The Olympic Rivalry between the Dassler Brothers

Olympic rings| Photograph of the rings that represent the Olympic events| July 28th, 2012| Flicker| Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Never be satisfied with your accomplishments; always continue to learn”—Adolf Dassler1

If you were a wandering traveler taking a stroll down the misty cobblestone streets of a relatively small German town in 1965, you wouldn’t know it, but you would be walking into the middle of a warzone. This was a silent war, one whose soldiers did not fight with muskets and lives, but instead it was a war where the “soldiers” waged war with their wallets and their labor. It was a war led by two corporate giants, whose headquarters lie on opposite sides of the town. That small town was Herzogenaurach, which is found on the banks of the Aurach river in Bavarian Germany. The town would be known to many as the “town of bent necks,” a nickname earned due to the custom of the local inhabitants to stare at one’s apparel before formulating an opinion; if one wears the wrong branding, you might get outright ignored, or hostilities might ensue!2

When walking into the two-sided town of Herzogenaurach, one would notice that the town was gripped by a bitter competition, whose factions were based solely on what sport shoe company your family worked for. If your brother worked as a lineman inside of the Puma Factory, you would naturally play for the Puma-sponsored soccer team FC Herzogenaurach. Your team would practice on the Puma-friendly soccer field.3 Your father would drink at the Puma pub, and your mother would brandish your life with Puma merchandise: shirts, sheets, posters, backpack, and most importantly, a collection of Puma shoes. This practice would be increasingly more prevalent in the town’s culture during the 1960’s. The division between the patrons of both companies was so great that the only member of the community who had the privilege but also the responsibility to wear both the Puma and Adidas brands, was the mayor, Dr. German Hacker. Officially, he had to have no public preferences, which forced him to wear a Puma shoe on one foot and an Adidas shoe on the other. But one could infer that his private allegiance was most likely the same as his family’s.4


 

Fracture

This rivalry wasn’t always the case. The brothers who were leading these separate competing businesses earlier gave this town the nickname Birthplace of the Modern Sport Shoes. They did this in their young careers by creating the first shoe factory called “Gebruder Dassler Sportschuhfabrik” in July of 1923. Through the marketing skills of Rudolf Dassler, and the technical skills of Adolf Dassler, the company became very successful tapping into the athletic apparel market. The company gained this success in part due to the success of athletes sponsored by the company during the 1936 Olympics, held that year in Berlin, Germany.5 Unfortunately, like other businesses at the time, the turmoil in Europe affected their production capabilities. The Dassler Sport Shoe factory during the Second World War was used as a factory to manufacture boots for German soldiers to wear into combat. When the war started going poorly for the Germans, many “non-essential” businesses were forced to close, and their workers were forced to enlist; this occurred to the Dasslers’ factory. The Dasslers’ cooperation with the Nazi government, however, saved the company and many of its workers during the war years. Consequently, due to the Dassler brothers’ involvement in the war, they were both labeled as “Nazi party members” during the denazification process just after the war. As a result of being labeled “former Nazis,” the brothers lost the ability to do business in Germany. They both went to court to prove their innocence of Nazi party involvement, and were subsequently able to return to running their business starting in February 1947.6 Although the family business looked sturdy on the outside, ready to recover from the war and the closure of their factory, on the inside it was beset by a split leadership, with both brothers blaming the other for the consequences received by fostering a partnership with the Nazi government and failure to keep the factory open. An animosity was growing between the two brothers, largely because of the huge differences in their leadership styles. This was the key cause for numerous arguments between them over the next few years. The work environment split the staff and its leadership. The split then caused Rudolf Dassler to take extreme action during the summer of 1948.7

Young Adolf Dassler | Photograph of Adolf Dassler in his youth | Credited to the Adi & Kathe Dassler memorial foundation | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

