The Anthology of Adidas

I have started what may be an impossible task: writing a book about my development as a distance runner in the context of how the sport has evolved over the past 60+ years. The impossible part may be writing it so it interests others.  Several friends are reading early drafts of the first chapters and providing great feedback. Time will tell if/how this project proceeds.

However, I do think many will find interesting the story behind the founding and growth of the first running shoe companies, which parallels the expansion of recreational running.  It could be argued more available shoes spurred expansion of the sport.  Alternatively, that new shoes met the exploding demand.  Probably neither argument stands on its own: runners needed shoes and shoes needed runners, though a subset promoting barefoot running argues shoes are an anathema and should be avoided.    

Currently, there are 12 or so well-known brands of running shoes.  But 50 years ago, Adidas, Puma, Tiger (now ACSICS), and Nike ruled the roost.  Adidas has been my go-to for racing flats and lightweight trainers for the past 15 years so I took particular interest in that company’s development and highlight it here.  Adidas is a long-time sponsor of the Boston Marathon and its three bars logo is ubiquitous on the shoes and clothing at most races.

Adolf “Adi” Dassler (hence the name Adidas) was born in 1900 in a small German town, Herzogenaurach, Bavaria.  The town’s textile industry had been displaced to elsewhere in the world and the tradesmen transferred their skills to shoemaking.  Dassler grew up repairing shoes and after his return in 1919 from conscription into WWI, he started his own shoe repair business.  On the side, he began constructing sports shoes.  Dassler had been a multi-sport athlete in his teens and knew the importance of well-constructed sports shoes, which at that time were only custom made.  Due to post-war material shortages, Dassler often used materials reclaimed from army debris and equipment.  In 1924, Adi was joined by his brother Rudolf to form the Brothers Dassler Shoe Factory. 

At first, the scale of their operation was small, but they produced high performance footwear.  For example, Lina Radke won an Olympic gold medal in 800 meters for Germany wearing Dassler Brothers spikes. Hitler valued excellence in sport as an ostensible means of exhibiting German superiority, and when the Nazis gained a foothold in the 30s resources found their way to the factory.  Interestingly, Adi presented Jesse Owens with several sets of spikes in which he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

Dassler shoes became well-known throughout the sporting world, and Adi was exempted from military service in WWII to run his factory (Rudolf, however, served), which supplied footwear to the German military.  WWII was a complicated time for Germans, and Adi had to walk a fine-line between supporting the Third Reich and running his business.  As it was, the factory was forced to manufacture bazooka-like guns the last 18 months of the war.  Allied troops spared the factory from destruction when Adi’s wife convinced them the factory would revert back to sports shoes production.  Occupation forces purchased much of the post-war production.

As was true after WWI, post-WWII left Germany with a deficiency of raw materials.  However, Adi was able to convince Allied occupation leaders to allow his factory to use rubber from tanks and rafts and canvas from tents to make shoes.  Adi was questioned by the Denazification Panel about his involvement in the war and it wasn’t until 1947 that Dassler was given unbridled clearance to return to his shoe business.  There was a deep rift between Rudolf and Adi due to their differing activities during the war, and Brothers Dassler Shoe Factory was split in 1948, with Adidas formed by Adi and Puma by Rudolf in 1949.  To this day, HQ of the two firms remain on opposite sides of the river in Herzogenaurach, with rivalry among residents about which brand of shoes they wear.  Today, Adidas and Puma are the 2nd and 3rd largest manufacturer of sports shoes worldwide.

Adi Dassler always focused on innovative design and stayed involved in design up until his death in 1978.  I recall having a pair of Adidas Gazelle’s in high school for road running.  In those days, we were lucky to have one pair of good running shoes and I milked them well past their prime.  Models have proliferated over the years aiming to meet various needs, and Adidas has developed over 300 models of sports shoes since 1948.  Following the death of Adi’s son Horst, who had taken over the business in 1987, Adidas lost its way and innovation and quality suffered.  Adidas rebounded after 2000 and is now part of a conglomerate. When Haile Gebrselasse set the world marathon record in Berlin (2:03:59) in 2008 in a pair of Adidas Adios,’ it helped cement Adidas’ return to relevancy in the performance market. Today, Adidas shoes feature Boost cushioning and recently a $240 carbon fiber model was added.

Each major running shoe company has a unique story, most starting with an aim of servicing competitive athletes and then appealing to the broader market.  I plan to include the story of the main ones in my book.  Though small and barely a blip in the footwear market, Newton Running has probably remained the most dedicated to their initial purpose, staying focused on performance shoes and avoiding the apparel abyss.           

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