NEW ORLEANS **TC — NEW ORLEANS -- You've seen their baby pictures, sweethearts and mothers. You've seen them face off like gunslingers in an Italian western, pump iron in high-tech gyms, and match drives with golf's most notorious frequent flier, John Daly.
Now, you actually can watch them compete.
Dan and Dave: The ad campaign comes to life.
When the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials resume today, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson will play starring roles in the %o decathlon, the two-day, 10-skill test that determines the unofficial title of world's greatest athlete.
The men, whose faces and first names have been part of an ad blitz for six months, are not merely actors recruited to plug the latest line of Reebok athletic footwear.
They are perhaps the world's two great decathletes.
But fame for O'Brien and Johnson rests not on their ability to run,
throw and soar. It comes from their talent to recite lines, look handsome and smile on cue.
"People come up to me all the time and say, 'Dan or Dave?' " O'Brien said. "I didn't think that many people watched television. Someone even pulled up to me in a car and asked, 'Dan or Dave?' It's crazy."
Actually, "Dan and Dave" is pure Madison Avenue manipulation, the outgrowth of a $30 million ad campaign launched during the CBS-TV broadcast of the Super Bowl and headed toward the threshold of over-saturation at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"Going into the Olympics, what people know about and care about are the Dream Team in basketball and Dan and Dave," said Ford D. Ennals, president of Reebok's fitness division. "We think Dan and Dave will come out of the Olympics as heroes."
The campaign has transformed the traditional cycle of Olympic fame. Athletes used to train for years in obscurity, win Olympic medals, and then became household names. But that was before shoe companies came along with their marketing campaigns, using an athlete's charisma to peddle sneakers.
In Dan and Dave, Reebok found the perfect Olympic pitch of sports, success and schmaltz.
O'Brien, 25, adopted into a family of eight, troubled through college by too many parties and too much alcohol, finally emerged in 1991 as a U.S. and world champion.
Johnson, 29, the kid who threw rocks at cops and heisted beer kegs from a local distributor, grew to become a Christian athlete and a track star.
The decathlon also is a character, a beast of an event that requires men to master the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110 hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters.
Who better to sell a new line of cross-training shoes than two guys sculpted like Greek gods competing in a premier Olympic event? Reebok executives, looking for a daring and creative campaign, made their pitch last December.
"They told us they were going to make us household names," O'Brien said. "I couldn't believe it."
Even Johnson, who previously appeared in an ad with tennis player Michael Chang, was shocked.
"They brought out about 15 story boards and showed us what they were going to do," he said. "It blew me away. I knew how expensive one ad was. But 15?"
It started the night of Super Bowl XXVI, Jan. 26, 1992. Dan and Dave. Baby pictures.
"I invited a lot of people to my house and we had a party," Johnson said. "My mom called and told me it was like I had grown up all over again."
Through the months, Dan and Dave have fought over "top-secret" shoes, grunted and groaned through workouts, and stared down the likes of Greg Norman, Roger Clemens, Rocket Ismail and Dominique Wilkins. Dan's mom said her son would win in Barcelona. Dave's mom said her son would win. Finally, asked who would win the Olympic decathlon, Dan's ex-girlfriend (an actress playing the part) glared and said, "Definitely . . . Dave."
"Hey, all I know is my real ex-girlfriend hasn't called Dave yet," O'Brien said.
The first reviews were mixed. The company was getting calls from people who wanted to know who these "actors" were. Even Reebok executives admitted harboring second thoughts about the timing of the campaign. And the company, which controls 25 percent of the athletic shoe market in the United States, reported a 20 percent drop in sales during the past quarter.
But as the Olympics approach, momentum is building through humorous ads and T-shirt and hat promotions. The campaign, of course, could be derailed if either athlete is injured or fails to make the team.
O'Brien has a stress fracture in his right fibula, the long bone between the knee and ankle. Johnson is healthy. But there are no sure things in a decathlon.
"We're concerned for Dan," Ennals said. "We want them both to be at their best, taking the gold and silver at the Olympics. These guys will be huge in Barcelona. They're like Martin and Lewis."
Art will imitate life at the Summer Games. At the conclusion of the decathlon, NBC-TV will switch to the 15th and final Dan and Dave ad.
And what will America discover?
"We've got a climax," Ennals said. "But it's a secret."