Adidas vs Puma: A history of trainer wars

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Whether you’re a Sunday league footballer, an amateur jogger, or someone who hasn’t strapped on a pair of trainers since you were at school, at some point you have either purchased an insanely expensive pair of trainers, or nagged a parent to do it for you. Given the short amount of time that anyone spends staring at your feet it seems insane that footwear is considered to be such a status symbol, but it is. Everyone knew the kid at school who got picked on because they were wearing pair of Nicks Air, or a similar knock off. Equally, there was nothing like the pride of turning up for PE in a brand new pair of Nike or Adidas trainers. Finding the right pair of trainers was a popularity war at school. For two brothers in Germany in the 1930s, the war was almost literal.

If you’ve ever stood in a shop, trying to decide between a new pair of Adidas or Puma trainers, you might not be aware that you’re actually picking sides in a conflict that goes back almost a century, and one which tore a small German town in two. And yet you are. Both companies, in their infancy, were owned by one of two brothers. Adidas trainers are the creation of Adolf “Adi” Dassler, hence the name “Adi Das”. Puma were born as an act of retaliation by his brother Rudolf, who preferred to be known as “Rudi”. The original factories which produced both sets of trainers were set up on opposite sides of the river Aurach, which runs right through the twins’ hometown of Herzogenaurach.

You might ask why two brothers with a talent for trainer design didn’t just go into business together. The answer is that they did, and initially enjoyed a great deal of success. Their joint venture, a shoe brand that had the less than catchy title of “Gebüder Dassler Schuhfabrik” was a very popular choice for athletes of the 1930s. Many competitors at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 wore their trainers, not least of whom was the legendary Jesse Owens. The factory provided work for many people within the town, and having such a prominent brand on their doorstep was a great source of local pride.

Then it all went horribly, horribly wrong.

Nobody seems to be able to say for sure precisely what caused the brothers to fall out. Nothing exists in the form of any statement other than a passing reference to “internal family difficulties”, but there’s no shortage of speculation or rumour as to what caused them to go their separate ways. No matter which story you choose to believe – if any of them – Rudi seems to be portrayed as the unreasonable one or the man in the wrong, whereas Adi is seen as the man in the right, the golden boy and the enchanted prince romping around in a fairground that is both fluffy and gold.

One version of events is that Rudi, who was apparently the better looking of the two, had an affair with Adi’s wife, for which he was never forgiven. Another says that whilst both Adi and Rudi signed up to the Nazi party, Rudi was the more enthusiastic fan of Hitler’s world view, whilst Adi only really did it because of peer pressure. A more colourful suggestion is that one night during the Second World War, Adi and his wife climbed into an air raid shelter to be greeted by Rudi, who was already in there, uttering the phrase “The schweinhunde are back”. The closest approximate translation of “schweinhunde”, by the way, is “pig dogs”. Rudi swore that he was referring to the RAF, but Adi took it personally.

The end result was the separation of the companies, and the establishment of the separate brands. It was Rudi who left the original company and started Puma in 1948. Adi, determined not to be outdone, altered the name of the original company to Adidas the following year.

The idea that such a feud could split a town might seem laughable, but Herzogenaurach is not a large town. Its population was then, as it is now, somewhere in the region of 24,000. Everybody either knew one of the members of the Dassler family directly, or at least knew somebody who did. Pubs became strongholds for either supporters of one side of the argument or the other. Workers who left Adidas for Puma were treated as outcasts by all but their fellow Puma workers, and the townspeople loyal to Rudi. The idea of an Adidas factory worker marrying a Puma factory was, for years, unthinkable. The feud had all the fervor and vitriol of a religious conflict, and even that seemed to play into it. Puma was seen as a conservative and Catholic brand; Adidas by contrast was somehow seen as Protestant and democratic.

The official version of events is that the brothers never spoke to each other again. Even as Rudi lay on his deathbed in 1974, and a priest sent for Adi, the call went unanswered, and Rudi died without the family ever reconciling. The elders of their hometown, though, suggest that an unofficial meeting may have taken place. Legend has it that shortly before Rudi passed away, he knew his time was short and reached out to his brother at the very end. They’re said to have met in Nuremberg for a half a day, but the secret was known only to the two of them and their respective drivers. Even their wives weren’t informed, and the town was never to know because the news would be bad for business. Much like the Gallagher brothers in modern times, a family feud makes for excellent headlines and free publicity. So long as the feud went on, their names stayed in the papers, and the profile of both companies stayed high. As a wise man once said, controversy creates cash.

These days, with no living descendants of Rudolf or Adolf involved in the running of either company, relations are beginning to thaw. Puma seems to have accepted that Adidas is by far the larger brand, and focuses instead on quality sponsorships and offerings as opposed to size and volume. But the global headquarters of both companies remain exactly where they built, on opposite sides of the river. Despite the possibilities created by globalization, neither firm is willing to admit defeat and leave town.

So next time you’re stood in the aisles, weighing up that trainer choice, think very carefully. There’s a whole town in Germany begging for you to pick them.

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