Dan O'Brien competes at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.
Twenty years ago, during the buildup to the Barcelona Olympic Games and in the relative stone ages of sports marketing, the Reebok powers that be, in an effort to challenge Nike for track and field supremacy, imagined an advertising campaign as ambitious in scale as it was in risk. Sparing no expense, they joined forces with the same New York ad agency that created the Energizer Bunny, dropping a cool, if not unprecedented, $25 million on a series of playful commercials pitting two virtually unknown decathletes against one another.
They called it: Dan vs. Dave.
If you’re too young to remember Dan and Dave, or if you spent the early 90s under a rock, the bullet points are simple. At the time, Dan O’Brien, as the reigning U.S. and world champion, was the best decathlete on the planet. Dave Johnson, a three-time U.S. champion himself, wasn’t far behind. That one of them would win the gold in Barcelona was considered a mere formality, and as such, Reebok fashioned its entire campaign around the almost mythical tagline, “Who is the world’s greatest athlete? Dan or Dave? To be settled in Barcelona.”
“I knew it was going to be big when they first told us what they were planning,” said Johnson, who’s now the athletic director at Corban University in Salem, Oregon. “But looking back, I don’t think anyone could’ve guessed how big.”
Featuring grainy, home-video footage of Dan and Dave as classic Americana schoolboys, and then, as the chiseled, sprinting specimens into which they’d evolved, the commercials, to Johnson’s point, were huge. They debuted during the Super Bowl. And just like that, in a matter of one 30-second clip, a craze unlike anything track and field had ever seen was set off. Dan and Dave were stars.
“It was crazy,” said O'Brien, who will serve as Yahoo! Sports’ track and field correspondent at this summer’s London Games. “One minute, hardly anyone outside the track world knew who we were, and the next minute people are swarming around us and snapping pictures and lining up a hundred deep for two straight hours to get an autograph. After those commercials came out, everywhere we went turned into a zoo.”
Plucked from the depths of decathlon obscurity and dropped into every living room in America, Dan and Dave were, in a sense, the first reality TV stars — as people who’d never seen or even heard of them, people who had no good reason to care one lick about them, were suddenly watching a part of their lives play out on television. And they were captivated. Johnson chuckles as he recalls walking onto the track for the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans, where just about every one of the some 30,000 fans was shouting his allegiance by wearing either a red “Dan” shirt or a blue “Dave” shirt.
“We completely took the place over,” Johnson said.
And so we’ve rounded back to where this story started, with an advertising campaign as grand in scale as it was in risk. You see, for all the hype surrounding Dan and Dave, for all the presumptive promotion of their impending duel in Barcelona, neither of them had actually qualified for the Olympic team yet. It was unthinkable that such a disaster could happen, but of course, it did, with Dan O’Brien failing to clear any pole vault height in a fluke screw-up that has since been called the most shocking moment in U.S. Olympic history. In fact, to this day, given the impact of the commercials and the fact that Dan was by far the best decathlete in the world, ESPN still lists O’Brien’s not qualifying for the 1992 Olympics as one of the all-time sports busts.
“When I missed that bar, you could literally feel the air suck out of the stadium,” O’Brien said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Sadly, for some, this is where the story of Dan and Dave ends, with a veritable legend pulling a Bill Buckner and a multi-million dollar ad campaign going up in smoke. But nothing could be further from the truth. Later that summer, after securing his fourth U.S. championship with the highest second-day point total in history (4455), Johnson went to Barcelona and won the bronze medal on a broken foot. Meanwhile, over the next four years, O'Brien broke the world record, became the first decathlete in history to win three consecutive world championships, and in 1996 completed his tale of redemption by winning the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. This year, O’Brien will be inducted into both the IAAF and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
“Dan and Dave did a lot for both Dave and I personally,” O'Brien said. “But it also did a lot for the American decathlon as a whole.”
More specifically, their meteoric rise to fame came along at a time when the American decathlon was in dire need of a jumpstart. In its heyday, which basically equates to the better part of the 20th century, America was a shrine to decathlon dominance. Beginning with the great Jim Thorpe’s victory at the 1912 Stockholm Games, the first modern Olympic decathlon, America proceeded to win 10 of the next 14 gold medals. The U.S. produced timeless champions like Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson and Bill Toomey. But after Bruce Jenner’s victory at the ’76 Games in Montreal, American decathletes failed to win a single medal, of any color, over the next three Olympics.
It was an odd drought to be sure, but perhaps a long time coming. Perhaps the stream of world-class decathletes was bound to run dry. Bear in mind that in a country of such decorated decathlon lore, the NCAA didn’t even include the ten-event competition as part of its national championships until 1970, and even then, athletes just didn’t gravitate to the decathlon the way they did the sprints or the long jump. It wasn’t a glamor event. It was a grind. And perhaps most deterring to a young athlete, decathletes weren’t in the spotlight. They didn’t garner a sliver of the attention that a Carl Lewis or a Michael Johnson did. They weren’t, in a word, cool.
“I think the whole Dan and Dave thing changed that a little bit,” Johnson said. “I think it did for the decathlon a little bit of what Tiger Woods did for golf. I think it showed athletes that if they did well in the decathlon, they could get something more out of it than just their own satisfaction. They could maybe get some fame. They could be on TV. They could get some endorsements and make some money. And that stuff matters.”
In 1990, with Jenner still the last American decathlete to win anything of note, the Visa Decathlon Team, which provided a previously nonexistent level of financial and professional support, was established. Its star pupils were Dan and Dave. Together, the Reebok ad campaign and the Visa team were, and still are, the two biggest splashes to ever hit the decathlon — and not coincidentally, beginning with Johnson’s bronze and continuing with O'Brien’s gold, America hasn’t missed an Olympic medal stand since.
This summer, American decathletes Trey Hardee, Ashton Eaton and Bryan Clay, if they can heed the O’Brien cautionary tale and make it through the upcoming Trials, have a legitimate chance to sweep the podium in London. In fact, Clay, who won silver in 2004 and gold in 2008, stands to become the first decathlete in history to win three Olympic medals. It’s worth noting that Clay attended the same college, Azusa Pacific, that one Dave Johnson attended, and if the aforementioned Eaton and Hardee reflect the sprinting, jumping characteristics that defined O’Brien, then Clay, as a monster discus and javelin thrower, is a model of his Azusa predecessor’s blueprint.
“I’ve gotten to know Bryan well over the years,” Johnson said. “In fact, I just texted him the other day, just to see how he was feeling heading into the Trials. Dan and I, we know what these guys are going through. We’ve been there. And when a guy like Bryan has success, for me, it’s a neat feeling to know that maybe I had a little part in helping him.”
And in the end, this is where the legacy of Dan and Dave should ultimately live: in those who have followed in their footsteps. Once upon a time they were two of the greatest athletes the world never knew. Then they were television stars. And if you want proof of the print they left on not only the decathlon community, but in some ways an entire era, try asking someone who wasn’t too young or didn’t spend the early 90s under a rock if they remember the Dan and Dave Olympic commercials. A handful won’t, but the vast majority will. They might not remember which one was Dan and which one was Dave, which one made the team and which one didn’t, but in one way or another, they’ll remember.
And even if for many of the wrong reasons, they probably always will.
Editor’s Note: Dan O’Brien’s newly released memoir, Clearing Hurdles, can be purchased here. Dave Johnson has also re-released his 1994 autobiography, Aim High, which can be purchased here.