Let’s be upfront from the start. I usually buy my leggings for outdoor workout and winter activities in Ireland. They fit better. Since it was impossible to go there in the past year, I have some Joe Fresh gear too. In shoes, I favour the Adidas Samba, of which I have several pairs. Their indoor soccer shoes are superb. Also, one of the two documentaries I’m writing about today was produced in partnership with The Globe and Mail.
The two documentaries are linked in that they both focus on the thin line that individuals and companies skirt, between legal and unacceptable practices.
LulaRich (streams Amazon Prime Video) is a four-part docuseries that chronicles the unraveling of LuLaRoe, which is either a multilevel marketing company or a pyramid scheme, the latter being what is suggested in lawsuits. It’s a fascinating look at capitalism and entrepreneurial hustle in America. LuLaRoe’s bubbly founders, DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham, are happy to sit for an interview and DeAnne’s story of living in poverty and gaining initial wealth by selling maxi-skirts from her home and house parties is vividly told. She then expanded things and recruited others to do what she’d been doing. All good, and by 2013 things were thriving.
Then in 2014 LuLaRoe got into the leggings business. It looked shrewd since workout wear was becoming the norm for everyday life. A woman who sold those early leggings to others says they were great, “Buttery soft and super-stretchy.” Business boomed. The company had an estimated 150,000 selling consultants in 50 states and hit US$2.3 billion in sales. But trouble loomed. Some leggings sent to consultants to sell had ugly patterns. Others literally stank and the odour was appalling. One former seller says the leggings had the texture of wet toilet paper. Nobody wanted to buy them. Late-night talk show hosts made fun of them.
Infuriated sellers, some of who paid $7,000 for the right to resell the leggings, were furious. Several dozen sued. The entre scheme is revealed in the series as an amateur-level scam. Those at the top of LuLaRoe had no idea what they were doing, but the money had rolled in, mainly from stay-home-moms who thought they were part of a revolution. Brady made videos telling consultants it was all their fault. “Believe in you!” she shouted a them. The slogan isn’t far from the Nike slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Which brings us to the other fascinating documentary.
Nike’s Big Bet: Alberto Salazar and the Fine Line of Sport (Friday, CBC 9 p.m. on Passionate Eye, and streams CBC Gem) is the one The Globe was involved with. It presents a puzzle and asks the viewer to figure it out. And, boy, is it an intriguing puzzle: Why can’t Nike give up on the legendary but now disgraced track coach Alberto Salazar? What’s in it for them? It suggests, with evidence, there is something near-sinister about the “symbiotic “relationship between Nike and athletes.
If you’ve never heard of Salazar, here’s, ah, the dope. A great marathon runner in the 1980s, he became a successful coach. Long associated with Nike, the company gave him command of a centre in Oregon to develop cutting-edge techniques for training elite athletes. In 2019, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency imposed a four-year ban against him for violating various anti-doping regulations. Nike continued to back him, paying for his lawyers. This past summer, the U.S. Center for SafeSport barred Salazar from the sport of track and field for life.
What did he do, exactly? As the unflinching and transfixing program (directed by Paul Kemp, who has nothing to do with this paper) makes clear, it’s rather hard to say. As Malcom Gladwell, himself a runner and student of the sport, says of Salazar, “He’s an extremist.” Later Gladwell, who is very eloquent and engaged by the topic, also says, “He’s not the parent-coach, he’s the optimum-coach.” By that he means Salazar took everything to the cusp of unacceptable behaviour in training runners and preparing them. Some of those who worked with him outright deny they saw evidence of doping, but they certainly saw mindboggling excess in prepping runners.
What touches the soul here is when the doc moves away from the wow-factor look at the zealous training, to talk about the young women athletes who worked with Salazar. Teenage breakout star Mary Cain has described an abusive, toxic culture under Salazar at that Oregon HQ, where she was demeaned and suffered both mentally and physically. A young life ruined.
What the doc raises is a vital question about why our admiration of elite athlete leads us to accept baroque extremes of behaviour and accommodate their pain as grit and determination. And then there’s the issue of Nike shoes. Watch to the end to get to that weirdness.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.