By Emma Thomasson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nike Inc, which suspended ties with Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova after she failed a drug test, believes disgraced athletes can redeem themselves, global brand head Trevor Edwards said in an interview.
"Each time those situations happen, you are saddened and disappointed," Edwards said on Wednesday at a New York event where the world's biggest sportswear company announced new products like self-lacing shoes. "At the same time, there are many athletes that inspire us."
Edwards, a 53-year-old from Britain, has held his position since 2013 and is seen as a contender to succeed Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker one day. He oversees an annual marketing budget of more than $3 billion and has helped make deals with top athletes like basketball star LeBron James.
Earlier this month, Nike suspended its sponsorship of Sharapova, the highest-paid woman in sports, after she said she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open due to a substance she was taking for health issues.
However, Edwards hinted Sharapova could return to the Nike fold, as the company allowed U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin to do after he twice served doping suspensions.
Asked about Sharapova, he said: "At the end of the day, athletes are humans just like the rest of us, and they have the same frailties that the rest of us have. And sometimes those moments become teaching moments."
Doping scandals surrounding Russian and Kenyan athletes could cast a shadow over the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A top official for the Nike-sponsored Kenya athletics federation has said he fears his country could be banned from the games.
There are also concerns that the Zika virus, which is linked to a surge in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads, could deter athletes and visitors from traveling to Rio.
The Rio Games will be the first for Nike as official apparel partner since Sydney 2000. Rival Adidas, which was the sponsor for the three previous games, said it decided not to bid as the brand had plenty of exposure in Brazil during the 2014 soccer World Cup.
Edwards said it was up to individuals to make up their own minds about Zika, but he is still optimistic for the games.
"Brazilians are passionate for sport," he said. "They will host an incredible event."
Edwards said the introduction on Wednesday of a new version of its Nike+ running app should be a bridge between amateur runners and the stars of Rio, offering customized training tips and product recommendations as well as invitations to local events.
"Consumers are looking for services: Don't just tell me to 'just do it,' help me to 'just do it,'" he said in a reference to the Nike slogan.
(Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)