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Boris Berian, McDonald’s man turned 800m champ, may miss Olympics due to sponsor dispute

Boris Berian

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 19: Boris Berian of the United States crosses the line to win gold in the Men’s 800 Metres Final during day three of the IAAF World Indoor Championships at Oregon Convention Center on March 19, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images for IAAF)

Getty Images for IAAF

By day, Boris Berian took orders at the fast-food counter, flipped burgers and cooked fries to make ends meet.

By dusk, he trained to become one of the fastest 800m runners in the United States.

Now, he wonders if all that hard work will really pay off. Berian’s biggest opponent these days isn’t on the track, but in the courtroom. A lawsuit filed by Nike dealing with what sort of gear Berian wears threatens to derail what looked like a for-sure trip to the Rio Olympics this summer.

And to think, Berian used to daydream about big endorsement deals while working the 8 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift at a McDonald’s inside a Walmart in Colorado Springs, Colo.

How times have changed: His coach said the 23-year-old Berian would consider retiring rather than race for Nike after this grievance, which could possibly keep him from the starting line on July 1 at the Olympic Trials.

“It’s just sad. You can’t do this to a kid who’s done nothing to you,” said Carlos Handler, who trains Berian at the Big Bear Track Club in California. “I’ve told people that when it’s all said and done, he will be the American record holder.”

Nike signed Berian on June 17, 2015, during a breakout season. The contract went through December 31 and gave the shoe and apparel company the right to match any other offers.

Berian signed a deal with New Balance, but Nike maintained that its sponsorship remained in effect since the company properly exercised its right of first refusal. Berian’s side feels certain terms of the New Balance deal were more favorable.

While the controversy has played out, Berian has continued to excel on the track, winning a World Indoor title in Portland, Ore., in March, against a field that lacked most Rio Olympic 800m medal favorites.

At a meet last month in Southern California, Berian was served a lawsuit by Nike that accused him of breach of contract. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon on April 29.

In a statement, Nike said it “values its relationships with athletes and we expect them to honor their contractual commitments. Where necessary we’ll take steps to protect our rights.”

A judge has at least temporarily banned him from wearing the footwear of any Nike competitor including but not limited to New Balance. There’s another hearing set for June 21.

“Apparently myself alone can cause harm to a MULTI-BILLION dollar company Nike,” Berian posted on his Twitter account. He recently ended a tweet with the hashtag, “FreeBoris.”

A promising runner out of Widefield High School in Colorado Springs, Berian went to Adams State in Alamosa, where he won indoor and outdoor national titles as a freshman.

But he struggled with his eligibility because of grades. He practiced, just couldn’t race.

“It was annoying, because my fitness was getting crazy,” Berian said. “The workouts were getting easier and faster. But the fact I couldn’t compete was driving me crazy.”

He dropped out and embarked on his own in the spring of 2014. A friend offered him a couch to crash on and he found a job at McDonald’s.

Each day he would ride his bike or walk the nearly three miles to work the early shift, leaving him time to train in the evening.

“I was hoping to make enough money to train and travel to meets,” he said. “Hopefully run fast and get sponsored. It was a hard goal, but it was enough to keep me going.”

For weeks, that was his routine — completing workouts from a log book he kept.

“There were a few days working at McDonald’s that got me down — making a little bit of money, going back home tired and training at the track,” Berian said. “But just a couple of days like that.”

That’s when Hall of Fame coach Joe Vigil entered the picture. Vigil, the former coach at Adams State for three decades, kept tabs on Berian by following his track exploits and then lost track of him. Vigil got back in touch with Berian and recommended him to Handler, whose wife, Brenda Martinez, is also instructed by Vigil.

Handler offered Berian a place to live and train in Big Bear. Berian accepted and soon joined the training group — after submitting his two-week notice, of course.

Almost instantly, Handler knew there was something different about Berian. His speed and work ethic were impressive.

“He was just meant to be a runner,” Handler said. “It just took someone to get out of their own way to actually give him a chance.”

In July 2015, he turned in a blistering time of 1 minute, 43.34 seconds, which ranks among the fastest ever by an American.

Last month, Berian won the Prefontaine Classic — a meet sponsored by Nike.

Heading into Rio, he’s heard the cute comments about him going from fry cook to potential Olympian, such as “From ‘Golden Arches’ to a gold medal.” He appreciates it.

He just hopes he gets the chance to try.

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