Few sneakers have a more fascinating lineage than the classic Onitsuka Tiger Corsair. If you think there’s something familiar about this elegant retro racer then you’d be right. This was the jogging shoe of the early 70s. Layered like a sponge cake, nothing rivalled the comfort of the cushy sole unit. In fact, it was so good that a certain other sneaker brand couldn’t help but make their own carbon copy, but more about that later.
Released for the 1969 Mexico Games, the brains behind the design was none other than Bill Bowerman, legendary Oregon track coach and jogging guru. Bowerman had sunk a chunk of change into a small Beaverton-based distribution company called Blue Ribbon Sports, which was run by one of his former pupils, Phil Knight. Tiger trainers turned out to be top sellers and Blue Ribbon was lucky enough to hold the exclusive rights to Kihachiro Onitsuka’s innovative running shoes.
On board as a Blue Ribbon technical advisor, Bowerman built a prototype of a new runner from the best bits of two existing Tiger models. Haphazardly held together with horse pins, Onitsuka Tiger still thought this hybrid creation was a ‘splendid idea’ and quickly set about putting it into production.
All it needed was a catchy name. Originally annointed ‘Aztec’ in honour of the Olympic host city, adidas spoiled the ceremony by releasing the Azteca Gold. Threatened with legal action, the name was changed at the last minute to Cortez, or as Bowerman put it, ‘That Spaniard who kicked the shit out of the Aztecs!’.
An instant hit, the Cortez was years ahead of the competition. Generously loaded with shock absorbent cushioning along the full length of the footbed, the Cortez also had an extra splice in the heel offering more bounce for the ounce.
Eventually the marriage between Onitsuka and Blue Ribbon Sports soured. Whilst distributing Tiger, Knight and Bowerman had developed their own line of sneakers called... Nike. Unbeknownst to their Japanese partners, they’d also been producing their own ‘Nike’ branded Cortez, identical to the Onitsuka Tiger version bar the chubby ticks that replaced the slim Tiger stripes. As told by Julie Strasser in her amazing book Swoosh, Nike’s Cortez betrayal was only discovered when an Onitsuka official visited Blue Ribbon’s L.A. warehouse and stumbled across pairs hidden in the storeroom.
Few shoes have created such a seismic shift in the sneaker business. A court later decreed that both Onitsuka and Nike could sell the Cortez model. Nike retained the shoe’s original name, while Tiger dubbed their version the ‘Corsair’.
It is still the only sneaker to become a best-selling model for two different shoe companies!