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Athletic shoe

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Athletic shoe

Athletic shoe is a generic name for the footwear primarily designed for sports or other forms of physical exercise but in recent years has come to be used for casual everyday activities.

They are also known as trainers (British English), sandshoes, gym boots or joggers (Australian English), running shoes, runners or gutties (Canadian English, Australian English, Hiberno-English), sneakers, tennis shoes (North American English, Australian English), gym shoes, tennies, sports shoes, sneaks, tackies[1] (South African English and Hiberno-English), rubber shoes (Philippine English) or canvers (Nigerian English).


The British English term "trainer" derives from "training shoe." There is evidence[2] that this usage of "trainer" originated as a genericised tradename for a make of training shoe made in 1968 by Gola.

Plimsolls (English English) are indoor athletic shoes, and are also called sneakers in American English and daps in Welsh English. The word "sneaker" is often attributed to Henry Nelson McKinney, an advertising agent for N. W. Ayer & Son, who, in 1917, coined the term because the rubber sole made the shoe stealthy. However, the word was in use at least as early as 1887, as the Boston Journ made reference to "sneakers" as "the name boys give to tennis shoes."


The modern athletic shoe began with the introduction of the 'plimsoll' in the mid-19th century. As more working class families were able to take weekend holiday trips to the seaside, demand for special footwear designed for leisure and the beach increased. Early leisure shoes had a cotton canvas structure with a leather sole - a design that was flimsy and not durable. In the 1830s, the Liverpool Rubber Company developed reliable and comfortable beachwear with a canvas upper and a rubber sole, with a rubber band wrapped around the shoe to give the footwear a strong structure. These shoes were originally called 'sand shoes'.[3]

These shoes acquired the nickname 'plimsoll' in the 1870s, derived, according to Nicholette Jones' book The Plimsoll Sensation, from the coloured horizontal band joining the upper to the sole, which resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship's hull. Alternatively, just like the Plimsoll line on a ship, if water got above the line of the rubber sole, the wearer would get wet.[4]

Plimsolls were widely worn by vacationers and also began to be worn by sportsmen on the tennis and croquet courts for their comfort. Special soles with engraved patterns to increase the surface grip of the shoe were developed and these were ordered in bulk for the use of the Army. Athletic shoes were increasingly used for leisure and outdoors activities at the turn of the 20th century - plimsolls were even found with the ill-fated Scott Antarctic expedition of 1911. Plimsolls were made compulsory in schools' physical education lessons in the UK.

British company J.W. Foster and Sons designed and produced the first shoes designed for running in 1895; the shoes were spiked to allow for greater traction and speed. The company sold it's high-quality handmade running shoes to athletes around the world, eventually receiving a contract for the manufacture of running shoes for Team GB in the 1924 Summer Olympics - Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell won the 100 m and 400 m events, kitted out with Foster's running gear.[5]

This style of footwear also became prominent in America at the turn of the 20th century, where they were called sneakers. In 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company introduced the first rubber soled shoes in the country, sparking a surge in demand and production. The first basketball shoes were designed by the Spalding company as early as 1907. The market for sneakers grew after World War I, when sports and athletics increasingly became a way to demonstrate moral fiber and patriotism. The U.S. market for sneakers grew steadily as young boys lined up to buy sneakers endorsed by football player Jim Thorpe and Converse All Stars endorsed by basketball player Chuck Taylor.

During the interwar period, athletics shoes began to be marketed for different sports, and differentiated designs were made available for men and women. Athletics shoes were used by competing athletes at the Olympics, helping to popularise athletics shoes among the general public. In 1936, a French brand by the name of Spring Court[6] marketed the first canvas tennis shoe featuring signature 8 ventilation channels on a vulcanised natural rubber sole.

Rudolf "Rudi" Dassler began producing his own sports shoes in his mother's wash kitchen in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria after his return from World War I and went on to establish one of the leading athletic shoe manufacturers, Adidas.[7] He also successfully marketed his shoes to athletes at the 1936 Summer Olympics which helped cement his good reputation. Business boomed and the Dasslers were selling 200,000 pairs of shoes each year before World War II.[8]

During the 1950s, leisure opportunities greatly expanded and children and adolescents began to wear sneakers as school dress codes relaxed. Sneaker sales rose so high that they began to adversely impact on the sales of conventional leather shoes, leading to a fierce advertising war for market share in the late '50s. In the 1970s, jogging for exercise became increasingly popular and trainers designed specifically for comfort while jogging sold well. Companies also started to market their products as a lifestyle choice. Soon there were shoes for football, jogging, basketball, running—every sport had its own shoe. This was made possible by podiatrist development of athletic shoe technology.

During the 1990s, shoe companies perfected their fashion and marketing skills. Sports endorsements grew larger and marketing budgets went through the roof. Sneakers became a fashion statement, and definition of identity and personality rather than humble athletic aids.[9]

Use in sports

The term athletic shoes is typically used for running in a marathon or half marathon, basketball, and tennis (amongst others) but tends to exclude shoes for sports played on grass such as association football and rugby football, which are generally known as "Studs," or in North America as cleats.

Attributes of an athletic shoe include a flexible sole, appropriate tread for the function, and ability to absorb impact. As the industry and designs have expanded, the term "athletic shoes" is based more on the design of the bottom of the shoe than the aesthetics of the top of the shoe. Today's designs include sandals, Mary Janes, and even elevated styles suitable for running, dancing, and jumping.

The shoes themselves are made of flexible compounds, typically featuring a sole made of dense rubber. While the original design was basic, manufacturers have since tailored athletic shoes for the different purposes that they can be used for. A specific example of this is the spiked shoe developed for track running. Many of these shoes are made up to a very large size because of athletes with large feet.

High-end marathon running shoes will often come in different shapes suited to different foot types, gait etc. Generally, these shoes are divided into neutral, overpronation and underpronation (supination) running shoes to fit the respective foot strike of the runners.[10] As running shoes become more advanced, amateur joggers, as well as marathon runners, are beginning to purchase shoes based on their running style and foot arch. This is often important for injury prevention, as well as to increase running efficiency. There are a variety of specialised shoes designed for specific uses:


  • High-tops cover the ankle.
  • Low-tops do not cover the ankle.
  • Mid-cut are in-between high-tops and low-tops.
  • Sneaker boots extend to the calf.


Sneakers or canvas shoes are casual athletic shoes.

Sneaker collectors, called "Sneakerheads", use sneakers as fashionable items. Casual sneakers like the Air Force One (Nike) or Superstar (Adidas) have become icons in today's pop culture. Artistically-modified sneakers can sell for upwards of $500. In more recent years, the classic shoe Nike Dunk has come to the attention of sneakerheads. During the release of these shoes people often line up several hours before the shops open, patiently waiting to get their hands on the shoes. Artistically modified runners can sell for up to $500 depending on their popularity. The opening day cost for these shoes can range from USD $60–300.


Further reading

  • Smith, Ian. "Do the Shoes Fit?" Time; 09/27/99, Vol. 154 Issue 13, p. 111
  • Globus, Sheila. "What's Your Athletic Shoe IQ?" Current Health 2; Sep2002, Vol. 29 Issue 1, p12

External links

  • BBC Sport — "The history of running shoes"
  • in the Visual Dictionary at
  • "2002: A Sneaker Odyssey"
  • "The History of Shoes"
  • "The painful truth about trainers: Are running shoes a waste of money?"

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