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Who Is Runner 321? The Campaign Increasing Visibility for Neurodivergent Athletes


LBB’s Ben Conway speaks with FCB Canada’s ECD Andrew MacPhee and Suneeva director Jason Van Bruggen about working with adidas and the world’s first sponsored neurodivergent athlete for the Runner 321 campaign

Who Is Runner 321? The Campaign Increasing Visibility for Neurodivergent Athletes

To celebrate World Down Syndrome Day, adidas collaborated with creative agency FCB Canada and director Jason Van Bruggen to tell the story of adidas’ first sponsored athlete with Down Syndrome, Chris Nikic. As Chris is a triathlete, marathon runner and the world’s first Ironman with Down Syndrome, the campaign reserved the runner BIB 321 for Chris to race with in the Boston Marathon this year - with extended plans to allow all neurodivergent athletes to wear BIB 321 in next year’s event too.

Andrew MacPhee, executive creative director at FCB Canada explains: “Down syndrome, also known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21, hence 3-21.” The number is widely used by the Down Syndrome community and marks World Down Syndrome Day annually on March 21. “The initial spark came from our desire to create visibility and representation for neurodivergent people in running,” says Andrew. “We wanted to create a beacon for others to see what’s possible. In a sea of thousands of runners, our runner needed to be easy to spot. That’s where the idea to reserve BIB 321, a number that resonates with the Down syndrome community, became the centre point for this campaign.”

FCB Canada has a history of working with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) and brought its experience in this field to the campaign. Runner 321 is just one of the agency's recent projects aiming to improve inclusion in fitness for the Down syndrome community. “Fitness is often discouraged by doctors for people with Down syndrome. MinDSets, our global research study is tracking the impact of fitness on cognition for people with Down syndrome so we can change that and make fitness a key part of prescribed therapy.”

The FCB team reached out to adidas over a year ago, which spawned Runner 321 amongst other projects. Facilitating Chris becoming the first neurodivergent athlete with a global sports sponsorship was the first action in their collaboration, setting the groundwork for what would become Runner 321. Andrew says, “adidas has been an ideal partner as they share our vision of inclusivity and the work really lives into adidas’ ‘Impossible Is Nothing’ platform. While we came up with the bib initiative, we have worked together to create the partnerships to bring it to life, from Chris Nikic to the Boston Marathon.” Thanks to adidas’ partnership with the Marathon’s organisers, the BAA,  and the campaign’s good cause, the BAA “immediately saw the importance of [the campaign] and supported it”, providing a springboard to call other races to get involved with the initiative as well.

“The initiative is about visibility, so the more marathons that get on board and the more people we see represented, the better,” says Andrew, “We will inspire a new generation of neurodivergent athletes to create a legion of Runner 321s to pass the baton from race to race, country to country, and show the world, and others like them, what’s possible.” Race supporters and organisers alike can head to to see how they can support the campaign.

When creating the promotional film Andrew says FCB and adidas wanted to maintain the “rebellious and optimistic tone of voice” that the sportswear company is known for. “Inclusion means inclusion. We were conscious of not creating a sense of otherness in the way we portrayed Chris.” Highlighting the importance of capturing Chris “as the professional athlete he is, as well as his personality” Andrew says that Suneeva’s Jason Van Bruggen was the ideal director to execute this vision “based on his incredible ability to capture candid moments that showed the charisma of our athletes as well as a rawness to his action shots.” Always conscious of inadvertently ‘othering’ Chris, Andrew continues, “What was most important to us, and Chris, was representing Chris and his friends in the same way we would for any other elite athlete. Confident, full of belief, and heroic!”

Despite being “rip-o-matic with a lot of stock footage”, Jason recognised an inspiring message at the core of the campaign and signed up to help give Chris’ story “emphasis, beauty and truth.” He says: “I wanted to make sure that it maintained authenticity but also felt like a sports commercial. While this is changing (happily), I often find that projects featuring para-athletes tend to have weaker concepts and smaller budgets than those which feature mainstream high-performance athletes.” After suddenly getting the call less than two weeks from the first shooting day, Jason prioritised narrowing the film’s focus and generating visual intrigue, “These compelling stories can often be a tree falling in a forest if they aren’t supported with a fresh approach, beautiful film, and of course human interest and expression… I ultimately based my shot list on the locations that I found in a city that I had never been to, and only had a very short time to scout. The opportunities unfolded from there, but I had a real point of view on where and how we should see Chris at all times.”

An element that Jason enjoyed most was working with Chris and the other athletes, exploring Chris’ story and truth through conversations with him and his dad before shooting. “The other athletes were so charming, funny and smart,” he says. “I wanted to capture the attitude that they brought to the shoot and to their lives. I’ve connected with a couple of them on social media, and just love following along.” During filming, Jason wanted to capture Chris’ speed and intensity, “mirroring the visual lexicon of sports commercials” and pushing Chris to dig deep physically. “Chris responded. Man, he was spent at the end of the day. I hope he feels it was worth it, and I’m told he was very proud of the spot.” After filming - always involved in the edit -  Jason reviewed footage and put together some LUTs that allowed for some ambitious editing and seamless integration of stock footage, before handing back over to FCB.

Previously having limited experience with neurodivergent athletes, Jason says he learned a lot about their individual capabilities and the nuances of Down syndrome from Chris and his dad Nik, whom he calls pioneers for expanding expectations for neurodivergent people. “We are only scratching the surface of what neurodivergent people are capable of,” says the director. “They are all about pushing the limits of the known, the expected, and the accepted. It is very inspiring. One of their mantras is ‘be remarkable’. They live and breathe it every day.”

The shared ambition between adidas, FCB Canada and Jason was the advancement of inclusion in sport - and already they have received “an overwhelming, positive response” from parents of neurodivergent children, who are seeing themselves represented for the first time. Andrew says, “A particularly poignant post from a mother of a two-year-old said that the video made her hopeful for her son and she would use it to show him what’s going to be possible for him. We’re also seeing people step up to support it. An Olympian has offered to train any Down syndrome person to be the next Runner 321. So we know that this initiative is already making an impact in showing people what inclusion in mainstream sports looks like.”

Jason adds, “My hope is that it helps shift both internal expectations and ambitions within the community, but also outside of the community. After spending a couple of days with this remarkable group, I am a believer in Chris and Nik’s philosophy. I’m excited to see how we, as a broader society, can work to expand our inclusion of neurodivergent people in myriad ways.”

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FCB Toronto, Tue, 05 Apr 2022 16:57:00 GMT