BEFORE MICHAEL and Larry battled over a Big Mac in an epic game of H-O-R-S-E, before a lead-footed Danica was pulled over by a Go Daddy stripper cop and before Tiger magically juggled a Nike golf ball on the blade of his sand wedge, there was Dan and Dave.
This is an article from the July 7, 2014 issue
Back in 1991, in what was still the infancy of sports marketing, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson were the two most promising decathletes in the U.S. Both were freakishly fit and effortlessly charismatic. And both came seemingly made-to-order with personal narratives of hardship and perseverance that fueled them toward the same place at the same time: the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
With 10 disciplines testing speed (the 110-meter hurdles and the 100-, 400- and 1,500-meter races), strength (the shot put, discus and javelin) and agility (the long jump, high jump and pole vault) parceled out over two densely packed days, the decathlon isn't just the most demanding track and field event. It also determines which human being gets to call himself the World's Greatest Athlete, an honorific coined by King Gustav V of Sweden after Jim Thorpe's gold medal performance in Stockholm in 1912.
After Thorpe stood atop the podium, the U.S. won nine of the next 14 golds, with a roster of red-white-and-blue icons such as Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson. (The runner-up was Great Britain, with two.) But by the early '90s no American decathlete had brought home the gold (or any other medal, for that matter) since Bruce Jenner in Montreal. "The event had belonged to the Europeans after '76," says Jenner. "It was embarrassing. No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn't seem to come up with the guy. Then along come Dan and Dave. We not only had the guy, we had two of them."
Never mind that O'Brien and Johnson were friendly off the oval: To Madison Avenue their rivalry was marketing catnip. For years Nike had cornered the running-shoe market, but in the early '90s, Reebok was looking for a way to topple the Beaverton, Ore., behemoth. Dan and Dave were already sponsored by Reebok, and each had a claim to being the best. O'Brien, at 25, was the reigning world champion; the 29-year-old Johnson was a three-time U.S. champ. Still, going into Spain neither decathlete had the Wheaties-box-caliber celebrity of Carl Lewis or Jackie Joyner-Kersee. They were virtual unknowns.
Then, in late 1991, at Reebok's annual marketing meeting in Orlando, O'Brien and Johnson were pulled aside by the company's brass and informed that Reebok had a top-secret plan in the works: a hugely ambitious $30 million media blitzkrieg to launch its latest cross-training shoe, the Pump Graphite, with Dan and Dave as its poster boys. No one was more surprised than O'Brien and Johnson, who hungered to be the best but, to some degree, cherished their anonymity.
The Dan and Dave spots were the brainchild of Chiat/Day, the irreverent ad agency behind the then ubiquitous Energizer Bunny commercials. The campaign would debut with a series of playful and patriotic commercials during Super Bowl XXVI in late January. The first spots were almost quaint, with grainy home-movie footage of them as kids, Dan frolicking in the bathtub and Dave wobbling on a pint-sized bicycle as a narrator listed their record-breaking accomplishments: "Dan can run the 100 meters in 10.3 seconds, Dave can high-jump 6'10¾"...." Finally we see Dan and Dave as grown men: imposing physical specimens sprinting side by side in Reebok gear in pursuit of gold medal glory. A stentorian voice-over proclaims, "They'll battle it out for the title of World's Greatest Athlete.... To be settled in Barcelona."
Within days O'Brien and Johnson became household names. They were mobbed at airports and given courtside seats to NBA games. It hardly mattered that some of the well-wishers hounding them for autographs thought they were brothers or referred to them as "Dan and Dan" or "Dave and Doug." Thanks to Reebok's tsunami of hype, the decathlon was once again a sexy marquee event in the States.
There was one problem. The U.S. Olympic Trials weren't for another five months. And neither Dan nor Dave had earned one of the three spots on the team.
ON A SUNNY April morning, Dave Johnson answers the door of his Salem, Ore., house wearing a navy-blue Nike shirt and a black Oakley baseball cap. There's no trace on his still-fit 6'4" frame of the sponsor that made him fleetingly famous. It's been 23 years since he literally vaulted to celebrity as half of Reebok's dream team, but aside from a slight limp in his right leg, he looks as if he could still reel back and launch a javelin 200 feet.
Johnson is 51 and works as a part-time assistant women's track coach at Oregon State and an area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Today, though, he's at home with his eight- and 11-year-old sons, who are in the middle of a workout of their own, playing video games. Growing up in Missoula, Mont., Dave was a coil of nervous energy never far from trouble. By the time he was in third grade, he was part of a group of young toughs who called themselves the West Side Gang. They broke into houses, threw rocks at windows and worse. "I was one of those kids you wouldn't expect to do anything [in life]," he says.