Separation and Individual Success

After twenty-five years of working together, Rudolf Dassler finally made up his mind… he just couldn’t believe that they had to shut down their second factory. Finally during the the fall of 1947 Rudolf Dassler walked across his factory, notifying the workers loyal to him of his impending action. After rallying his supporters, he went in search of his brother Adolf Dassler, who was in the shoe design lab. When he finally reached the lab, he spotted his brother Adolf, who was working at improving the design of the studs on the bottom of his next line of soccer shoes. Rudolf then announced that he was no longer going to be working for the Dassler Brothers’ Sports Shoe Factory. He further announced plans to reopen their closed factory and encouraged workers to follow him to the new one he would be opening. There was a brief peace between the brothers, as Adolf always wanted full control of the direction of their factory. Rudolf thought that his younger brother didn’t know how to run a business and that with his more extensive business experience he could do better. They agreed to hold a meeting in which the employees were allowed to choose who they would like to work under.8 Rudolf moved into the new factory, and he brought the majority of the previous management and marketing teams with him. He then went to the business registrar to formally and legally create his new company, called Ruda. While he liked the original name of the company, a friend suggested he should name it after the German word for mountain cats, and Rudolf agreed, changing the name of his organization to Puma. With his factory being located at the other side of town, he was able to hire the workforce located on that side of the river, which splits the town in two. In order to separate his company from others, he established the form-strip logo that would be used in every Puma shoe afterwards. With his new work force, his new loyal staff team, and a brand new logo, Rudolf’s Puma Factory jumped up a lead in becoming a serious contender in the sport shoe market.9

Adolf Dassler was, at first, in a crisis. He just lost a sizable portion of his staff and all of his marketing and management team. Even though he lost valuable personnel, he was still left with the majority of the staff who were engaged in the development and production portion of his factory. The workers stepped up and kept the factory running in spite of the crisis. Due to the fact that Rudolf no longer worked with him, he had to think of a new name for his company. After some deliberation about what to name it, Adolf decided to name his company “Special Sports Shoe production Addas,” but he ran into some problem when trying to register the name of his company on August 18, 1949. The “Addas” name was already taken as the name of a children’s shoe company, so Adolf wrote in a pencil an “i” in the middle of the two “d’s,” and thus Adidas was born. During this time, the shoes design by Adolf contained three stripes of leather on the side of the shoes that improved the balance and durability of the shoe. This became the company trade trademark. But it wasn’t until 1952 that Adidas would acquire its signature three stripe logo from the Finnish athletic brand Karhu Sport. Adolf bought the logo from the owners of the company for 1,600 Euros and two bottles of whiskey. After reforming his company, Adolf was ready to become a major competitor in the sports shoe production industry and was making connections with established athletic organizations.10

The Dassler Brother’s Sport Shoes Factory | This was the first factory that the Dassler brother operated it will become the first Adidas Factory | 1928 | Credited to the Adi & Kathe Dassler memorial foundation | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

Olympic Competition

Puma’s eccentric owner, seeing that the battle lines were drawn, decided to strike first in this commercial battlefield. His marketing team reached out to their previous media connections and proceeded to market heavily their new sport shoes with the tag “A Puma shoe was a proper German shoe.” He knew that later in that year the 1948 World Cup Championship was going to occur. This was the first international competition that the new German team was able to participate in after World War Two. He went over to the West German team and convinced their lead athlete Herbert Burdenski to wear Puma brand shoes during the match. At the time, being sponsored by a company was not a common thing for athletes. Athletes who received such sponsorship were highly honored and became very loyal to their sponsoring brand. When the World Cup play began, Rudolf watched from the sidelines as both teams fought to score the first point. It was at this moment that Rudolf spotted Herbert Burdenski capture control of the ball. He ran past his attackers, who were ready to steal the ball back. Surprisingly, he made it safely through their defenses, and with a swift kick of his legs, he launched the soccer ball through the air and into the opposing team’s goal. In this triumph, many photographers and newspaper reporters jumped at the opportunity to capture the first German goal made after World War Two. Rudolf was smiling because he knew his investment had paid off. The German team had struck a goal, and it was made using a Puma brand sports shoe!11 Riding this success, Rudolf decided to sponsor more athletes during the 1952 Olympics, one of whom was Josie Barthel of Luxemburg. And Josie easily took a gold medal home with her, with many media outlets attributing the source of her success to the Puma brand shoes she wore. Having this wave of really good publicity, the Puma company became an international brand with many athletic clients wanting to purchase their sport shoes, from the United States all the way to Japan.12 The success made Rudolf feel accomplished and his family was very proud of him… Well, everyone except for his brother.

