Adidas, Puma and The Making of Modern Sport.
This will be a surprise for regular readers, as RMHQ doesn’t normally ‘do sport’, but being an Adidas ‘fanboy’ for nigh on half a century, I was asked to write this book review for a magazine a couple of years ago and thought I’d make an exception and share it with you.
What starts out as a lovely story, which sounds like something Catherine Cookson may have written; about an extended family in a quaint German town as the 19th Century turned into the 20th.
What could possibly go wrong?
Facts from this period are a bit sketchy; but when the elder brothers come back from the Front Line to join the youngest, Adolph who was too young to join the Army; the story soon revolves around two of the brothers; Adolph who quickly became a genius Artisan shoe maker and the other, Rudolph, a flamboyant salesman; who together not only built up two very successful business’s, making and selling running shoes, but changing in history and fashion in the process.
Although times were tough between the wars in Germany, sports and particularly running became very popular and Adi Dassler’s ever improving and ever lighter shoes meant the family business kept growing, and growing with Rudi taking over sales in 1923, leaving Adi in his factory office constantly experimenting and designing, using whatever materials came to hand.
The first of the twists occurs as the story moves into the 1930’s and Hitler arrives on the political scene.
Like everyone else in the country Adi and Rudy joined the National Socialist Party; with the younger sibling not appearing to have been an active member but Rudy, on the other hand embraced The Party and all it stood for.
Adolph’s first Marketing Masterstroke came when he talked his way into supplying footwear for the burgeoning Hitler Youth movement which swept the country.
Then, the first of the truly fascinating facts that you will discover, happens around the infamous 1936 Olympic Games themselves. It was no real surprise that Adi Dassler’s footwear were the shoes of choice for the German National Squad; as the Master Shoemaker’s many contacts finally came to fruition; but Adi was also made aware of a young American sprinter called Jesse Owens, who was winning races all over Europe and made it his business to make his acquaintance; and………Jesse Owens actually wore ‘Adidas’ shoes when he made history setting world records and winning four Gold medals.
You can’t tell from the photos; because the iconic Three Stripes hadn’t been thought of at that time; but ‘Adidas’ trainers they most definitely were.
As WWII beckoned Rudolph Dassler’s role in the National Socialist Party backfired as he was conscripted into a division of the Gestapo, while Adi was quickly returned home to run the family business, which was now manufacturing boots and rucksacks for the army!
Thankfully both brothers and their other siblings all survived; but the infamous ‘fall out’ slowly came to fruition over the next few years.
As the Dassler footwear business flourished, predominantly because they were in the American Quarter of Germany and Adi spotted that the GI’s played baseball and basketball in tatty canvas Converse sneakers…..he began making stronger and more supple leather versions; and when they discovered Adi had made the shoes worn by Jesse Owens; production went through the roof!
It’s not clear; but it’s surmised that the ‘Fall Out’ was brought on by everyone living in the same house and both men’s pushy wives believing that their respective husband deserved more accolades than the other with the rift finally coming to a conclusion in April 1948 when the brothers agreed to split the business. Adi, as he now preferred to be called originally named his new company Addas, which was also the name of a German children’s brand, so he added the extra ‘i’ and the Adidas legend was created.
Rudolph attempted something similar calling his company Ruda; but finally settled on the more aggressive sounding and sporty Puma.
At this stage, and when you take another look at the Jesse Owen photos; none of their shoes actually had anything distinctive on the side. Strips of leather did adorn their athletic shoes; but were normally self-coloured or dark scraps that were used to strengthen the pressure points.
Adi though, knew he needed something to make his shoes stand-out on both the track and shop shelves, experimenting with anything between two and six white stripes on each side; but eventually deciding on three white stripes; while the Puma ones just used one thick stripe.
The split wasn’t as simple as the brothers hoped; with Adi keeping one factory and it’s workforce on one side of the local river and Rudy a smaller factory and the company offices on the other with his sales team.
The next couple of years were difficult for both company’s, but as expected Adi’s new Adidas brand kept innovating and inventing; coupled with the shoemaker’s hard nosed approach to ‘product placement’ they quickly expanded into the burgeoning football market across Europe; culminating with the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, when unknown to anyone outside the company; he had *invented ‘screw in’ and interchangeable studs; which helped West Germany win the World Cup on a rain soaked and muddy pitch.
*there were already screw -in studs in England, but Adi never mentioned that!
All of this left Puma trailing in their wake; and to some extent they drift out of the main story as a whole new rival to Adi Dassler is soon to make an appearance.
With our hero Adi tucked away in his design room his devoted wife Kathe evolved into head of sales; and even began exporting product to Canada when International Sales of sports goods was virtually unheard of.
Still a family business at heart, Adi’s eldest son Horst enters the story in 1956 when the Olympics were held in Melbourne Australia.
The shenanigans began before the first race had been run; with Horst somehow managing to ‘convince’ some Customs men to impound a shipment of Puma shoes that were destined as giveaways to athletes; leaving the door well and truly wide open for the 20 year old to give away their exciting and light weight Adidas running spikes……which many victorious and ‘Amateur’ athletes took with glee.
Young Dassler made contacts left right and centre during these games; and several would eventually go onto high positions within the Olympic movement, as well as the seeds being planted for the Company’s ultimate world wide domination.
Flushed with what he saw as his own success, Horst felt restrained under his Mother’s watchful eye so following some volatile disagreements was eventually dispatched across the border in 1959 to run the family’s new French operation.
Over the next few years Horst does deals within deals, unknown to his parents only 40 miles away; making friends and influencing people in not just the Olympic movement but EUFA and FIFA too, alongside numerous individual International Committees; and growing his own division until it was soon bigger and more profitable than his parent’s German operation.
Your jaw will drop when you read how much cash swilled around in endorsements, both over and (mostly) under the counter in the next 40 years and the names that littered the newspaper columns a couple of years ago when the FIFA offices were raided; are all here too.
By the 1970’s Adidas was less about manufacturing the finest product, as it was Horst Dassler’s quest for supreme power in the sports industry; regardless of who got caught and hurt in his slipstream.
When the story arrives in the 80’s Horst is so arrogant and power mad he totally dismisses new brands Reebok and Nike; as he thinks he has every corner of the market covered; not realising fashions change on a whim.
This story is so fast moving, engrossing and convoluted; that by the time the Russians gave one Adidas executive a dog as a gift, everyone presumed it must be bugged and treated it as a spy!
Author Barbara Smit has done a remarkable job piecing together the 100 year story of Adidas, making it not just a history lesson but a roller coaster thriller too and will make an excellent TV Series.