In the tiny Bavarian mill town of Herzogenaurach, down the road and a turn of a century or two from N�rnberg, live two brothers who make track shoes and pay amateur athletes as much as $10,000 to wear them. The sons of a poor but vigorous laundress—she washed, they delivered—Adolf and Rudolf Dassler first made house slippers, then changed over to soccer boots and track shoes and in time became the leading Sportschuhfabrikanten in the world. As brothers, however, they grew to be strangers one to another.
When you have said that Adolf and Rudolf Dassler are alike in that they were both outstanding athletes, you have run out of similarities. Adolf is quick-witted but rather shy, more gratified by the entries he makes in the idea book he keeps on his nightstand than by the figures in the company ledger. He loves the shoes he fashions. He is a man with a great sense of the past, who wears knickerbockers and walks his dog for hours at a time. Rudolf, on the other hand, is a cigar-smoking, boisterous backslapper, brimming with Gem�tlichkeit and business sense. He brags a lot. He carries pictures of the big fish he has caught.
The exact causes of family feuds are often difficult to arrive at. Certainly, that of the Dassler brothers is no exception. Their mutual antagonism resulted in cash payoffs during the last Olympics totaling an estimated $100,000, in addition to approximately $350,000 worth of equipment given away in the Olympic year.
Among Adidas employees the scuttlebutt is that before World War II, when the brothers were still partners, Rudolf persuaded Adolf that they should both file military enlistment forms. However, only Adolf's went into the mail. A cleaning woman found Rudolf's unposted. Ironically, it turned out that it was Rudolf who eventually was called up for the duration. Adolf was summoned home to their factory to make barrels for antitank guns instead of shoes. After the war Rudolf was imprisoned by the Americans for 12 months. He had been a member of the Nazi party. But so had Adolf. Rudolf believed Adolf could have hastened his release; Adolf insisted that he did all he could, risking imprisonment himself.
The rift widened. According to one account, there was a flagrant attempt to alienate Adolf from his wife K�the. Lesser grievances became issues. Rudolf's oldest son Armin was accused of spitting on Aunt K�the. He was sitting on a balcony of the house the families shared, his legs dangling through the rails. "I was watching my spit," he recalls, "a little Galileo, watching it go down from the balcony, and my aunt passed below. It was a big affair. I had spit on my aunt." One Christmas, Armin was invited downstairs for presents; the next Christmas he was not.
"As people," says Adolf Dassler today, "we are not compatible. It is the same as in marriage. It is better to separate early than when it is too late." For the past 20 years the brothers have made their shoes independently, operating separate fiefs in the medieval town, Adolf and his family under the company name " Adidas," a contraction of his own, Rudolf and his family under the name "Puma," after the fast cat. A signpost at a junction on the road into Herzogenaurach indicates the opposite-ness of their paths: the blue Adidas sign points one way, the green Puma sign points the other. The Adidas sign is on top.
Since 1949, Adolf and Rudolf have not exchanged a single word, except on legal matters. They sue each other regularly.
Rudolf Dassler celebrated his 70th birthday last April. He is two years his brother's senior. There was a big party. All day long, according to his son Armin, the old man waited for a card or a call from Adolf. (It must be said in passing that Armin may be a bit of a sentimentalist.) Two days later Rudolf received a restraining order on an advertising claim Puma was making. The suit had been filed by Adidas on Rudolf's birthday. Adolf did not think this so unkind a cut or, for that matter, unusual. On his 50th birthday, he recalled, he, too, had received a restraining order. He said his whole family had been sued at one time or another and that soon he expected his grandchildren to begin having the pleasure.
The estrangement of the brothers' houses is absolute, the acrimony unremitting. As a result, their shoemaking is unsurpassed. Being best of enemies, they have forced one another to become millionaires—or, at least, Adolf is a millionaire because he makes better shoes and many more of them, being artful rather than slick. His brother's greater success does not sit well with Rudolf. Adolf, speaking of the days of Gebr�der Dassler, was quoted by a London journalist as saying, "If there had been a hole left in Rudolf every time I had to poke him and say, 'Heh, that was my invention,' he would look today like a piece of Gruy�re." Rudolf read it and sued. Too busy to go to court, Adolf claimed he was misquoted.
The suits are volleyed back and forth to keep each side from getting too reckless with its advertising (they comb each other's catalogs, looking for words like "best" and "fastest") or from being too obvious with its piracy. Otherwise, Adidas and Puma follow the normal guidelines of cutthroat business practice, assailing one another with technology and invention—Adidas made 132 changes in its Wunderschuh from one Olympiad to the next—slashing, gouging, kicking and heeling one another with merchandising.