After Rudolf’s departure and early successes abroad, Adolf Dassler had to work hard to overhaul his broken business into becoming a working industrial sport shoes machine. It was during this time when Kathe Dassler (Adolf’s wife) stepped into a leadership position and provided vital helped to Adolf. She essentially ran the factory while he was away forging business alliances, meeting with clients, and experimenting on new designs. He would spend hours staring at the TV, looking at the way athletes move their feet during matches. He would invite athletes to come and tell him of their grievances about the equipment they used. He would painstakingly write down every common movement and ways to improve the stability of his shoe. Since he was a proud German, he shared his observations with the head coach of the National German football team in 1952, Sepp Herberger, who admired the technical talent of Adolf. Herberger gave the honor of naming Adolf as “Germany Shoemaker,” an action that led to much distaste by his older brother, as he had held the title a couple years before when he helped Germany win it first goal. Rudolf was only asked to help manufacture the shoes, and to find the appropriate material for his brother design. Disregarding his brother’s protest, they worked alongside a committee of other prominent German athletic apparel companies to create the uniform that West Germany was going to wear in the 1952 World Cup. During this time, they created the studded football shoe. Adolf created the design and Rudolph handled the production. This was one of the last moments when one could still tell they were even brothers. When Rudolf finished with his work and returned to run his business empire, Adolf traveled to Switzerland to watch the team he helped to equip, even though the German team was predicted to be the underdog. Adolf’s habit of studying his work gave him the opportunity during the final match of the World Cup to make his brand become globally recognized.13

“Adi, Studs on!” yelled Sepp Herberger suddenly at half time. The score was 2-0 in favor of the Hungarians. This was the command Adolf was waiting to hear. He quickly got to work. Running down the stands heading towards the team, he began swapping their previous soccer cleats with the studs from his new design: the shoes that the Dassler brothers designed for the German team had the ability to change the lengths and composition of the studs to compensate for the weather. It just so happened that the field got muddier, due to a rainfall during the game. Shorter studs that were generally used at the time usually got stuck to the mud and made it extremely difficult to run. It didn’t help that the Hungarian team also had notoriously heavy shoes. Due to the advantage the German team had, they gained better traction and speed, and were able to score three goals without losing control of the ball. The final score call of the game went to the West German team, and the German victory here was largely attributed to the Adolf Dassler, the owner of Adidas. He essentially went viral in the athletic world. This event became known as the “Miracle of Bern,” an event that made Adolf and his interchangeable studded shoe a world wide success.14

Evolution of studded Soccer Shoes | The Evolution of Adolf’s Dassler Studded Soccer Shoes | December 8th, 2014 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

Following the success brought to him by the “Miracle of Bern,” Adolf wanted to expand Adidas, and compete with his brother in the international market. His brand had just bought a brand new logo from another athletic company, and they started to produce merchandise, such as bags and t-shirts. He then brought his five children, Horst, Inge, Karin, Briggette, and Sigrid, to work for the company. Horst established a factory in France in 1959, after the expansion and renovations of the original factory in 1955 weren’t enough to keep up with demand. With the entire leadership team being run by the Adolf family, he was able to move his company in a unified manner. The work done by Horst and his business talent, and the technical improvements that Adolf created, made Adidas the largest shoe producer in the world by 1960.15

After Puma became an international brand and before Adidas stole the title as the world’s biggest sports shoe producer, Rudolf held the reigns on the largest international shoe factory. He focused on keeping innovation frequent in order to compete with his brother, and they were often involved patent wars. For example, when Adolf became famous for the “Miracle of Bern,” Rudolf held the patents for the innovative studded shoe outside of Germany, improving on the model and then later making a profit selling them internationally. Using those shoes, he sponsored many athletes who broke many track and field records, making him a serious contender to Adidas. In 1958 Rudolf had created and patented the form strip, a new leather band around the base of the shoe that was added for stability. After becoming the company’s trademark, it was featured in every shoe made by Puma after its invention. Later that same year, Rudolf forged a relationship that would allow him to finally take back the position of being the number one shoe producer in the world. He had noticed that half of his sales were occurring in South America. So after following his hunch, he traveled to Brazil and offer Brazilian athletes sponsorships. The Brazilian football team experienced noticeable improvements, which they attributed to the new form-strip design Puma gave them. Brazil successfully won the 1958 World Cup Championship, using only Puma-style German football shoes. This made them instantly famous among South American soccer fans, as this was also the second time the World Cup was televised. Puma was now positioned as the number one shoe producer in the South American continent.16


