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A Vision that Paved the Way to Vaporfly

A vision that Paved the Way to Vaporfly

High-grade running-shoe technology is no new phenomenon


The current controversy over Nike’s Vaporfly road-running shoe is merely a reminder that footwear fussing and feuding have been going on in track & field athletics for much more than a century. The Finnish manufacturers, Karhu, had been founded in 1916, and enterprisingly produced a distinctive all-white pair of running-spikes which Paavo Nurmi effectively displayed in his gold-medal triumphs at the 1924 Olympic Games, but it was during the Melbourne Games of 1956 that the contest between rival companies to persuade the champions in their choice of brands really began to be waged in earnest. The term “marketing” wasn’t in common use in those days, but the concept had nevertheless by then invaded the cinder-tracks of the World.

To further set the historical perspective, in the same year of 1924 that Nurmi was winning yet more Olympic titles Adolf and Rudolf Dassler set up their Dassler Brothers sports-shoe company in Germany and scored a promotional coup by persuading Jesse Owens to wear their products at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Having survived the deprivations of World War II and the adverse economic aftermath, the Dasslers went their separate ways in 1949 after years of dispute – Adolf setting up Adidas and Rudolf founding Puma. Then in 1952 Adolf Dassler bought the now famed three-stripe trademark from Karhu, whose management let it go for what is said to be “a relatively small sum and two bottles of schnapps!” 

Horst Dassler, the 20-year-old only son of Adolf (“Adi”) and his wife, was in London in 1956 studying to improve his English, and his father sent him on a three-day air journey to Melbourne for the Olympics, taking with him an introduction to a retailer in the city and a consignment of specially made Adidas shoes each decorated with three green stripes. The background to this sprightly commercial venture at a time when athletics was still supposed to be purely amateur is well explained by the journalist, Barbara Smit, in a thorough 300-page history of the Adidas and Puma rivalry which appeared in 2006: 

“Athletes were barred from accepting payment in cash or kind for their sporting achievements. Likewise, equipment manufacturers were not supposed to exploit the commercial worth of their clients. When advertising, they were forced to disguise the identity of any athletes pictured by blurring their faces or placing a black band across their eyes. No leading sports-goods producer had yet thought of adding clothing to its range, and of course it would have been unthinkable for any firm to advertise on the chest of an Olympic athlete”. 

Undeterred, Horst Dassler – no doubt with father’s full blessing – hit upon the idea of giving his shoes away as a promotional exercise and persuaded his Melbourne retailer to agree reluctantly to the idea. According to Ms Smit, Horst Dassler “was confident that he would not be reprimanded for offering spikes because they could be regarded as technical equipment indispensable to runners at a time when races were still held on cinder tracks. Good spikes weren’t cheap, and runners repaired and cared for them until they fell apart, often literally”. In Great Britain, which then had more World-class distance-runners (under 13min 30sec for three miles or 14:00 for 5000 metres; under 28:20 for six miles or 29:20 for 10,000 metres) than any other country in the World, Adidas had yet to make an impact on sales, and the main suppliers were the local firms of J.W. Foster, G.T. Law and Spalding. 

One of the foremost British athletes of that era was Chris Chataway, who had set World records for three miles and 5000 metres and had paced his Oxford University fellow-graduate, Roger Bannister, to the historic first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. Ms Smit makes much of the cost of running spikes and relates – maybe a shade over-dramatically – that “the outing to Law’s small store had turned into a ritual for well-heeled athletes from Oxford and Cambridge. There they had their feet measured by experts who produced hand-crafted shoes. For the Melbourne Olympics some of them were fitted with titanium spikes re-cycled from a Rolls Royce engine. For athletes with smaller budgets, however, such spikes remained inaccessible”.

One of the very first British entrepreneurs in this business, Joe Foster, had started making his “spiked running pumps”, as he called them, by hand in the bedroom of his house in Bolton, in Lancashire, in the year 1900, and by the 1920s he was advertising them in the weekly “Athletic News” at prices ranging from 12 shillings and sixpence to 25 shillings. Foster even touted the name of one of the leading distance runners of that decade, Joe Blewitt, 5th in the 1920 Olympic 5000 metres, as a customer, though how he was able to square that with the authorities dedicated to absolute amateurism remains a mystery. Whatever the benefits for Blewitt, Foster’s top-range shoes cost £54.47 in 2020 terms, and so they would seem to have been eminently affordable by most of those athletes of a century earlier. Foster’s incidentally, was taken over in 1962 by Reebok, founded by Joe Foster’s grandsons, and Reebok became a subsidiary of Adidas in 2005.    

