In the history of running shoes competition spurs progress. Between rivals it is expected, but when those rivals are members of the same family, then it is something very different.
Adolf and Rudolf Dassler – Adi and Rudi, for short – worked together to create one of the world's leading footwear companies. Then, after twenty five years of success, a family feud would cause a schism, dividing the brothers for the rest of their lives. Driven to outdo the other, each man went on to establish his own company, and both would grow into two of the world’s leading sportswear labels: Adi’s adidas and Rudi’s Puma.
Adi Dassler testing his product c. 1920
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 into which the young Dassler brothers were born into was a country in flux, emerging from one war and on the precipice of another. Yet, change presents opportunities and the entrepreneurial Dasslers created their first footwear using tools and military remnants left abandoned by retreating First World War soldiers.
Setting up a makeshift workshop in their mother’s laundry room, the brothers set to their task. Quickly, a dynamic was established: Adi as the skilled and innovative cobbler, happy to spend hours tinkering in the workshop, and Rudi as the persuasive salesman, marshalling distribution and general management of the enterprise. Complementing each other’s skillsets, the duo made a harmonious team.
Eventually, the pair graduated from the laundry room and moved into their own factory. In 1924 they founded Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) and quickly built upon 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 sporting achievement and physical prowess.
Early Dassler Brothers running spikes
With the dark shadow of a Nazi future looming over Germany, the Dasslers’ most celebrated triumph came at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where they provided the African American sprinter Jesse Owens with the running spikes that helped him secure four gold medals. Demonstrating his desire for his shoes to be seen on the biggest stage, Adi had driven from Herzogenaurach to the Olympic village in Berlin, carrying a suitcase packed full of running spikes, so that he could personally persuade Owens to wear Dassler.
The Berlin Olympics had been planned as a demonstration of Aryan physical prowess, but the nature of Owens’s victories represented a thumb in the eye of the Nazi propaganda machine. For Adolf Dassler it wasn’t a question of politics; he supported an athlete not an ideology and Owens was the ideal advocate for Dassler running shoes because of his ability, not his ancestry.
Jesse Owens, photographed by Adi Dassler
Up until 1939 the Dassler's business was booming with 200,000 pairs of shoes sold each year. But as the world collapsed into war the Dassler factory was swallowed up by the Nazi war machine and repurposed 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 suggesting that Rudi had slept with Adi’s wife Käthe, the fallout is widely 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 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.
War may have ended but the wounds it left on the Dassler brothers never healed and the acrimonious division of Gebrüder Dassler took place, with Rudi moving across town to the opposite bank of the river Aurach, the river that divided the town. There, on 1st October 1948 Rudi founded his rival business "Ruda", which he later changed to Puma.
"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. 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 and played out on athletics tracks and sports fields across the world. 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.
German sprinter Armin Hary: runs in Puma, celebrates in adidas.
The Dasslers' joint success with Jesse Owens in 1936 had fixed in each brother’s mind the commercial power of winning. A comical event at the 1960 Roma Olympics illustrated the on-going struggle to secure endorsements.
At the time, both brands were courting the German sprinter Armin Hary, offering clandestine payments to the sprinter so that he might choose one manufacturer and snub another. Sensing an opportunity, the shrewd German ran the 100 meters in Puma, winning gold, then came out to the medal ceremony in adidas. His hope was to collect from both brands, something that neither Puma or adidas agreed to.
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 loyalty. Endorsement became just another battle ground for the warring brothers, as the sporting world was drawn into their personal feud.
The Dassler brothers: Adi (left) and Rudi (right)
Intense competition had powered the Dasslers to greatness, but, in the end, it proved their undoing. A myopic focus on what was happening on the other side of the river meant that both adidas and Puma were caught flatfooted by new developments in the sporting world. Both brands utterly failed to predict and take advantage of the running boom of the 1970s 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. Rumours of a secret reconciliation were whispered in some corners of Herzogenaurach, however the only certainty is that the brothers were finally reunited in the town's graveyard, where they both now lie at peace – albeit at different ends.
Ultimately, the division was so deep and profound that it outlived the brothers. It was only in 2009 that an exhibition football match was held in Herzogenaurach to finally put the matter to bed once and for all. The interesting question: would the Dasslers have achieved together what bitter rivalry drove them to accomplish separately? Would Borg have been the same without McEnroe, Madrid without Barcelona, Senna without Prost?
Competition undeniably spurs progress, but such progress often requires great personal cost.
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