The year is 1918 and a young man from Herzogenaurach (a small town in Franconia, Germany) sits in his mother’s wash kitchen, assembling shoes. Not just any shoe, though, a lightweight, flexible, one suitable for running and walking. Power is fickle and so he often uses a stationary bike to generate electricity for light and his sowing machines. He’s not a pro, even though his father and brother used to work at a shoe manufactory before heading off to fight in World War I. His name is Adolf (“Adi”) Dassler, and while he doesn’t know it yet, he’ll revolutionize a lot of things.
His brother Rudolf, the hothead, joins him in 1924 after Adi’s work begins to pay off. Together they found the Brothers Dassler Shoe Factory (Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik), or GDS, with each of the letters in a white stripe inscribed upon the shoes. With almost doubled output, Adi and Rudolf sell between twenty and forty pairs of their shoes a month, enough to make ends meet, move out of the wash kitchen, and set aside money for an event almost twelve years into the future: the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The Jesse Owens shoe
A week before the official start of the games, Adi Dassler rode a train from Herzogenaurach to Berlin, a multi-day adventure at the time, and talked his way into the US athletes’ quarters. There he picked the most athletic looking guy, a man by the name of Jesse Owens. Dassler explained, in broken English, that he had spikes that would improve anyone’s run and, after a simple handshake deal, had his first sponsored athlete. With this, Dassler became the first German company to sponsor anyone in sports and the first company worldwide to do so with an African American. Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, the highest at its time, which increased Dassler’s reputation manyfold, selling over 500,000 pairs of shoes between 1937 and 1939.
The Dassler’s factory was recommissioned in 1940 to produce weaponry, putting the brothers out of business. Poverty and living in close quarters in a town designated a major target for US air raids took its toll, cumulating in 1943 in a bunker near both families’ houses. Adi, entering the bunker, remarked that “those bastards are here again,” a comment his brother who’d arrived earlier with his wife, took to mean him.
The final split happened shortly after the end of the war when Rudolf was arrested and convicted of being a member of the Waffen SS (a bogus charge based on one of the bounty drives in which US GIs would give anyone money who could name a Waffen SS member in their street, often used to air pre-war grievances).
American troops marching on Nuremburg and Herzogenaurach had already placed charges and were waiting for order to blow up the Dassler’s factory on a rainy morning in April 1945 when Adi’s wife Käthe, a beautiful and smart woman who would later go on to be the brains behind most of Adidas’ operations and sales, convinced the Major in charge to spare the building and allow a restart of the shoe production lines. A few days later Mussolini and Hitler died, effectively ending war in Germany.
Despite strained relationships, requiring two similarly equipped offices at opposite ends of the building, the brothers resumed production, selling predominantly to US GIs and British soldiers. The memory of Jesse Owens aided sales with Adi once proudly proclaiming that “Blacks come from Berlin to buy my shoes.”
In October 1947, a few days after a particularly harsh fight between the brothers about a design decision on one of the shoes, Rudolf found himself locked out of his office. Adi Dassler (or, better, his wife) wasted no time, rebranding the company into the portmanteau Adi Dassler. Rudolf, meanwhile, started RuDa a mile away.
This was the beginning of two trailblazer sports companies. And, more interestingly, the world’s greatest commercial family feud. So big and well known was this rivalry that visitors and handymen alike would deliberately wear the other brothers’ shoes when visiting, knowing that both would hand them a new pair of their own shoes to wear before entering the house.
RuDa rebranded Puma in 1948 and scored a huge victory right from the start: Rudolf equipped the German soccer team with Puma boots and gear. Sponsorship rivalry saw its weirdest moment in 1960 when sprinter Armin Hary, having been rebuffed for his outrageous demands by Adidas, won gold in Pumas. Attempting to cash in on both companies he switched shoes to Adidas before the ceremony, leading to both brothers’ scorn and no payment at all with Adi banning Adidas from ever sponsoring a German sprinter again.
Rudolf Dassler died in 1974, his brother in 1978. They’re buried in the same cemetery but on exactly opposing sides.
Though many sports wear companies have learned from and copied Adidas, Nike would go on to surpass both and the rest. Nike was initially founded as Blue Ribbon Sports to distribute Adidas and Puma in the United States but, after both companies insisted on exclusive deals, imported Japanese shoes instead. And, sure, those Nike shoes are good, the swoosh is iconic, and the “Just Do It” on almost everything. But none of those upstarts can claim to have started on a stationary bike for electricity and to have torn asunder with its rivalries the very town it brought from a sleepy 1200 souls to a booming sports wear metropolis.