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 apparently 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.
Now, 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 huge 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 1970s 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.