The Olympic Trials: why they belonged to Hoka

Peter Abraham
5 min readFeb 14, 2024


Hoka NAZ Elite’s Kellyn Taylor finishing the race. (Photo by Grace Williams)

For the third consecutive Olympic cycle, I attended the Olympic Trials marathon, held this year in Orlando, Florida. I always go to support the Hoka NAZ Elite team, where I’m on the board of directors. But also as a longtime sports marketing person, I love to take in the event and see what is happening in the running business, which I’ve been involved with for almost 20 years. So like I did in Los Angeles in 2016 and Atlanta in 2020, I thought I’d share what I learned at this year’s Trials.

In my previous posts about the Trials, I’ve gone into detail about how the event can be improved, from fan outreach to logistics to sponsor activation. Some of my concerns have been adddressed by USA Track & Field, who put on the Trials. Other things remain as ongoing problems for the event and the sport. I don’t need to rehash these same issues. And I’m not talking here about who put more runners on the Olympic team. Nike still has so many athletes running in their product, and they finished 1st and 3rd in the men’s race with Conner Mantz and Leonard Korir. What I want to address this year is the emergence of one brand — Hoka — as a cultural force in running, and the decline of another brand, Nike.

Nike’s 5 year stock price on the left vs Deckers (Hoka parent company) on the right

I know, I am biased on this, as someone who has worked indirectly with Hoka for 10 years in my role as board member for the Hoka NAZ Elite team. Nonetheless, I tend to write pretty objectively about this stuff, and going back 10–15 years, I did a lot of work for Nike in the running space. So I have a good feel for each brand.

At one of the packed Hoka pre-event parties with all of the cool kids in attendance (Photo by Alison Markham)

You don’t have to be an industry insider to witness Nike’s ongoing struggles. In fact, I’ve been writing about Nike’s challenges for a long time. And running is at the absolute core of the brand. Nike co-founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight met at University of Oregon where one coached the other on the Ducks track team. Nike has more or less owned (literally and figuratively) the sport of running for decades. But recently, with the demise of Alberto Salazar and his Nike Oregon Project team, and the continuing struggles of their formerly elite Bowerman team, the brand looks much weaker than it used to. On top of that the Nike stock price has been descending for a couple years. If you pay attention to brands in this space, you can just feel the generational change in the sport.

Importantly, there is just so much competition now in running footwear: Hoka, On, Altra, Nnormal, Speedland, Norda, Atreyu, lululemon, Saysh and Tracksmith are all brands that mostly did not even exist or make running shoes 12–15 years ago. They’re all aiming for the same customers Nike sells to, and On has arguably the most elite pro running team in the world, the On Athletic Club.

Moreover, some of these new brands use a different and more relevant set of values than the shoe companies that came before them. Whereas Nike was essentially about winning at any cost, brands like Hoka are firmly based in inclusivity and diversity. While Hoka also is deeply invested in competitive running (road, track, trail/ultra, triathlon) the brand’s position is essentially, “we’re accessible to anyone.” This messaging is more aligned with the 20-something sensibility than the Nike positioning. As an example, my daughter Sadie is 24, lives in Europe, is fashion-obsessed and runs marathons. Hoka is the only brand she’ll consider running in. I’ve seen this play out with many, many other young runners. Nike is often not even in their consideration set.

Running with my daughter Sadie near her home in Prague

In Orlando, Hoka’s repeated presence all over the city was a signal to me that they’ve arrived. Sure, many brands could have spent a bunch of money and done experiential marketing at the Olympic Trials. But it went deeper than that: Nike activations were non-existent. Literally, the swoosh was invisible over the weekend outside of being present on some USATF signage. While some other running brands — Brooks is one — did smaller activations around the event, the energy was all behind Hoka. Their shakeout runs had hundreds of people, they partnered with the most important running media platform — Citius Mag— on a broadcast center right next to the finish, and the Hoka pre-event party downtown was not only packed, but you could see the media and the “cool kids” there socializing. All of the cultural momentum pointed to Hoka’s emergence as a top running brand.

One of many Hoka activations that took over Orlando for the weekend
With Ali Feller at a shakeout run in Orlando. Her Ali On The Run podcast has inspired many of us during her cancer battle.
YouTube star Hellah Sidibe with Hoka NAZ Elite head coach Jack Mullaney at Hoka’s pre-race party.