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Retro Sports Diplomacy: Adidas And The Iron Curtain

Cuba's Fidel Castro used to rock the three stripes
Cuba's Fidel Castro used to rock the three stripes
Uwe Ritzer

MUNICH — The past snuck up on Adidas last spring when it issued a retro jersey for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia that copied the last Soviet Union national team shirt. It included the USSR lettering and breast emblem with the hammer and sickle. Given the millions of victims of the Soviet dictatorship, some asked whether Adidas would also soon be offering a German jersey with a swastika. Others were outraged because the company was selling the shirt as a "Russia" retro jersey. even though the Soviet Union included other territories.

Adidas corrected the exclusively "Russia" retro jersey mistake immediately, but the shirt itself was not removed from potential selections. It's one thing to have a clash in taste, but a retreat from Adidas would have been tantamount to denying its own history: During the Cold War, Adidas was enormously active in the USSR. In addition, Socialist brother states wore Adidas. Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro liked to get a lot of his garments from the country's Olympic athletes wardrobe and, especially in his latter years, traded in his olive-green combat uniforms for Adidas tracksuits.

Three stripes of controversy — Photo: Adidas screenshot

The economic historian Rainer Karlsch describes the enormous scope of Adidas' Eastern European activities in detail in a book he wrote with three colleagues about the company's history. In return, the company granted him access to its "Eastern Contracts." Karlsch concluded that Communist Eastern Europe was less relevant a sales market for Adidas as a key hub for outsourced manufacturing of sports shoes, textiles and bags in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria and the USSR. But even more important than a base of production was Adidas's influence on sports-driven politics, which the company exercised through officials and politicians in those countries.

It began with seemingly harmless gifts. As early as 1952, seven years after the end of World War II and three years after Adi Dassler founded his company in Western Germany, the Czechoslovak long-distance runner Emil Zatopek won three Olympic gold medals in Adidas shoes in Helsinki. He had received them from the company free of charge, but the rules of amateur sports at the time did not allow for more compensation. That present brought Adidas multiple benefits. On the one hand, the publicity was huge. On the other hand, Zatopek remained gratefully attached to the company throughout his life.

Outrage when Socialist athletes in shoes and clothes of the capitalist class enemy would win.

Puma, the company founded by Adi's brother and rival Rudolf, acted no differently. The two competitors dominated the sporting goods world for a long time and, as far as business in Eastern Europe was concerned, it was no holds barred. When Puma lured the East German runners Jürgen May and Jürgen Haase not only with shoes but also with hard dollars at the 1966 European Athletics Championships, Adi Dassler's daughter Inge threatened the East German officials with a scandal. After all, they had pledged that the country's athletes would wear Adidas exclusively. The officials stepped in and denounced the bribery practices of Western companies, using Puma as an example.

For Adidas, activities in Eastern Europe started to pick up even more speed in the 1970s. The company's emissaries would often find their job easy, as athletes and officials appreciated the superior quality of West German competition products over local products. And the local governments hoped for foreign exchange earnings.

Photo: adifansnet

Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase was marketed globally in the 1970s, just like his U.S. rival Stan Smith. Adidas also increasingly began to equip not only Eastern European individual athletes, but also to sign contracts with associations and clubs, for instance in 1976 with the Soviet Union's soccer players, handball players, track and field athletes and ice hockey players. In East Berlin, squads loyal to the Party would be outraged when Socialist athletes in shoes and clothes of the capitalist class enemy would win. Even the state security would intervene, albeit in vain, because Adidas had already infiltrated East German sport. And also because the ailing country badly needed the hard Deutsche Marks.

Nevertheless, Rainer Karlsch places Adidas among the "pioneers of East-West trade," which proved to be a great advantage after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While competitors first had to develop their presence in those countries, Adidas' was already well established.

To this day, Adidas remains the market leader in Russia and Reebok, its subsidiary since 2005, is number three. For years, the growth rates were double-digits and, in 2012, the then CEO Herbert Hainer proclaimed Russia the company's fastest growing market alongside North America and China.

But the euphoria is now gone. Recently, Hainer's successor Kasper Rorsted said that Russia, with less than three percent of total sales, was "quite irrelevant for our business success." The international embargo in the wake of the Crimean crisis, the ruble's decline and the economic crisis are mainly to blame.

Still, Adidas continues to supply the Russian national soccer team. Even in the midst of the outrage over the retro Soviet shirts, both sides extended their contract until 2022.

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