 

Olympic Challenge

At the turn of the decade, both companies had been transformed from a little shoe factory in Germany producing a couple hundreds pairs of shoes per day, into a corporate empire holding multiple factories turning out twenty-two thousand pairs of shoes daily. Both companies held strongholds around the world, while Puma reigned supreme in South America (and the Puma side of Herzogenaurach). Globally, Adidas held the biggest market share, with the majority of sales coming from the U.S.A and Germany. This was the decade when the business competition between the two companies was going to get more global and intense. Adidas was able to gain the larger global market because it created light, specialized shoes, like the customizable shoes that Uwe Seeler wore that allowed him to play even with an injured Achilles tendon. Puma was able to turn up the heat even more by once again sponsoring all major South American athletes. One athlete in particular was the up and coming young athlete named “Pele.” Pele and the Brazilian team was able to win the World Cup for the first time while wearing the Puma “kicks.” The victory gained the Puma Company almost a monopoly on the South American continent, a virtual cult following, and further global success. Puma was able to compound its success by patenting the volcanification process that allowed his shoes not only to perform on par with Adidas sports shoes, but actually outlast them by making the sole ten-times harder. He gained further fame for his company by adding three more gold medals attributed to his shoes during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games. After this Olympics, finally Puma was able to match Adidas in almost every way. They were tied for the biggest producer of shoes. But this didn’t sit well with either of the brothers Dassler: a tie breaker was in order! Fortunately history provided a challenge for these two gentlemen. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, a problem presented itself for the shoemakers, requiring innovation in their shoe designs. The tracks that Mexico was using was made out of a different material than the vast majority of the world. Before the Olympics commenced, Mexico had installed a rubber-like material on their tracks, a material called tartan, whereas most other tracks had been made from cork. During practice, a problem was spotted. The leading shoe designs had been made for cork track. They had been made with spikes that allowed for a noticeable improvement in traction, but when the same shoes were used on the new material, the shoes would get stuck on the track. Thus, the Mexico race track required a new shoe that would work well on the new tracks. Puma quickly designed a shoe that didn’t get stuck on the new material, which they called the “Sacramento brush Spike.” The shoe contained 68 small 4mm-long spikes that gave them a traction advantage over the shoe Adolf Dassler designed. Unfortunately for Rudolf, the Olympic association deemed his design too dangerous and banned its use during the Olympic games. This made the shoes that Adolf designed the only viable ones, and Adidas shoes were the primary ones used during these Olympics. Adolf’s design was a blunt triangular stud with an added benefit of reducing the strain on the Achilles tendon while running because of its bluntness. It was so successful that four years later, over eighty percent of the medals won in the next Olympics were won by athletes wearing Adidas shoes. The athletes had chosen a clear victor; Adidas would be known as the premier athletic apparel company for the top athletes like Adidas’ most famous client Muhammad Ali.17

