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Reviewed by Colin Fleming
Sunday, June 8, 2008

SNEAKER WARS

The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sports

By Barbara Smit

Ecco. 384 pp. $26.95

Reading at times like an absurdist farce, Barbara Smit's tale of athletic apparel, villainy and comeuppance is bound to give you pause next time you're standing in front of the seemingly endless wall of sneakers at the local shoe store. Sneaker Wars ventures deep into the fraternal divide that resulted in the ubiquitous sports brands of Adidas and Puma and, Smit argues, invented an industry in the process.

Following the onslaught of World War I, Adolf (Adi) Dassler combed his Bavarian hometown of Herzogenaurach in search of discarded leather and fabrics. From these raw materials, he built his first athletic boots and eventually partnered with his brash, elder brother Rudolf (Rudi) to make and sell sneakers. The rise of the Nazi party -- and its emphasis on athletics as proof of German superiority -- bolstered their endeavor; Adi and Rudi raced to keep up with the demand. In one of Sneaker War s' more uplifting passages, Smit describes how Adi risked the Führer's wrath to supply Jesse Owens with spikes at the 1936 Olympic Games.

Both brothers entered military service in World War II, but Adi was quickly released to run the increasingly popular sneaker business. Rudi, meanwhile, deserted. Rounded up by the Gestapo, the combative shoemaker insisted that his brother and sister-in-law -- a "venomous hag" -- played a key role in his imprisonment. Following the Allied victory, the brothers formally parted ways. Adi, the skilled, quiet technician, set up Adidas on one side of the river that ran through Herzogenaurach, while his volatile, ostentatious brother established Puma on the far bank.

Despite the brothers' personal differences, Adidas and Puma began with similar standards about what constituted a good athletic shoe -- durability, ankle protection and traction on dry and slick surfaces. Rudi was more of a salesman; Adi tried to compete by ingratiating himself with the coach of the German national soccer team. Adidas's adjustable cleats -- with studs that could be added or removed, depending upon the condition of the field -- led to West Germany's triumph in the 1954 World Cup. Rudi, of course, was quick to claim that the idea had originally been his.

The brothers and their rivalry hover over the majority of Sneaker Wars, but their animosity was junior varsity compared to the machinations of their offspring. Rudi's son, Armin, headed up Puma as a sort of glorified nebbish, a cautious businessman not averse to the occasional scam if it would impress his doubting father. Then there's his cousin, Adi's son Horst, the main character of Sneaker Wars, a weird little tyrant of a man -- with charm in reserve -- who seems to have been let loose from a novel of rakes and highwaymen.

"Horst effectively resolved to compete against his parents," Smit writes, and so he does, lifting Adidas from their control, without mom and dad having a clue about what had happened. But Horst is a lovable villain, a profit-monger who reneged on deals without any compunction and mounted vigils in hotel lobbies, hoping to run into would-be clients. His business trips to Russia to sell the marketing rights to the 1980 summer Olympics -- thus overhauling the very business of the Olympics -- devolved into caviar and vodka binges, complete with meetings held in the middle of hotel pools to avoid wiretaps.

Horst emerges from Sneaker Wars as one of the prime movers of our age of million-dollar Super Bowl ads and staggering licensing deals. He fashioned the athlete as an autonomous entity, a brand for hire. His behind-the-scenes power plays transformed the very concept of sports business from one of selling tickets to a high-stakes global contest in which corporations battled for the marketing rights of the most prestigious athletic events -- and the most prestigious athletes.

The athletes don't come off well in Smit's account. Once they realized that they were brands themselves, everyone from David Beckham to Joe Namath to Pelé demanded additional perks -- cars, money, a say in shoe design. In one memorable instance, an Adidas employee took to the streets of Manhattan in search of tassels and a sewing machine so that customized boots could be made at Muhammad Ali's insistence, just in time for a weigh-in. Ali and his massive crossover appeal soon led Horst into the trendy fashion market, with the idea that the right sneaker might blur the line between what one wore in the gym and what one wore at the discotheque. Armin did his cousin one better with Walt Frazier -- the smooth Knicks guard -- and his "Clyde" shoe, a glossy confection which became a nightlife staple for the young adult market.

By the late 1970s, the Oregon shoemaker Nike recognized that a jogging shoe could appeal to far more weekend warriors than a hardcore athletic shoe ever would. Horst, "absorbed by his sports marketing and broadcasting rights business . . . didn't display much concern about the Nike issue," writes Smit. Adidas, like Puma some time before, was relegated to secondary status.

Smit gets behind the business proposals, marketing plans and constant dollar signs to focus on the human aspects of how these warring brands succeeded, and why they faded. It is that human component that makes Sneaker Wars read like a modern cautionary tale for those apt to turn big business into the most dangerous of sports. ·

Colin Fleming's work has appeared in the New Yorker and Spin.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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