Nike's Caster Semenya Ad Reconnects Us to the Person Behind the Icon

What would you have preferred?

What makes Nike such a powerful marketer? The brand doesn't just touch upon one emotion; it plays the entire human palette, tugging on the many feelings that revolve around victory—which, as the Serena Williams/Naomi Osaka tennis match showed us, isn't always fueled by pure ecstasy. 

It can be bittersweet. It can simply hurt. 

But even if you're not an upstart kid who just beat your sports hero in a match where you played fair but the game just wasn't—resulting in tears for all involved and a victory more PTSD-inducing than pleasurable—it's easy to admit that the road to achieving a dream is lonely. It's fraught with criticism and people calling you crazy, as Nike's last, deeply moving Colin Kaepernick-narrated spot observed. 

Kaepernick, of course, is another icon who can attest to how terrible others can make you feel, even when you know you're on the right side of history. Sometimes it's the mere fact of being where you are that makes people decide you're at fault.

Wieden + Kennedy's latest Nike spot, a "Just Do It" piece featuring Caster Semenya—who has known more controversy than many athletes—addresses this tension. It opens with Semenya running as a child, then as an adult. As her shoe kicks off the ground one last time, the music hits and we drift backward through time. 

"Would it be easier for you if I wasn't so fast?" Semenya asks plaintively.

Just Do It | Caster Semenya

The narration could be read as arrogant: "Would it be simpler if I stopped winning? Would you be more comfortable if I was less proud? Would you prefer I hadn't worked so hard? Or just didn't run? Or chose a different sport? Or stopped at my first steps?" 

Semenya's nuanced vocal delivery, however, turns it into something else. It almost feels like a plea to a mob that's long since forgotten that what's before them is not a symbol but a person. 

This is what we do to the overly visible: They become effigies cast in bronze, seemingly impervious to praise and criticism alike. 

As she speaks, our slow-moving journey into her past reinforces the soft, broken pitch of her voice. It ties us to the joy she felt as a child discovering movement, and the solitude of pursuing that first conviction to the finish line. 

This rekindling of human warmth is what makes the ad's conclusion so powerful. Fully connected to her now, we nod alongside her as she delivers her last lines: "That's too bad. Because I was born to do this." 

And that, of course, is the perfect opening for Nike. "When you're born to do it, just do it." 

The ad broke yesterday on social channels. In addition to honoring South Africa's 800-meter Olympic and World Champion, it also recognizes the 30th anniversary of Nike's slogan.