All seemed lost for Rudolf as he saw his brother gain even more success, and he was nearing the end of his career. During this time, both companies were being led more and more by their children. The next battle on the horizon for the two companies was the 1970 World Cup championship. Puma decided to sponsor the entire Brazilian team, with the exception of Pele, whom both companies agreed was off limits to sponsor, because of his celebrity status. (Adidas was not aware of the personal relationship Pele had made with Puma and of his intention to personally asked Puma for a sponsorship.) The agreement was made by the children of Rudolf and Adolf, agreeing that neither company would offer Pele a sponsorship. Their agreement was well known throughout the football world at the time and had been covered by the media extensively. But the agreement never explicitly stated that Pele himself could not ask for sponsorship. So, it was later that year, during the opening shots of the Quarter Final match of the World Cup. The entire world was ready to watch the Brazilians play, and Pele play. The world could see the Brazilian players wearing Puma, and Peruvian players boasted Adidas. But what shoe was Pele wearing? Pele was chosen for the starting kick, and right before he kicked the ball, without anyone telling him to do so, Pele asked for time before the start of the much anticipated game, went down on his knees to re-tighten and adjust…his Puma shoes. The famous white “form strip” could still have been seen despite the bad camera quality.18 He stopped the whole game and showed the world his official support for the Puma brand. Puma celebrated, Adidas was livid, even more so after Brazil won its third World Cup later in the championship with the help of Puma shoes. Pele was officially known as “Football player of the country,” and Puma was known as the Premier Football Shoe Brand. Adidas still was still able to defeat Puma in the global market and finally became the number one producer of shoes again after sponsoring Muhammad Ali. But Adolf could never lose that taste of defeat as he saw the title of “The world Premier Soccer Apparel Supplier” go to his brother.19


Rudolf Dassler Grave | The final resting place of this respected Dassler family member revealing his real birthday | March 25, 2018 | Armin Dassler | Courtesy of Wikipedia  Commons

Present

Three years following the sponsorship of Muhammad Ali, founder Rudolf Dassler died suddenly, passing his company over to his son. A few years later, Adolf followed his brother, and Adidas was handed to his children. The children of both brothers soothed the tensions between the two companies, and have since worked together to make Herzogenaurach a less divided place. Eventually both companies became public and the Dassler family relinquished control to the public. The rivalry between Puma and Adidas has persisted in the hearts of fans for many years after. In fact, I remember personally aliening myself with Puma in my childhood. Their rivalry continued to be somewhat bitter in Herzogenaurach, until one day, September 17, 2009. On that day, in the same town that had been split in two, both companies played a friendly match of soccer with each other to officially bury the hatchet. Today the town celebrates their history together and is no longer known as “the town of bent necks.”20

 

  1. Sigrid Dassler, “LIFE AND WORKADI’S QUOTES,” https//www.adidasler.org/en/life-and-work/quotes.
  2. “Football: Adidas and Puma, brotherly rivals to the core,” Agence France Presse–English, June 6, 2016, Advance-lexis Newspaper Source.
  3. The PUMA company joins,” FC Herzogenaurach 1916 e. V. – Blue & Black for a lifetime!, Our Story–English translation, https://www.fch-fussball.de/vereinsgeschichte.
  4. Ellen Emmerentze Jervell, Where Puma and Adidas Were Like Hatfields and McCoys, The Wall Street Journal (online), December 30, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/where-adidas-and-pumas-were-like-hatfields-and-mccoys-1419894858.
  5. K. Lee and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, World of Sports Science Vol.1. (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2007), 185; Sigrid Dassler, “1900-1919: Childhood and Youth in Herzogenaurach”-“1928-1936: Olympic Success and Marriage to Kathe,” established in 2011, Life And Work: Chronicles and Biography of Adi & Kathe Dassler, adidassler.org/en.
  6. John Merriman and Jay Winter, eds., “Reconstruction,” Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, (Vol. 4, Detroit, MI; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006), 917-920.
  7. Sigrid Dassler, “1937-1945: Nazi Germany and the War Years”-“1945-1947: The Postwar Years,” established on 2011, Life and Work: Chronicles and Biography of Adi & Kathe Dassler, adidassler.org/en.
  8. Barbara Smit, Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud that Forever Changed the Business of Sport (New York: CCCO/HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 4.
  9. Evelyn Hauser, International Directory of Company Histories, (Vol.120, Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 2011), 336.
  10. Sigrid Dassler, Chapters “1948-1949 Separation of the Brothers and Birth of the Three Stripes,” established on 2011, Life and Work: Chronicles and Biography of Adi & Kathe Dassler, adidassler.org/en; Dave Mote, Mariko Fujinaka, and M.L. Cohen, International Directory of company histories, edited by Jay P. Pederson, (Vol.75, Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 2006), 13-14; “The “Three Stripes” of Adidas were bought for 1,600 Euros and Two Bottles of Whiskey“, CE Noticias Financieras, January 18, 2019 Friday, Retrieved from Advance-Lexis Newspaper source.
  11. Evelyn Hauser, International Directory of Company Histories (Vol. 120, Detroit, MI:St. James Press, 2011), 337.
  12. “Der größte Tag des Josy Barthel,” Luxemburger Wort.lu, Montag, November 13, 2017, Retrieved from Advance-Lexis Newspaper source.
  13. Sigrid Dassler, “1950-1953: Boundless Hospitality and Breakthrough with Stud Shoes,” established on 2011, Life and Work: Chronicles and Biography of Adi & Kathe Dassler, adidassler.org/en.
  14. “The Miracle of Bern: West Germany Run to 1954 World Cup Win,” Deutsche Welle Sports, Newstex LLC, March 21, 2020, retrieved from Advance-Lexis Newspaper Source.
  15. Sigrid Dassler, “1954-1959; Removable Cleats and the Football World Championship 1954,” established on 2011, Life and Work: Chronicles and Biography of Adi & Kathe Dassler, adidassler.org/en.
  16. Puma SE, section “1950-1959”, October 10, 2020, OUR story, https://about.puma.com/en/this-is-puma/history.
  17. Sigrid Dassler, “1960-1977: Worldwide Success,” established on 2011, Life and Work: Chronicles and Biography of Adi & Kathe Dassler, adidassler.org/en.
  18. “World Cup 1970 Brasil Peru. Pele Puma.,” video file, 0:10-0:42, Youtube, posted by “sz9”, June 8th, 2014, youtube.com/watch?v=ZpYIGhsAXLE.
  19. Puma SE, “PUMAS’s History,” (published by the Puma SE), Chapter “1960-1969”, Retrieved from https://about.puma.com/en/this-is-puma/history, on October 10, 2020.; Matthew Smith, “Newsmaker: Pele still the king after all these years”, Gulf News: United Arab Emirates, September 28, 2008, retrieved from Advance-Lexis Newspaper source.
  20. Thomson Reuters, “Adidas and Puma Together for peace: Peace One Day 2000,” Comtex News Network: November 17, 2009, retrieved from Advance-Lexis newspaper source.

