The Sneaker Wars Part 1: The Crumbling Amateur Facade


Way before there was a Nike, there was Adidas and Puma. The basketball shoe wars of today are echoes of the battles that took place between two rival German shoe manufacturers. And in these battles emerged a hugely lucrative sports marketing business that benefited both maker and athlete. At the Melbourne Summer Games in 1956, the son of Adidas owner, Horst Dassler, convinced officials to prevent the shipment of Puma shoes from passing through Customs. At the same time, the Adidas shipment came through allowing him to give away shoes to eager Olympians. When American sprinter Bobby Morrow won three gold medals in Melbourne, he was wearing a free pair of Adidas running shoes. When Americans saw Morrow and his triple-striped shoes on the cover of Life Magazine, Adidas sales jumped. Bobby Morrow_Life 12-10-56 The German champion sprinter of the 1960 Games in Rome also got free shoes, and a whole lot more. Armin Hary was the first runner other than an American since 1928 to win the 100 meter race and lay claim to the fastest man on the planet. And when he crossed the finish line, it was in Puma spikes. Yet, when he stood on the winners platform to receive his gold medal, he was wearing the stripes of Adidas. (Go to this site to see the pictures.) Hary was clearly playing Adidas and Puma against each other, not only receiving shoes, but also payments.

In 1964, the human bullet, Bob Hayes was in the middle of a bidding war between the two companies. By 1968, it became common practice for athletes to get paid by Adidas and Puma under the table for wearing their shoes, and the more famous you were, the more cash you got.  Adidas had exclusive rights to set up shop in the Olympic Village at the Mexico City Games. something in the airAs Richard Hoffer wrote in his book, Something in the Air, “Athletes could drop by, give Adidas their shoe sizes and uniform measurements, and leave with brand-new outfits. Adidas was just following through on a campaign that aimed to put its shoes on all the elite athletes in the world. Without the ability to enforce signed contracts – there was still the fading patina of amateurism on the Games, no such ‘professionalism’ was permitted – it was still as unpredictable as in Armin Hary’s day. You couldn’t be quite sure what the runner would be wearing when he hit the tape or mounted the podium. But payments rumored as high as ten thousand dollars did buy some loyalty.”

Sports Illustrated at the time reported that runners would receive cash payments of $100,000 or more. Hundreds of thousands of dollars pales in comparison to the tens of millions athletes receive today to endorse sneakers. But the hugely lucrative world of sports marketing was born of the war between Adidas and Puma.