Two Brothers, Two Sneakers, And A Global Battle For Footwear

Posted

A little more than seventy years ago, German brothers Adolf Dassler and Rudolf Dassler parted ways in a bitter sibling quarrel. Their business split, the family divided, and soon enough even the townsfolks migrated to opposite sides of the camp.

This seemingly inconsequential feud in a provincial corner of Germany had enormous repercussions on what future athletes would wear on their feet.  Adolf went on to found Adidas and his older brother Rudolf followed through by launching Puma.

Today, Adidas and Puma are the second and third largest sportswear manufacturers in the world, respectively; Nike is first. Still headquartered in the same town, the two corporate behemoths are publicly traded on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and the controlling interests of the old family factions are long gone.

This made-for-cinema generational story goes back to 1924 when the siblings formed the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory - Gebruder Dassler Sportschuhfabrik- in the small Bavarian enclave of Herzogenaurach.

Adolf as the design craftsman and Rudolf as the charismatic salesman, they started off in their mother’s laundry room before eventually rising to become their own global giants.

The big break came at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin when Adolf approached American sprinter Jesse Owens, unpacked a suitcase filled with spikes, and persuaded him to run with a pair. Owens ended up winning 4 gold medals, while other athletes whom the company outfitted took home an additional 3 gold, 5 silver and a bronze.

Dassler became an overnight commercial success. Sales exploded to 200,000 pairs a year and would have continued growing if it weren’t for the outbreak of WWII.

Adolf and Rudolf joined the Nazi party with the latter showing greater devotion to the cause. Their factory was converted to producing materiel for Germany’s war effort.

It’s during these war-time and immediate post-war years when the relationship between the brothers and their wives and families began to falter. The exact cause is unknown but theories range from simple jealousy and personality conflicts, to political disagreements and betrayals.

By 1948, the two broke off from each other and set up their own shops, one north of the Aurach river and the other south of it. Adolf named his new company as a derivation of his first and last name, ‘Adi-das’. Rudolf initially tried ‘Ruda’ but then settled for ‘Puma’.

If competition fosters innovation and progress, then Adidas and Puma came to define that pillar of capitalism. The personal rivalry between Adi and Rudi deepened and fueled a drive for international footwear supremacy.

Brand loyalty even took root among the locals of Herzogenaurach as they proudly displayed Adidas or Pumas on their feet. Later on, their tribal leanings carried over to clothing and accessories. Some shopkeepers such as butchers even remarked that patrons favoring a particular company need not shop at their store.

For Adi and Rudi, the greatest marketing battles always lay in sponsoring athletes. Muhammad Ali, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinadine Zidane became legendary sportsmen in the three stripes of Adidas. Soccer icons Pele and Maradona and tennis star Boris Becker reached their fame in Pumas.

In what is possibly the first case of a prominent Olympian receiving financial compensation to wear shoes, Rudolf paid Armin Hary, a German sprinter, to run in Pumas at the 100m final of the 1960 Summer Olympics. Hary had worn Adidas before but Adi refused to pay him.

The German won the dash and became the first athlete to finish the 100m sprint in 10 seconds. But when he stepped on the podium to receive his gold medal, he laced up in Adidas in hopes of cashing in from both companies. The two corporate titans were enraged.

Ten years later, at the opening whistle of the 1970 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy, Pele bent down to tie his shoelaces in a seemingly ordinary act. In fact, it was a prearranged marketing ploy to draw the attention of millions of TV viewers to his Pumas.

Never reconciling in life, Adolf and Rudolf both died in the 1970’s and are buried on opposite ends of the same churchyard. As far apart as possible.

In 2009, Adidas and Puma employees played a soccer friendly to try and bury the hatchet for the first time since the split. Despite the handshakes and goodwill, the bitter ghosts of their forefathers still hover above the town.

Other articles enjoyed:  Fastest Man On Earth, Finland's Sports Phenom, The Boston Marathon

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

BOXING  September 26, 2009  Vitaly Klitschko defeats Chris Arreola in the 10th round after the latter calls it quits. It was the 40th professional bout for the Ukrainian fighter who retained his WBC heavyweight title. Klitschko retired in 2012 with a record of 47-45-2, including 41 knockouts. Two years later, he was elected Mayor of Kiev, a position he still holds.

20 years ago

GOLF  September 26, 1999  Americans defeat the Europeans at the 33rd Ryder Cup, which was held in Brookline, Massachusetts. Winning by a narrow margin of 14½ to 13½, the Americans were trailing 10-6 before rallying in the final day to claim the tournament. Rude behavior by spectators on the course was heavily criticized by all media outlets.

30 years ago

TENNIS  September 16, 1989  Six days after losing the US Open final to Boris Becker, Czech tennis player Ivan Lendl marries Samantha Frankel; they would have five daughters together. Lendl turned pro in 1978 and held the #1 world ranking for 270 weeks in the 1980s. A baseline power hitter, he won eight grand slams during his prolific career.

40 years ago

BASEBALL  September 24, 1979  In his first year with the Philadelphia Phillies, Pete Rose reaches 200 hits a season for the 10th time; he was previously with the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-78. A 2x World Series champ, Rose won his 3rd Fall Classic with the Phillies. The Ohio native retired in 1986 as a player and remains MLB’s all-time leader in hits (4,256).