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4 Responses

  1. Prior to reading this article, I had little knowledge about the feud between the Dassler brothers. The brands “Puma” and “Adidas” have a significant social impact nowadays, and it is very intriguing to get to know their background and to know that back then, they had some troubles, as when they lost their ability to do business in Germany due to their prior involvement in the war as “former Nazis”. Also, it is very interesting to see how Adolf Dassler had so much interest in creating the perfect shoe; as the article describes, he spent hours staring at athletes’ shoes to see their movement. Also, it is very intriguing to read that even though both of Dassler’s brothers’ children decided to get into an agreement and do not sponsor Pele, it still boosts the image of Puma, as the famous soccer player was wearing them.

  2. Prior to reading this article, I had little knowledge about the feud between the Dassler brothers. The brands “Puma” and “Adidas” have a significant social impact nowadays, and it is very intriguing to get to know their background and to know that back then, they had some troubles, as when they lost their ability to do business in Germany due to their prior involvement in the war as “former Nazis”. Also, it is very interesting to see how Adolf Dassler had so much interest in creating the perfect shoe; as the article describes, he spent hours staring at athletes’ shoes to see their movement. Also, it is very intriguing to read that even though both of Dassler’s brothers’ children decided to get into an agreement and do not sponsor Pele, it still boosts the image of Puma, as the famous soccer player was wearing them.

  3. I had previously not known about any of this history between these two shoe brands and hearing it now is just astonishing. I would not even have been able to imagine that there were this much history and drama between the two brands that came about from a brother rivalry. I am just glad that the children of both brothers were able to calm the tensions between the brands.

  4. Pedro,
    I really love the story you decided to tell. I enjoyed reading specially because I had no idea that the creators of “Puma” and “Adidas” were brothers. It is really impressive how Rudolf Dassler decided to leave his brother Adolf Dassler and start his own shoe company. What I liked the most about this article was how the story was narrated and when Pele decided to show his support for Puma in one of the greatest moments of his life and when there was a pact from both brands of not sponsoring him.

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