Olympic hero Simone Biles jumping to Gap’s Athleta brand in blow to Nike

Four-time Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles has signed up with Gap Inc’s Athleta brand for a new apparel partnership, ending an almost six-year deal with Nike Inc.

Biles, the most decorated gymnast in world championships history at age 24, said in an Instagram post on Friday she wanted to partner with a brand that shares her “passion to help girls rise and own their limitless potential”.

“They are committed to diversity and inclusion, which was really important for me to see in a partner,” she said.

The move is a blow to Nike, which tried for years with mixed success to expand in the lucrative market for women’s sports apparel, launching yoga, plus-size and maternity lines.

“What Nike have undersold – or at least under-monetized – in the past is womenswear,” said Michael Faherty, a portfolio manager at Adidas and Nike investor Seilern Investment Management. “You only have to look across at Lululemon to see the excellent growth they’ve been able to generate in the womenswear space.”

As it competes with Lululemon and Under Armour, Nike has spent millions cultivating relationships with Biles and other major athletes, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. These deals have helped Nike’s womenswear sales growth outstrip that of its other brands for the past eight quarters.

“We will continue to champion and celebrate all athletes,” Nike said in a statement, confirming its contract with Biles has ended and wishing her “the very best.”

Athleta, founded in 1998 as a brand for female athletes, said it plans to co-create an activewear line with Biles and design other signature products.

The brand has also pledged to support Biles’ post-Tokyo Olympics gymnastics tour that she is planning to mount herself, rather than the usual tour backed by governing body USA Gymnastics, according to the Wall Street Journal.

She is not the first Nike-sponsored sportsperson to join Athleta. In 2019, six-time Olympic champion Allyson Felix signed up with the Gap-owned brand after penning an opinion piece in the New York Times in which she said she faced potential pay cuts from sponsors including Nike for having children. The movement was subsequently co-signed by London 2012 heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill.

Nike later committed to not financially penalize pregnant athletes. The company has also made a name for itself for taking a stand on social issues, fighting against racial injustice and showing solidarity with some protesting athletes.

Biles, who has won every major team and individual all-around competition she’s entered since her senior debut in 2013, is favored to become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion since 1968.

The 19-time world champion will also take a second crack at becoming the first US woman in any sport to win five golds at a single Olympics, a feat she came within a momentary slip of achieving at the Rio de Janeiro Games five years ago.

While the Tokyo Games were long expected to be the final competitive meet of her career, Biles has left the door open for a third Olympic appearance at Paris 2024, when she would be 27.

“Honestly, right now my main focus is [the Tokyo Olympics], and then after I have the tour that we’ve put together,” Biles said earlier this month. “Then afterwards I’m not so sure, because Cecile and Laurent are from Paris and they’ve kind of guilted me into at least being a specialist and coming back [for 2024].

“But the main goal is 2021 Olympics, tour, and then we’ll have to see.”