When he was a sophomore at Sentinel High, Dave lifted a key ring from his neighbor's truck and hatched a plot that would make him a West Side Gang legend. The neighbor worked for the local Budweiser distributor. Dave and his pals used the stolen keys to help themselves to a free-flowing supply of beer. They were finally caught six months later and sentenced to community service. "I was scared," says Johnson, "but also maybe a little thankful that I wasn't able to waste my life anymore." Still, he adds, "all that running from the police came in handy. It made me fast. It was great training."
Before Dave's senior year his father, Wilbur, who worked for a lumber company, was transferred to Corvallis, Ore. There Dave tried out for the football team, more as a way to make friends than anything else. He met a teammate who would introduce him to both evangelical Christianity and track—the twin forces that would define the rest of his life on and off the field. Johnson received a track scholarship to Azusa (Calif.) Pacific, a small Christian college where he could train year-round. In his first decathlon he earned enough points to qualify for the 1984 Olympic trials in Los Angeles. He didn't make the team, but he came away determined to do so in '88.
During the next four years Johnson's scores in the decathlon snowballed. He also got married, to a nursing student named Sheri. Twenty-seven years later they're still together, with four kids. In 1986, Johnson won the U.S. championships, but he was quickly sidelined when he hurt his right foot—an injury that would never fully heal. In his downtime he found work through the U.S. Olympic Committee's job sponsor program. (The position was with Budweiser.) In '88, Johnson qualified for the Olympic trials and squeaked into the final slot on the team. "I wasn't even expected to finish in the top 10," Dave says. He finished ninth in Seoul.
"The main thing I took away was that the winner [East Germany's Christian Schenk] scored only [8,488] points," says Johnson. "I kept thinking, Man, if I knew that's all it would take, I might've tried harder." The other thing Johnson took away from the mad swirl of 1988 was his first encounter, at the trials, with a U.S. decathlete who was four years behind him and closing fast: Dan O'Brien.
LIKE JOHNSON, O'Brien found personal redemption in sports. Born to an African-American father and a Finnish mother, he was adopted by an Irish-American family in Klamath Falls, Ore. Today, sitting in the airy living room of the house he shares with his wife of six years, Leilani, in Scottsdale, Ariz., O'Brien kicks off his sneakers and sinks into the cushy embrace of an oversized sofa. A few feet away, snoring on a dog bed, is Bubba, a massive boxer and pit bull mix who seems to have been bred for sloth.
These days O'Brien is a volunteer track and field coach at Arizona State and is paid to represent a line of fitness equipment. Dressed in workout shorts and a T-shirt, the 47-year-old says, more as a fact than a boast, that he can't remember ever not being the fastest kid in school. "The first race I ran was in the fifth grade," O'Brien recalls. "It was a one-mile fun run that my dad took me to, and I won. They gave out ribbons, and I loved it. All I could think about was, When is the next race?"
When his junior high school competed in meets, Dan seemed to be the only kid with a trophy on the bus ride home. "I was always a bad student," he says. "I didn't really think I was anybody until I started doing sports." As a Henley High sophomore he wasn't allowed to compete on the varsity track team after he received a D in social studies, but one of the coaches couldn't stand seeing such natural talent wasted. He began tutoring O'Brien in the decathlon after school. By his senior year he was the nation's top-ranked high school decathlete and was invited to the Junior Olympics in Los Angeles, which ran concurrently with the trials for the '84 Games. If Dan had known enough to look, he would have seen Dave trying out for—and failing to make—the U.S. team.
O'Brien attended Idaho on a track scholarship. "I wasn't prepared for Division I academics," he says. "I would go out drinking three nights a week, smoke pot. I ended up in jail for four days for writing bad checks. I was an idiot." In 1988, O'Brien transferred to Spokane Falls Community College to boost his grades and regain his academic eligibility. He was tapped to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, but after winning the opening event, the 100 meters, he pulled his hamstring in the long jump. O'Brien stuck around to watch decathletes Johnson, Tim Bright and Gary Kinder, the trio who would go on to Seoul. He also met Bob Kersee and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who gave him some much-needed advice. "They got me to see what was intrinsically great about multievents like the decathlon," he says. "Not everyone can do this. I came out of there wanting to score 8,600 points and become the next Bruce Jenner."
After reenrolling at Idaho, O'Brien came to believe that he represented a new kind of decathlete. "Guys like Dave were 6'4", 205 pounds," says O'Brien, who was 6'2" and 185. "They were bigger and a little slower. I thought I could change this event." For the next three years O'Brien and Johnson—the streamlined 2.0 model and the older, more methodical grinder—alternated as U.S. champion.
