The Evolution of Athletic Footwear: A History

It’s been almost 2500 years since Pheidippides ran from Greece to Athens in terra cotta boots to deliver his important message and sparking the Legend of Marathon. Since that time the development of athletic footwear has come a long way in design, materials, promotion, lawsuits and claims of ability. This article takes us back through the major developments of athletic footwear from the over decorated flower pot to today’s array of specialised sport equipment for the feet.

In the 300AD shoes began to be used for different reasons for the first time. Many of the different clog, boot and sandal materials which had been utilized over the years such as animal hide, reeds and woods were used as the materials to make specialized footwear. The wealthier of the time would have pairs for shopping, events and farming; while the poor may have a pair for work and a pair for inside the home (if they were lucky).

The 16th Century saw the development of the first American shoe factory with commercial quantities of shoes being manufactured as the modest cobbler became a cunning entrepreneur. At this time the primary structure of shoes were a wooden sole and leather upper until 1892 when the pre-curser shoe model for the Converse All Stars (The Keds) was released sporting the first rubber sole and canvas upper, producing a lighter, more breathable and cushioned shoe for the market.
The 1920’s were the rise of the highly cushioned, light athletic shoe. New Balance Arch Co. were the first to claim that their shoes were the answer to aching feet and Converse released their still popular and one of the first commercially placed basketball shoes the ALL STAR and followed up three years later with the equally popular edition of the CHUCK TAYLOR. From this point the association of sports footwear and high profile athletes was melded and the history of the modern athletic shoe was changed forever.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin saw a young Jesse Owens donned in Germany’s own sporting brand ADIDAS and taking home 4 Gold medals to the United States only three years before the beginning of World War II. The victories only increased America’s obsession with track and cross country running leading to development of spiked shoes for traction.fixx_shoes

The 1960’s saw the development of the first Shod Vs Barefoot debate, but with social media still almost half a century away the debate was soon forgotten as New Balance release there next big claim in athletic footwear the “TRACKSTER” a shoe claimed to stop shin splints, weighing only 11 ounces and coming in at a retail price of $US15 it quickly became a crowd favourite. Shortly there-after with running shoes being a popular discussion point, the first running shoe review was published and Runner centred retail stores opened their doors ala The Athletes Foot (1972).

The 1970’s saw the practice of jogging come into play for health benefits and fun. With commercial quantities of shoes being produced and sold within specialty stores they quickly became affordable and accessible to almost everyone – and here begins battle of the brands!
Nike developed their waffle trainer providing cushioning and traction to a light weight shoe without the need for spikes, while Brookes produced the first ever EVA midsole and varus wedged shoe in the VANTAGE promoting what was the early brainstorm of motion control in footwear; and finally Red Onitsuka Tiger racing flats take best seller before mass production of running shoes is moved overseas allowing the space aged air cushioned Nike Tailwind to enter the market.

The 80’s and 90’s were dominated by Nike, Reebok and Adidas; with brands like Brookes, New Balance and Dunlop taking a backseat in the market. New Balance did release the first athletic shoes to retail at $100 but with the height of the American Stock Market in the early 80’s and the removal of the US dollar from the gold standard, money was no longer what money used to be. The customer was more interested in technology and cosmetics with both ADIDAS and REEBOK taking advantage of this gap in the market place with the release of the MICROPACER; the first piece of footwear with the technical insertion of a pedometer and the iconic PUMPS which could be inflated to give the feeling of walking on air.

In the mid 90’s the barefoot vs shod debate kicked off again after the World Steeplechase Championships was won by a barefoot athlete. A few magazines published articles and health professionals were asked repeatedly what their thoughts were, but the internet was still teetereebok-pump-kamikaze-ii-release-date-6ring away at 28kps and even MSN was yet to be released amongst those lucky enough to be connected.

The Naughties brought what could only be described as a continuum of footwear productions, with the release of the NIKE FREE in 2004 as a “training tool”, closely followed by the Vibram FiveFingers in 2005 (previously an amphibious clog for kayaking) and the highly promoted “Born to Run” book being published the minimalistic motion of the ideal run was in full swing. Unfortunately for Vibram this ended in a large class action for health benefits it claimed to have which were later found to be implausible.
At the other end of the scale you have the revolt of the HOKA ONE ONE a maximalist shoe which boasted more than 2cm of cushioning and very little perceptive feedback. The complete opposite end of the continuum set but those shoes known primarily as traditional athletic shoes were still the most post popular despite the surge in sales of the polar opposites.

The scale I believe looked something like this:


Barefoot                Traditional               Maximalist


So with 3D printing already becoming a big thing in the market place and technology such as smart phones and fitbits etc. selling fast it is difficult to imagine what may come of the next big development in sports and athletic footwear.

I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Until Next Time

Jackson McCosker
Director /Chief Editor



Brachmann, S. (2014, May 18). The Evolution of the Modern Athletic Shoe: A Patent History.

Fuehrer, D., & Douglas, S. (2014). Runners World. Retrieved from A Brief History of the Running Shoe:

The History of The Athletic Shoe. (2012). Retrieved from


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