How Finland Gave adidas Its 3-Stripes

Finland, 1916.

It’s the year before the Nordic nation will gain its independence from Russia.

It’s also the year a small Finnish sports company is founded, Ab Sportartiklar Oy, and whose establishment will play a significant role in shaping the modern athletic apparel landscape.

Using locally abundant birch, Sportartiklar manufactured the javelin, discus and skis due to the wood’s flexible and lightweight properties.

They also made running shoes and spikes.

Four years later, in 1920, the company decided to change its name to Karhu, which is the Finnish word for ‘bear’, and a new brand was born.

At this period in sporting history, Finland was a heavyweight, which was remarkable given the country’s small size.

During the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Finland secured every medal in the javelin.

An up-and-coming runner took three more golds in the middle- and long-distance events; his name was Paavo Nurmi.

And they were all wearing Karhu shoes and spikes.

Finland finished 2nd in the 1920 Olympic medal table and soon after Karhu would become the official equipment supplier to the Finnish Olympic team.

In the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Finland would finish second and third respectively in the medal table ahead of the likes of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Nordic neighbours Sweden.

Meanwhile in Germany, two brothers were building their own sporting company.

Adi and Rudolf Dassler founded Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik in 1924.

But as conflict was brewing within the Dassler family, so to was war across the world.

The 1940 Olympics had been granted to Tokyo, but the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan led to the forfeiture of their hosting rights.

The rights to host the 1940 Olympics were then given to the city that finished second in the bidding process; Helsinki.

However, the outbreak of the Second World War led to the cancellation of the games, so Helsinki would have to wait.

During the Second World War, and sandwiched between Nazi and Soviet forces, Karhu provided skis, tents and camouflaged winter suits to the Finnish military.

And it wasn’t until 1948 that the Olympics would next be held, in London, where a post-war Britain referred to them as The Austerity Games.

And then, four years later, Helsinki finally had its moment to host the Olympics in 1952.

But whilst peace had returned to Europe, the Dassler brothers’ conflict had led to the break-up of their business.

Rudolf Dassler decided to establish his own company, and he called it PUMA.

Adi Dassler then renamed their original company, and he chose adidas.

To build a recognisable identity, adidas had used three parallel stripes in its designs, and Adi referred to their business as “the three-striped company”.

However, adidas didn’t own the official trademark to the three-stripes.

That belonged to Karhu.

And then, in 1951, one of the most obscure trademark deals in history was made.

Karhu sold their rights to the three-stripes to adidas for the equivalent of €1600 and two bottles of whisky.

Today, the brand with the 3-Stripes is valued at 6.8 billion USD.

Karhu three striped trainers before adidas became the brand with the 3-Stripes.
Karhu three-striped running shoes. (via Karhu)

But despite selling their three-stripes to adidas, Karhu’s dominance on the Olympic track continued and 15 golds were won in their spikes during the Helsinki games in 1952.

And so good was Finland during the three-striped Karhu era, that the country still sits atop the all-time Olympic medal table when adjusted for population.

So what did Karhu use to build a new brand identity?

They replaced their three-stripes with an M wordmark.

It stands for Mestari, which means ‘champion’ in Finnish.

It’s still used on all their designs today.

And given the achievements made in their shoes, it’s a rather fitting choice.


Karhu fusion 2.0 worn by Kanye West with M logo.
The Karhu Fusion  2.0 “Mount Pallas” Pack. (via HIGHSNOBIETY)

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