TORONTO — The orange soles of Evan Dunfee’s shoes were worn through at the toes. They looked like the running shoe version of a tattered ballet slipper.
And they were barely two weeks old.
The Canadian race walker who famously opted not to protest his fourth-place finish at last summer’s Rio Olympics took to Twitter last month to lament the unsightly demise of his shoes.
In better times, he would have just laced on a new pair. But the 26-year-old from Richmond, B.C., was recently dropped from his apparel sponsor Asics, along with several of his Olympic teammates. Under the shoe photo, Dunfee tweeted: “When you’re no longer getting shoes for free u come to realize that you’d like them to last longer than 2 weeks … what are some good shoes?”
During heavy training, Dunfee normally goes through a pair in three to four weeks — or between 400 and 500 kilometres of walking.
“I’m still getting by on what I had left, but these are the last pair that I have. A couple of weeks left before I have to start shopping around for good deals,” Dunfee said.
Because of the way race walkers push off with each stride — “quite a lot stronger than runners,” Dunfee explained — they wear down their shoes in a different pattern than runners.
“We basically just wear right through the toe,” he said. “It’s annoying because you have a pair of shoes where the back three-quarters of the shoe are brand new, but you have a giant hole in the toe.”
Fellow race walkers Ben Thorne, a world bronze medallist, and Inaki Gomez were among a handful of Canadians who didn’t have their Asics contracts renewed post-Rio. Dunfee’s deal was strictly for apparel with no cash.
The bad news from Asics finally came in late December, after several emails from Dunfee post-Rio went unanswered.
Kris Mychasiw, a Montreal-based agent who has represented some of Canada‘s top Olympic athletes, called the lack of communication “unfortunate,” but not uncommon.
“I once called a company over 140 times before the contract got done,” he said.
“It sucks for Evan, because his story was probably the most heartwarming of the Games,” he added. “You have this Olympian, after the Games when he did one of the nicest things in Olympic history, then he comes out and proves that he’s not just a race walker, he throws down a great half marathon.”
Dunfee ran — not walked — to victory in the Fall Classic Half-Marathon in Vancouver in November.
Yves Simard of Asics Canada said in a statement that the company is “still very much involved at the grassroots level at the local, regional and national scene.
“We continually evaluate our sponsorships and we have a long history of supporting amateur athletes achieve their goals and will continue to do so in the future.”
The number of athletes who can cash in on Olympic success is surprisingly low, said Mychasiw, who represented hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, a bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympics.
“She came home (from Beijing) and the Blue Jays were playing well. Yeah, she threw a ball out, it was cool. But did it make her any more money? Not at all,” Mychasiw said. “It’s tough to get that love. Evan’s story, as touching as it is, Canada at the end of the day is a hockey country, and as soon as the summer sport is done, we focus our energy on hockey and basketball and baseball.”
Cashing in on Olympic glory is also feast or famine. Athletes in glamour events like the men’s 100 metres enjoy the biggest piece of the sponsorship pie. Canada’s Andre De Grasse, for example, is in his second year of a whopping US$11.25 million multi-year deal with Puma.
“One of the things that bothers amateur athletes is: ‘Well Andre’s getting this much money, how come I can’t get that?’ But he’s the face of the sport to me right now in North America. At the end of the day, it’s all about sales, and what’s going to get my product off the shelf before Adidas, Nike or whoever it may be,” Mychasiw said.
Compare that to the NBA, where virtually every player has an endorsement deal with a shoe company, many of them running into the seven-figure range. Before Canada’s Andrew Wiggins had even played an NBA game, he’d signed a deal with Adidas that would pay him more than US$2 million a season.
Dunfee’s Rio Olympic story pulled at Canada’s collective heart strings. He crossed fourth in the 50-kilometre race walk, but was upgraded to bronze after Japan’s Hirooki Arai was disqualified for jostling the Canadian. Arai won an appeal, bumping Dunfee back to fourth, and Dunfee opted not to pursue a counter-appeal. In his statement, Dunfee wrote “I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.”