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Die Drei Streifen, the Black Cat and the story of the Swoosh

2 Dasslers and a Knight

Contrary to popular belief, Adidas does not really stand for ‘All Day I Dream About Sports’. Anyway if that was the case I figure none of us would require much equipment beyond a bed and a fluffy pillow.

Way back in 1924, 2 German brothers returned from World War I to the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. Following in his father’s footsteps, who worked in a shoe factory, Adolf Dassler, a skilled craftsman, began making athletic shoes from the military remnants left behind by retreating troops in his mother’s laundry room. His brother Rudolf soon joined him as a persuasive salesman, and the company ‘Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory’ was born. The exceptional shoes quickly became popular among athletes and were worn by the Germans at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Amidst a rapidly changing political landscape, the Dassler brothers signed up with the Nazi party in 1933. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, they went against the party’s philosophy and persuaded African- American sprinter Jesse Owens to run in their shoes. Owens famously went on to win 4 Gold medals in their shoes, questioning Nazi Germany’s obsession with a superior lineage. 

It was said that Rudi was a more ardent Nazi, and at the height of the war was enrolled in the Wehrmarkt, i.e the German armed forces. The factory was taken over for producing the famous German anti-tank rocket launchers ‘Panzerschrecks’. Adi was allowed to remain behind and make boots. 

The Dasslers' brief stint as weapons manufacturers nearly proved their undoing. In April 1945, US tanks pulled up in front of the factory. The soldiers were still debating whether they should destroy the building when Adi's wife, Käthe, walked out and charmingly convinced them that the company and its employees were only interested in manufacturing sports shoes.

The US Air Force set up its own operations at the former military air base in Herzogenaurach. When the sports-crazy Americans realized that these were the same Dasslers that had produced the shoes that Jesse Owens had run in, they started buying all the products the company could produce. Large orders for footwear for basketball, baseball and hockey soon came in and gave the company its first boost on the road to becoming a worldwide success story.

Among the many causes thought to have caused a rift between the 2, the most popularly retold one is a misunderstanding during an air-raid, where Adi and his family climbed into a common bomb shelter with Rudi and his family. He remarked ‘The dirty bastards are back again’ presumably referring to the Allies but Rudi was convinced he was referring to his family. Rudi was later arrested by American forces and remained certain his brother had turned him in. Their bitter sibling rivalry culminated with Rudolf leaving the company in 1947 to open up his own company ‘Ruda’ which soon became ‘Puma’. Adolf changed his company name to ‘Adidas’ from Adi – Dassler. 

“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. Even marriage between Adidas and Puma employees was frowned upon.

The competition between the 2 brands was neck-to-neck until the 1954 World Cup, when the German national team that wore Adidas and went on to win the Cup. Puma lost out on valuable marketing because Rudolf had quarreled with the national team coach. 

Puma floundered for a while until their big breakthrough marketing move at the 1970 World Cup finals match. Pele stopped the referee to tie his laces, and the TV cameras zoomed in on the Puma shoes he was paid $120,000 to wear. 

Adidas countered by convincing Mark Spitz, the American swimmer, who was en route to winning seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics, to wear Adidas at the medal ceremonies. To ensure that the sneakers were not covered up by the loose fitting track pants swimmers wear, Spitz held up a pair of Adidas 'Gazelles' as he waved to the crowd." The IOC was not happy.

While the brothers were engrossed in their myopic battle, American Phil Knight was taking a Business Class at Stanford, and training athletics under coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman was looking for quality shoes for his athletes, while Knight devised a business strategy which involved importing cheap shoes from Japan as well as a marketing plan. After some experimentation with selling Japanese shoes under the name ‘Tiger Sports’ from the back of Knight’s car, in 1972, the first official Nike shoe was introduced. The ubiquitous ‘Swoosh’ logo was created by a classmate of Knight, for $35. Nike is now unquestionably entrenched in American culture, with ardent fans going to the extent of attributing the fitness revolution of the late 70s to Nike. Adidas and Puma completely missed out on this revolution. In 1988, Nike's "Just Do It" slogan was introduced, and it remains one of the most recognizable and successful commercial taglines.

All 3 companies are now publicly held entities, but their founders' legacy lives on.


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