom in America.

In the last month of the last year of the tumultuous 1960s, Knight makes his annual trip to Kobe, Japan, to meet the founder and head of Onitsuka Tiger, and later the global brand Asics, Kihachiro Onitsuka. They renew their vows by signing a three-year contract, giving Blue Ribbon Sports rights to market Onitsuka Tigers in the United States, with the condition that BRS sells Tigers exclusively.

The problem for BRS – while they enjoyed the success of selling Tiger shoes, they realized that their contract limited their business range to distributorship, and thus created an increasingly uncomfortable level of dependency on a single manufacturer of sneakers.

The problem for Onitsuka – while they were able to breach the huge American market via BRS, they realized that every year they continued to market in the US through this relatively small and inexperienced player, they were likely leaving millions of dollars on the table unless they expanded the number of distributors in the American market.

Onitsuka was apparently hearing from other American shoe distributors that the potential for US growth was huge, so he realized he had to push harder into the international markets, particularly the US. With that understanding, he hired an aggressive international sales director, Shoji Kitami, to realize his “Onitsuka of the World” strategy, according to Kenny Moore, author of the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. So despite the three-year agreement of exclusivity, midway through, Kitami met with as many as 18 other shoe distributors in America.Bill Bowerman and the Boys of Oregon cover

Knight was concerned that Kitami’s actions were going to lead to a contractual dispute, but Kitami viewed the exclusive nature of their agreement as shackles. Acoording to Moore, as discussions between Knight and Kitami became more contentious, Kitami suggested that Onitsuka Tiger and Blue Ribbon Sports form a joint venture, with Onitsuka holding a 51-percent share of the company.

This was a moment of truth. According to Moore, “the choice was between surrendering the company to Onitsuka or making their own shoes.” And when they thought about it, they were liking less and less their submissive role as middle man. Bowerman had designed a successful shoe – the Cortez – that they could not get manufactured by other companies. And ironically, while Kitani was saying that they need to expand the number of distributors in American to sell more shoes, Knight and Bowerman would scratch their heads since Onitsuka was regularly guilty of not manufacturing sneakers fast enough to meet demand. BRS would put in an order and Onitsuka would routinely export fewer shoes than ordered. How were they going to meet the other distributors’ demands if they couldn’t even meet the demands of their sole distributor?

Knight and Bowerman realized they needed to prepare for a break up with Onitsuka. Soliciting the help of a large Japanese trading company – Nissho Iwai – BRS were able to find another shoe manufacturer as well as secure financing for the initial manufacture of new BRS branded shoes, including 6,000 pairs of The Cortez, which Kihachiro Onitsuka believed to be their own design. This was the chance they needed.

As Moore quoted Knight as saying, “we have them right where we want them. Onitsuka is too slow to react to product development ideas we give them. They never ship what we order. And they’d probably yank the distributorship at the end of the contract in 1972 anyway. What we need is a brand we can control, because we have everything else, the shoes, the top runners. This is the best thing that could ever happen to us.”

Original 1971 Swoosh Design Nike

The logo design was set to grace the new sneaker. Barbara Smit claims in her book, Sneaker Wars, that a design student was paid $35 when he presented the “inverted comma” design, which later was dubbed, The Swoosh. Knight wanted to call the new brand, Dimension 6. As the deadline for producing the sneaker boxes approached, they still did not have a brand name, other than Dimension 6. That is until Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first full-time employee, woke up with an image of Greek goddess of victory in his head. So with a little forceful nudging under the gun of a production deadline, Knight reluctantly agreed to the name, Nike. After all, it was a short name, one that easily fit on a shoe box.

So in the winter of 1971, the Nike brand was born.

My Onitsuka Tiger Mexico City sneakers

I love my Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. I bought white high tops last year, but this year, I bought Made-in-Japan Mexico 66, red leather with golden Onitsuka stripes – they fit like a glove and look great!

When a young accountant and middle-distance runner named Phil Knight put on a pair of Onitsuka Tigers, so many years ago, he must have loved them too. In those early years of the Sneaker Wars, that primarily pit German brands Puma and Adidas against each other, this recent Stanford grad still had his MBA thesis paper in his head – “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?”

On a trip to Japan in 1962, Knight made it a point to meet Kihachiro Onitsuka, whose company made the Tigers. As Barbara Smit wrote in her landmark book, Sneaker Wars, Knight fast talked his way into a distributorship.

Although he didn’t have any business to his name, Knight cheekily introduced himself as an American distributor, instantly making up Blue Ribbon Sports as a company name. He bluffed so convincingly that Onitsuka gave him an exclusive deal to sell Tiger in the United States.

Onitsuka and Bikila
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

So in January, 1964, Knight and his friend, the famed track coach of the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, officially formed the company, Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), and became the exclusive distributor for Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes. For close to a decade, BRS made Onitsuka Tiger sneakers available to American consumers, as well as Bowerman’s own track team members, including Kenny Moore who wrote the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. One day Moore was in the middle of a casual 20-mile run when he felt pain in his right foot. When Bowerman told Moore to show him his shoe, it was a Tiger model TG-22. After ripping the shoe apart with his hands, he said “If you set out to engineer a shjoe to bend metatarsals until they snap you couldn’t do much better than this,” he said. “Not only that, the outer sole rubber wears away like cornbread. This is not a shit shoe, it’s a double-shit shoe.”

As it turns out, BRS unwittingly marketed the TG-22 as a running shoe, when actually it was a high-jump shoe. Regardless, this shoe autopsy led to a spark of ingenuity in Bowerman – a prototype of a new running shoe: “The outer sole was industrial belting. A cushiony innersole ran the entire length of the shoe, under a shock-absorbing arch support.” Moore explained that he ran thousands of miles in these prototypes, which continuously got tweaked, until finally BRS and Ontisuka decided to mass produce in 1966.

They wanted to call the new shoe, The Aztec, in honor of the coming 1968 Mexico City. Unfortunately, Adidas had already began selling the Azteca Gold. Then Knight had an epiphany – to use the name of the conqueror of the Aztecs. And thus was born the iconic running shoe, The Tiger Cortez.

Blue Ribbon Store Front_onitsuka

The Cortez made BRS a viable company. John Jaquar, who would join the board of directors, would recall the many times Nike tried to discontinue the Cortez. “But people kept wanting them, so they making them,” he would say. “It was the first stable, cushioned shoe for the roads, a comfortable shoe, and so many people liked it that it was the first shoe that made running shoes acceptable in fashion.”

The Cortez helped drive growth for BRS and Onitsuka Tiger in the mid-1960s, proving that the relatively quick decision for Kihachiro Onitsuka to sign Phil Knight up as US distributor was indeed a good one. And yet that decision, eventually led to conflict, and the birth of the world’s dominant sneaker brand – Nike.