On Friday, July 27 — in 114 days — the London 2012 Olympic Games begin. Let’s hope they make a bookend for the global trauma of the last four years.
To bring you up to date: The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games ended on Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008. Three weeks later, the U.S. federal government took over mortgage institutions, gigantic investment firms declared bankruptcy, and a panicked senator in Washington told his wife to withdraw large sums of cash from ATMs.
The world we thought we knew ended somewhere in those days after the Beijing Olympics. I had spent the previous three years telling the story of Lenovo, the Chinese technology company that designed the 2008 torch and built the IT infrastructure of the Beijing games. My profound hope – the hope of all of us – is that confidence returns in London. In the meantime we can find inspiration in an often-told story about Olympic athlete Jesse Owens and the founder of the Adidas athletic company, Adi Dassler.
In the 1930s, Adi Dassler and his brother Rudolf ran a shoe company in Herzogenaurach, a village in southern Germany. Adi Dassler was working with the coach of the German Olympic track team, Jo Waitzer, to supply German athletes with running shoes. Dassler drove to Berlin and, working with Waitzer, somehow convinced Jesse Owens to wear his shoes. It was a moment in which economic self-interest and courage converged for Dassler. Wearing German technology, Owens won four gold medals, embarrassing the German government. For Adidas Group, writer Ina Heumann summarized Dassler’s dilemma: “Under the hateful prevailing political circumstances, there was clearly a certain risk involved in giving German products to an African-American, a man likely to run faster than Germans on their own ground and whose skin colour was the target of vile propaganda.”
The story is still playing out. Adi and Rudolf later split apart, and brother Rudolf founded his own company, Puma. Both companies are still headquartered in the village of Herzogenaurach. Today, the world’s fastest human being – Usain Bolt – wears shoes from Rudolf’s company. And Adidas continues its brilliance in sports marketing: two weeks ago, Adidas announced Olympic uniforms by designer Stella McCartney (you know, Paul’s daughter) for Team Great Britain.
Inspiration comes from places large and small. It’s been coming from Herzogenaurach for 76 years. Four years ago, it originated in Beijing. This year, may courage from London return us all to the trajectory we remember.