Saturday, 11 May 2013

History Of Running Shoes | The Dassler Brothers

In the history of running shoes competition spurs progress: between rival companies it is expected, but when those rivals are two brothers, that is something different.

Adolf and Rudolf Dassler – Adi and Rudi for short – were brothers who became business partners. Then, after twenty five years of success, a family feud created a schism that would divide them for the rest of their lives. Driven by bitter rivalry, each man went on to establish their own company and the resulting brands would go on to become two of the world’s leading sportswear brands: Adi’s Adidas and Rudi’s Puma.

The Dasslers' story plays out in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. A manufacturing town with history dating back to the Middle Ages, it was here where Christoph Dassler passed on the knowledge of shoemaking to his young sons. The Germany that Christoph’s sons were born into was a country in flux, emerging from one war and on the precipice of another. Yet, change presents opportunities, and the young Dasslers created their early footwear using tools and military remnants left by retreating First World War soldiers. Setting up a makeshift workshop in their mother’s laundry room, the Dasslers set to their task.

Quickly, a dynamic was established: Adi developed as a skilled and innovative cobbler, happy to spend hours tinkering in the workshop, while Rudi was a persuasive salesman, marshalling distribution and general management of the business. Complementing each other’s skill-sets, the brothers made a harmonious team.

The pair graduated out of the laundry room and into their own factory in 1924 when they founded Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) and quickly they built their reputation as footwear specialists, creating spiked running shoes that offered superb traction and comfort.

Echoing the British example of Joseph William Foster, the Dasslers were quick to recognise the power of promotion. They supplied shoes to the German Olympic team in 1928 and 1932, building their domestic customer base in a nation that was becoming increasingly obsessed with sport and physical prowess.

With the shadow of a dark Nazi future looming over Germany, the Dasslers’ most celebrated triumph came at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where they provided the black American sprinter Jesse Owens with the running spikes that helped him secure four gold medals. Adi had personally driven from Herzogenaurach to the Olympic village in Berlin, carrying a suitcase full of running spikes so that he could personally persuade Owens to wear Dassler.

Hitler had planned the Berlin Olympics as a demonstration of Aryan physical superiority. Although Owens’s victories represented a spanner in the works of the Nazi propaganda machine, for Adolf Dassler it wasn’t a question of politics; he was supporting an athlete not an ideology (while also gaining some valuable publicity for Dassler shoes).

It was the war that would drive a wedge between the Dassler brothers. Before 1939 the the business was booming; Dassler Brothers sold 200,000 pairs of shoes a year. But as conflict engulfed Europe, the Dassler factory was swallowed up by the Nazi war machine and re-purposed for the production of an anti-tank rocket launcher – ominously named the Panzerschrecks or Tank Terror.

Both brothers had joined the Nazi party in 1933 but it is said that Rudi was the more ardent Nazi. Adi was allowed to remain in Herzogenaurach to make boots, while Rudi was drafted into the Wehrmacht. It was against this backdrop of war and conflict that the roots of the Dassler brothers' feud began.

Although salacious rumours circulated about Rudi sleeping with Adi’s wife Käthe, the fallout is attributed to a misunderstanding during an air raid in 1943. “The dirty bastards are back again”, Adi reportedly said as Rudi and his family came down to their shared bomb shelter. Adi was referring to the Allied aircraft overhead but Rudi was convinced that his brother had aimed the slight at him and his family. To compound the issue, after the cessation of hostilities Rudi was arrested by American forces and sent to a prisoner of war camp, he remained convinced that it was his brother who had turned him in.

The wounds never healed, and so the acrimonious division of Gebrüder Dasslertook place, with Rudi moving across town to the opposite bank of the river Aurach, the river that divided the town, to found his rival business. On 1st October 1948 Rudi created Ruda, later changing the name to Puma.

The whole town would feel the fallout. "The split between the Dassler brothers was to Herzogenaurach what the building of the Berlin Wall was for the German capital", said Rolf-Herbert Peters, a local journalist and author of 'The Puma Story'. Dominated by the two factories, the town became polarised, while the division permeating every aspect of town life. There were Puma affiliated bars that refused to serve Adidas workers, and each brand sponsored a football team, with ASV Herzogenaurach wearing the three-stripes of Adidas and FC Herzogenaurach the black cat of Puma. Even marriage between Adidas and Puma employees was frowned upon.

Herzogenaurach and its residents may have felt the division most acutely, but the rivalry was far bigger than the Bavarian town. With both brands dominating the European footwear market, not just in running but also in football and athletics, competition wasn't confined to who could produce the best footwear, it spilled over into the increasingly lucrative area of athlete endorsements.

The Dasslers' joint success with Jesse Owens in 1936 had put them firmly on the map, now both brothers aimed to harness the commercial power of athlete endorsements for themselves. A comical event at the 1960 Roma Olympics demonstrated the on-going struggle. At the time, both brands were courting the German sprinter Armin Hary, offering clandestine payments in exchange for Hary being seen in their product. Sensing an opportunity, the shrewd sprinter ran the 100 meters in Puma, winning gold. Later he came out to the medal ceremony in Adidas, hoping to collect from both brands. He didn't.

This set the tone for much of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the rival brands passing surreptitious payments to the world’s leading athletes including Pelé (Puma), American swimmer Mark Spitz (adidas) and Muhammad Ali (Puma) in order to secure their patronage. Endorsement became just another battle ground for the warring brothers, as the sporting world was drawn into their personal feud.

Intense competition had powered the Dasslers to greatness, but it also proved to be their undoing. A myopic focus on what was happening on the other side of the river meant that both Adidas and Puma were caught flat footed by new developments in the sporting world. Both brands utterly failed to predict and take advantage of the running boom of the 1970's and slowly their dominance began to diminish as a new American brand named after the Greek goddess of victory began to encroach on their territory.

As for the Dasslers themselves, Rudi died in 1974 and Adi four years later in 1978. Although rumours of a secret reconciliation were whispered in some corners of Herzogenaurach, the brothers were finally united in the Herzogenaurach graveyard, where they are both buried – albeit at different ends.

Ultimately, the division was so deep that it outlived both brothers. It was only in 2009 that an exhibition football match was held in Herzogenaurach to finally heal the wound once and for all. The interesting question is: would they have achieved together what competition drove them to accomplish separately? Ultimately, their preoccupation with beating each other allowed a new, hungrier rival to steal a march. In time, both the three stripes and the black cat would be eclipsed by the Nike swoosh. oki-ni

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