From One German Town, The Richest Local Rivalry In Global Sports: Adidas v. Puma

Benjamin Romberg

HERZOGENAURACH - The thing with the brush shoes gets Helmut Fischer going to this day. The small man with the friendly smile and pirate goatee sits in the visitors’ room of Puma Deutschland in the small, central German city of Herzogenaurach.

Around here, Fischer is known as “Mister Puma.” The 63-year-old has been working for the company for more than 30 years and has plenty of stories to tell, even from the decades befor his arrival.

This one comes from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, where the old cinder tracks had been replaced with tartan that athletes wearing spiked track shoes were getting stuck in. Puma had an idea: brush shoes, that replaced the big spikes on the soles with a lot of small nails. Before the Games, American athletes wearing brush spikes had been running from world record to world record: the Games could be a big success for Puma. But two weeks before they started the track and field commission ruled that brush spikes would destroy the new tracks.

“That’s the only reason they gave,” snorts Fischer. Inside of Puma, the story goes that what had actually happened was that chief competitor Adidas had bribed officials to make the decision, though there's never been any proof.

Relations between the two global sports equipment manufacturers, which both hail from Herzogenaurach, are no longer as toxic today; what is probably a unique tale of enmity between two companies in German economic history has over time become professional competition.

Still, even today the relationship is far from entirely cordial. Competition can be fundamentally invigorating, particularly in business. In best-case scenarios, competitors spur each other on to higher levels of performance, greater innovation – and more success. But competition can also cause damage, as when two companies are so focused on beating the other that they lose sight of other, more important things.

Adidas and Puma have experienced both kinds of competition.

The brush shoes incident is one of many examples marking the early relationship between the two companies – the way they stalked one another, eyes peeled on each others’ every move and every product.

“When something didn’t turn out, it had to be their fault,” recalls Frank Dassler, grandson of Puma founder Rudolf Dassler. The wiry 57-year-old stands two heads higher than Helmut Fischer. He knows Mister Puma from when both of them worked for the brand with the big cat logo. That was in the 1980s. Today Frank Dassler is a lawyer. Under his sports jacket he’s wearing a white polo shirt with the Adidas three-stripe logo on it – Adidas, the company created by Rudolf’s older brother Adolf. Since 2004 he has been head legal advisor at Adidas. He says it’s his “dream job.”

Post-War break

That somebody like him – a grandson of the Puma founder – would say something like that would have been unheard of back in the day. Rudolf and Adolf -- who went by the nickname Adi -- ran the Gebrüder Dassler (Dassler Brothers) shoe factory jointly for nearly 25 years. In 1920 Adi, a shy tinkering type, had started making sports shoes in his parents’ laundry room. Rudolf, the business man, came on board a few years later.

Adidas outlet in Herzogenaurach (Felix Reimann)

Business was good and the company grew. But there was a falling-out after World War II; Rudolf and his family moved out of the villa they all shared, and the company was divided up. Adi remained in the factory south of the Aurach, and his combined nickname and first three letters of the family name would become a world-famous brand.

Rudolf took over the factory north of the river, and founded Puma, also a multi-billion-euro company today (2012 turnover: 3.3 billion euros, profits of 70.2 million euros) albeit substantially smaller than Adidas (2012 turnover: 14.9 billion euros, profits 524 million euros).

To this day, the reason for the falling out between the two brothers is unknown. Some say they bad-mouthed each other to the Allies after the war ended. But relations between them had already soured before that. Frank Dassler remembers a story his great-aunt told him, of an American air attack when both families still lived in the same house. “My family, including my grandfather, was already down in the air raid shelter,” Dassler relates. Adi and his family came down just as the raid began. “Here come the pigs again,” said Rudolf – meaning the Americans. But Adi took it to mean him and his family.