Both athletes were sponsored by Reebok, but they stayed at a competitive arm's length. "We probably would have been much better friends if it wasn't for our outside influences," says O'Brien. "I don't think my coach wanted me to be great friends with Dave, and I don't think Dave's wife wanted him to be great friends with me. But I remember in 1989, Dave came up to me and said he thought I was going to be the next best American decathlete. I don't think he meant right away. It was more like after he was done with it."
Then, in the fall of 1991, Dan and Dave found themselves in the same room in Orlando listening to Reebok's top marketing gurus pitch the Dan and Dave concept. "I was like, We're decathletes. We're not that popular!" says O'Brien. "Dave and I looked at each other, and we both said, 'You know that neither one of us is on this team yet, right?' "
BY THE TIME the U.S. Olympic Trials began in New Orleans in June 1992, Reebok's Dan and Dave spots had been on the air for five months. The Superdome was packed with 17,000 fans, every one of whom seemed to be wearing either a red Dan T-shirt or a blue Dave T-shirt. "I'm sure Carl Lewis and Mike Powell and Michael Johnson weren't thrilled about all of the attention we were getting," says Dave.
The temperature on the track was near 100¬∫. O'Brien had always been the stronger Day 1 competitor, and in New Orleans he set a first-day record, with a total of 4,698 points. Johnson was in second, 504 points behind. As the grittier second-day competitor, it was exactly where he wanted to be.
On the morning of Day 2, O'Brien remembers, he woke up thinking, Wouldn't it be cool if I broke the world record? He sailed through the morning's first event, the hurdles, but threw a subpar discus. The record would have to wait. Meanwhile, Johnson was gaining ground heading in to one of his strongest events, the pole vault. "I started at my normal height—15'9"—and I noticed that Dan was starting at the same height," Johnson recalls. "I remember thinking, Why would he start that high?"
Actually O'Brien had been starting at that height all season. "Warmups didn't go well for me," he recalls, "and because of the height I was starting at, I had to wait around a long time. After about 90 minutes I took my first jump, and it was just horrible." It was worse than that: It was ugly. One of his hands slipped on the pole, and he crashed into the bar. Jenner, who was in the stands, says that if the bar had been at 14 feet, O'Brien still would have missed. "It should've been an easy jump for him," Jenner recalls. "Dan was the No. 1 guy in the world, and he would have won the gold in Barcelona, no doubt. But when you miss that first one, the pressure really mounts. Especially the way he missed."
On the other side of the track, Johnson heard about what had just happened. He stopped to watch O'Brien, who on his second try got over the bar but nicked it with his chin, dislodging it on the way down. "I could see in his eyes, he was gone mentally," Johnson recalls. "He didn't know what to do."
Still, O'Brien wasn't panicked before his final attempt. "I was always pretty good at taking the importance out of things," he says. "I thought, I'm going to boom this. Right off the bat, I could tell my approach sucked, so I stopped and started over. And as soon as I planted the pole, one leg went on one side and the other went on the other side. It just happened so fast." He never reached the bar.
O'Brien's mistake guaranteed that he would not be going to Spain. He stood on the infield walking in circles with a thousand-yard stare. "It was almost like I didn't know where I was," he says. He made his way over to Johnson, and the two men hugged.
Eventually O'Brien stumbled to the practice track, where a mob of reporters had gathered. "That's when I realized how big this was," he says. "I mean, this is track. How many people are interested in it? Well, you do something like I did and you're going to find out! I went up to the stands and found my mom, and I just broke down and cried."
Meanwhile Johnson was about to finish first. He was heading to Barcelona. Not that anyone noticed.
THIS SHOULD BE where O'Brien and Johnson's story ends. And for most people it did. Three missed attempts, a multimillion-dollar fireball of hype doused in tears, and the premature death of the Dan and Dave dream. But nothing could be further from the truth. It's just where another story begins.
As soon as O'Brien no-heighted the pole vault, the suits from Reebok scrambled. Mark Bossardet, the company's senior director of athletics marketing at the time, remembers, "The phone started ringing from corporate, and we were all doing the math, calculating if there was still a way for Dan to make the team. [There wasn't.] We looked at all of the angles. I think we even started asking around to see if Dan had dual citizenship and could go to Barcelona representing another country. Does he have Irish grandparents? [He didn't.] We were grasping at straws."
In the run-up to the trials, Dan and Dave had taped 10 commercials. The unaired spots would have to be scrapped. Ten minutes after O'Brien's third miss, Reebok execs called NBC and requested that it pull the ads and replace them with commercials featuring Roger Clemens and CFL receiver Raghib Ismail. "After we got over the shock, we regrouped and came up with a way to extend the campaign," says Bossardet. Dan would now be forced to put on a fake smile and cheer Dave on in Barcelona.
