Legends nurture U.S. decathlon Johnson, O'Brien herald next generation of medals

July 13, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

LOS ANGELES -- The most exclusive club in American sports is looking for a few new members.

Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey and Bruce Jenner are America's living Olympic decathlon champions, men who were once proclaimed the world's greatest athletes. But since 1976, the club has been closed, as America's modern-day decathletes fell far short of Olympic gold.

"We'd welcome a new kid on the block," Toomey said. "For this country to win another Olympic gold would be like regaining a mantle that has been long lost. Nine teen-seventy-six, when Bruce won, is a long time ago. Nineteen-sixty-eight, when I won, is a real long time. These are historical events. We've had sort of an identity crisis with the decathlon in this country."

The new kid on the decathlon block may be competing at the U.S. Olympic Festival. Dave Johnson, one half of America's gold-medal entry for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, is in the Festival. The other half of the entry is Dan O'Brien, the reigning national champion who is training feverishly for next month's World Championships in Tokyo. Just mention their names, and the old champions smile.

"With those guys coming along, I finally don't have to answer questions about why don't we have any more decathlon stars in America," Toomey said.

There are plenty of explanations for America's demise in an event it has won nine times. Only Great Britain, led by Daley Thompson's back-to-back victories in 1980 and 1984, has won the event twice.

After Jenner won the Olympic gold in Montreal in 1976, a generation of decathletes was lost because of the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. Decathletes also were lured by money into remaining track and field specialists or pursuing professional careers in football.

"The more glamorous events, say sprinting, ended up getting a majority of the support," Rafer Johnson said. "A lot of great athletes just moved on to other sports. Also, it's part cyclical. We had a good run for a while. Then we didn't. Now, we're back."

Rafer Johnson and the other living decathlon champions are monitoring the progress of Dave Johnson and O'Brien, providing them with training tips and advice. But they are also trying to create depth in a sport that demands athletes master 10 track and field disciplines over two days of competition

"I'm not pulling for any particular athlete," said Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic champion. "In the past, we've always taken the top athlete or two and given them all of our support. We need to pass it through the ranks, giving support to the top 30 or 40 or 50 guys. A few years ago, we weren't four or five or six deep. But we are now."

The prospect of another American Olympic champion thrills Jenner. He has helped steer O'Brien's career, providing the newest American star with counseling and a motivational push. Jenner cheered from the stands last month as O'Brien scored 8,844 points at the national championships on Randalls Island in New York.

"Dan O'Brien is a young kid who will go into the World Championships as the favorite," Jenner said. "Dan can explode at any moment. he can score 9,000 points on any given day. But he can also score 8,400 points. Dave Johnson is a true com

petitor. He is always tough and always consistent. It's fantastic that we've got them both."

Toomey, who won his gold at the 1968 Games in Mexico, said predicting who will prevail in Tokyo and beyond is difficult.

"No one owns anything, any title, until it's over," he said. "There is one other competitor in the decathlon lurking and he is from no country. He is Mr. Injury. If you're not familiar with Mr. Injury, he can sink you."

But if one of the two young American stars can avoid injury and string together two perfect days in Barcelona, he'll become part of the country's most exclusive club. Riches await the world's greatest athlete.

"I can tell you that Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien are not in this sport for the money," Jenner said. "They don't want to win to get a job or get on the Wheaties Box. They just get excited about being the best in the world. I just get so excited thinking that the decathlon is back in America."

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