Moving on 30 years or so from Joe Blewitt’s heyday, the off-the-shelf running spikes made by Law’s were being advertised in England shortly before the Melbourne Olympics at prices ranging from 52 shillings and sixpence to 92 shillings – and that works out in 2020 cost terms at £64.35 to £112.80, which would surely also be regarded as being within the means of athletes (or parents !) of this current generation. 

Derek Ibbotson, who was the 5000 metres bronze-medallist in Melbourne and broke the World mile record the next year, is one of those cited by Ms Smit as having eagerly taken up Horst Dassler’s generous offer and she says that he “returned to Yorkshire with his green-striped Adidas’. Ibbotson makes no mention of this jaunt in his cheery biography published in 1960, and in any case he must have owned numerous pairs of running-shoes. During 1957 alone he ran 55 races, and among them was the three miles for Great Britain against France on the notorious cinders of London’s White City Stadium, Ibbotson relates in his biography that one of his spikes broke and “after winning I found my foot was badly blistered and by the following Monday I could hardly walk”. However, he did not mention the shoe-maker’s name, and the mishap did not stop him racing six more times in the next fortnight !. 

Adidas already had an enthusiastic British supporter in Gordon Pirie, World record-breaker at 3000 and 5000 metres and silver-medallist ahead of Ibbotson in the latter event in Melbourne. In an excellent biography of Pirie published in 1999, the author, Dick Booth, says that Pirie had first met Adi Dassler through an introduction by Herbert Schade, the German 5000 metres bronze-medallist at the 1952 Olympics (Pirie was 4th, Chataway 5th), and had “used Adidas shoes for the rest of his career and made a number of suggestions to the firm about how shoes could be improved, but he received no endorsements or sponsorship”. Dick Booth makes a point of saying that when Pirie broke the 3000 metres record in 1956 “he was wearing his favourite Adidas shoes”.   

There’s a further intriguing tale told in this book about Pirie’s relationships with Adidas which proves that considerations of advancing shoe technology are nothing new under the sun. “During the late 1950s Pirie had continued his contacts with Adidas and developed his thinking about running-shoe design”, Dick Booth writes. “He had become convinced that runners were developing blistering and achilles tendonitis because many shoes had too much empty space around the base of the heel bone. He began to customise all the shoes he bought from Adidas to try and avoid this problem. Pirie was frustrated by his inability to persuade Adidas to do something about this, but his discussions with Adi Dassler did lead to some important innovations. When Pirie reported the problems he had because the spikes on his track shoes wore down, they had the idea of screwing the spikes in and out rather than fixing them permanently”. 

Pirie continued to occasionally visit the Adidas factory and voice criticisms during the 1980s, long after he had retired from amateur athletics, and this had some residual influence. Dick Booth concludes that “the Adidas development of the late 1990s – ‘the feet you wear’ – is  probably more in line with Gordon’s ideas”

Neither Pirie nor Ibbotson did much road-racing, and so the merits of the Vaporfly shoe claiming a 4% improvement in efficiency for marathon-runners would not have had an immediate appeal for them, but they would have welcomed with open arms and itchy feet that sort of advantage built into their track spikes. It represents a 3:47.7 mile for Ibbotson instead of the 3:57.2 he actually ran, and that would have lasted as a World record for 24 years. Pirie’s 3000 metres of 7:52.8 would be worth 7:33.1 and would have survived for 21 years, while his 5000 metres of 13:36.8 becomes 13:03.9, staying in place for 26 years. Of course, that’s presuming that Nike would have allowed them exclusive use.  

Note: “Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma and the Making of Modern Sport”, by Barbara Smit, was published by Penguin Books in 2006. “The Impossible Hero: A Biography of Gordon ‘Puff Puff’ Pirie”, by Dick Booth, was published by Corsica Press in 1999.  



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