What no one knew was that down on the track Johnson had aggravated a stress fracture in his right foot. In the five weeks between New Orleans and Barcelona he went into hiding, wearing an air cast and limiting his training to a swimming pool. Reebok had no idea. When Johnson arrived in Spain, O'Brien was there not only contractually cheering him on but also working as an NBC track and field commentator, opposite O.J. Simpson. In the first decathlon event, the 100 meters, Johnson knew within the first three steps that something wasn't right with his foot. His personal best was 10.71 seconds, but he ran a sluggish 11.16. He wanted to go home, but his coaches wouldn't let him. Johnson toughed it out through the rest of day, finishing in 25th place.
On Day 2, Johnson's foot swelled like a weather balloon. In the first event, the hurdles, he says he heard a sickening pop come from his sneaker. He had broken his foot in a second spot. This was actually good news: It relieved some of the pressure on the first fracture. As he lined up for the pole vault, Johnson looked heavenward and asked, Why was this happening now? And before he started his sprint, he says, he had a vision of Jesus running toward the bar holding his cross like a vaulting pole.
Johnson ended up clearing 16'8" and moved way up in the standings. And after his best event, the javelin, he was in contention for the bronze medal. All he had to do was run a competitive 1,500 meters—on a foot broken in two places. Told about the injury by Dave, Dan mentioned it on the air. That alerted the U.S. Olympic trainers, who gave Johnson a cortisone shot in his right sole. He says he couldn't feel a thing as he crossed the finish line in 4:36.63, fast enough to win the bronze. And that wasn't the only consolation for Reebok. The company was also the sponsor of the gold medal winner, Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia.
Asked where he keeps his medal, Johnson rummages through a sideboard drawer in his dining room. It's tarnished and dinged-up and not quite the color he'd dreamed of. But considering what he suffered to earn it, it might as well be 24 karat. "The world sees bronze," he says, "but in the reality of everything I went through in my life, it's gold."
SHORTLY AFTER the train wreck of the '92 trials, O'Brien had a heart-to-heart talk with Jenner, who told him that world championships meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was Olympic gold. "I didn't really get what he was trying to tell me at the time," says O'Brien, "but it sank in later. What he was saying is that the general public only sees the Olympics."
O'Brien attacked the decathlon with a renewed fire. The next Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta in 1996, and he was determined to make people forget their gruesome impression of him in New Orleans. After his Reebok sponsorship ended in '93, O'Brien signed with Nike, promising he would win the gold. He also started working with a sports psychologist to erase the memory of no-heighting. He watched the videotape of his three nauseating misses over and over until they lost their insidious grip. O'Brien won world championships in '93 and '95 and the Goodwill Games in '94. "I went to another level," he says. "I learned more from that failure than I did from all of my successes." He finished first at the '96 Olympic trials, making his first try at a lower height of 15'1" in the pole vault and eventually clearing 17' ¾".
At the Atlanta Games six weeks later, O'Brien had a solid Day 1. But buzzing right behind him was a 21-year-old German named Frank Busemann. "I'd never heard of him before," says O'Brien, "but he was going crazy." On Day 2, O'Brien figured he had the gold after clearing 16' 5¾" on the pole vault. But in the javelin Busemann wouldn't go away. O'Brien knew he needed a personal best to maintain his lead. As he considered which javelin to use, he noticed Dave sitting trackside. He asked Johnson for his advice. Johnson suggested using the 90-meter Nemeth, and O'Brien threw it 219.49 feet—farther than he had ever thrown before.
The final event, the 1,500, was a mere formality. Four years after his Dan and Dave implosion, O'Brien won the gold medal. "You could feel four years of tension dissipating into the air," he says. "The interesting thing about it is, growing up in Oregon, I always thought that if I won the gold medal, things would be different. I didn't know how, but I'd just feel different. And I didn't."
As he says this, O'Brien gets up from the sofa to fetch the medal that most Americans—who stopped following the Dan and Dave story after O'Brien's washout in New Orleans—have no clue that he won. He walks over to Bubba and pats him on the belly. "To this day," he says, "people come up to me and say, 'How's your brother Dave?' " He laughs. "But I guess for that brief moment, we kind of symbolized something."
Yes, they did.
Even as Dan and Dave are still equated with disappointment and Reebok's campaign with pricey folly, the fact is the two fueled the company's best financial quarter ever. The campaign not only turned O'Brien and Johnson into arguably the first reality-television stars—they made about $75,000 each from the endorsement deal—but it also did for the decathlon what Larry and Michael did for the NBA and what Tiger did for golf: They made people stop and pay attention. For a brief moment O'Brien and Johnson achieved a strange, fluky pop-culture fame, the kind in which the line between failure and success is blurred to the point of meaninglessness. And now, 23 years later, they still share a connection that no one else will ever understand. More than that, they're still friends, happy when they see each other at track events, crossing paths as coaches. After everything they've been through together, how could they not be?