Helmut Fischer has a different version: Rudolf had an affair with Adi’s wife Käthe. He learned this from former employees, he says. Fischer also remembers conflict between Rudolf’s son Armin and Horst, Adi’s son. “You could be my brother,” Armin is said to have told his cousin after a few drinks, at which point the cousin “exploded.”

Whatever the truth is, after the falling out it wasn’t only Rudolf and Adi’s families that were split: all of Herzogenaurach was. “There was the Adidas butcher and the Puma butcher,” Dassler remembers. And people kept their eyes fixed downward, Fischer says: checking out other peoples’ shoes to see what side they were on.

Adidas was always a step ahead. The decisive moment in the development of the two companies came with the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final – the thing with the screw-in studs, as Fischer remembers it. Before the soccer tournament, West German national trainer Sepp Herberger went to Rudolf Dassler to ask for money in return for his team wearing Puma shoes. At the time, such deals were not common, and Rudolf refused.

“He was the kind of guy who was so tight-fisted he got hot under the collar over five cents when you played cards with him,” Fischer recalls. After Puma refused him, Herberger went to Adidas – and was successful.

After the final in which underdog West Germany beat Hungary, it wasn’t only the German team that got the kudos – but also Adi Dassler’s shoes. Many believed the screw-in studs gave the German team an advantage on the rain-soaked field. It was a major step for the Adidas brand that to this day partners with the German national soccer team.

Puma headquarters (Sunflower)

Rudolf and Adi’s heirs continued the rivalry. “I had very little contact with the other family,” Dassler says. Once he saw Adi “from afar” at a trade fair. He met Adi’s son Horst at another event. “He used the formal Sie with me,” Dassler recalls: “I found that a little strange.”

Stepping back

Rudolf and Adi’s sons, Armin and Horst, stepped back from the companies in the 1980s, as did other members of the family. A symbolic reconciliation took place in 2009, when Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz and his Adidas counterpart Herbert Hainer organized a soccer match with teams made up of both Puma and Adidas employees.

Today, Frank Dassler is the only family member working in either of the firms. He lived in the United States, then opened his own law practice before signing on. As far as the rivalries are concerned he’s chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. He’s laid-back about his “defection” and says the folks at Adidas were happy to have him.

“They said, Great, finally another Dassler in the company.” Although some at Puma considered that he’d betrayed his grandfather, there are no longer any issues he says: “A lot of water has flowed under the bridge.”

Helmut Fischer sees it differently. Born in Herzogenaurach, as a kid he fished with Puma founder Rudolf Dassler. Today, he proudly shows off a large Puma tattoo on his arm. The subject of Frank Dassler’s job at Adidas wipes the smile right off his face. He considers the move to be a “capital sin,” something that Dassler is going to have to sort out with his own conscience.

Still, even in enmity, no one doubts that the firms' rivalry spurred each other on. “The competition was beneficial,” Fischer says. Dassler sees it that way too, pointing out that particularly in the early years the rivalries helped to make each firm focus on developing ever-better products.

Only once did the hometown battle do real harm, in the 1970s, with both companies so focused on each other, that nobody saw a newcomer rising across the Atlantic: Nike. With that to think about, animosities between the two clans waned. Today, Nike is Adidas’s largest competitor (2012 turnover 24.1 billion euros).

Most Adidas and Puma products are now made in Asia and North America, not Herzogenaurach, and Adidas has moved its HQ into Puma territory north of the river. Both firms are interested in their company histories, and Fischer wants to open a museum with objects he’s carefully collected over the years, like the shoes (one from each pair) Usain Bolt sent him after every world record. Fischer had shown the six-time Olympic winner the room where he stores all the memorabilia.

Just how much of the old rivalries remain? Fischer points to a Cameroon soccer team jersey Puma designed for the 2004 Africa Cup. It’s a unique one-piece suit, top and shorts together, and FIFA initially gave it the green light before suddenly withdrawing approval. Adidas had filed an official complaint.

“Friends or enemies, they’re our competitor," Fischer concludes. "And they always will be.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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