Pole-vault flop costly to O'Brien No Dan, just Dave headed for Barcelona

REVERSALS OF FORTUNE

June 28, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- The athlete wept. The corporation buckled.

In the perfect world created on Madison Avenue, this does not happen. They don't serve up New Coke for the Olympics, and they don't mint imitation heroes.

Yesterday, Dan O'Brien lost.

One moment, he was the decathlete for the ages, a man hurtling down a pole vault runway on a world-record pace. The next, he was flopping into the pit, the bar tumbling beside him, his Olympic dream --ed in a half-empty Tad Gormley Stadium.

When O'Brien failed to clear a height in the decathlon pole vault and get a score, he didn't just finish 11th in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, he took down an entire $30 million advertising campaign for Reebok.

Dan and Dave? To be decided in Barcelona, Spain? Not this year.

"I felt real numb at first," O'Brien said. "It was like a dream. And then I cried."

The athlete will recover. So will the company.

Dave Johnson, the other half of Reebok's "Dan and Dave" advertising team, won with 8,649 points. Aric Long was second with 8,237, and Rob Muzzio was third with 8,163.

Still, the impact of the upset was seen within 10 minutes of O'Brien's lunch-hour pole-vault miss, when the company ordered two ads lifted from the NBC-TV broadcast.

Dan and Dave out. Roger Clemens and Rocket Ismail in.

"The campaign is definitely not dead," said Reebok spokesman John Gillis. "The campaign continues. It just needs a slight adjustment."

Like a new script.

This was the scene: In the stands were fans wearing Dan and Dave T-shirts and hats, waving Dan and Dave cardboard fans, watching Dan and Dave compete. Outside the stadium were harried Reebok executives, holding impromptu news conferences, talking of improved sales, an increased market share, a boost to a new line of cross-training shoes.

"We're devastated for Dan," said Ford Ennals, Reebok president. "Obviously, there is a gamble. But it was one we were willing to take."

But this was more than a corporate story -- it was a personal battle. O'Brien, 25, adopted into a family of eight at age 2, a man who overcame a checkered college career and problems with alcohol to become the 1991 world champion. He was the athlete picked for Olympic gold, deemed most likely to crash decathlon's 9,000-point barrier.

Instead, he crashed in the pole vault.

"The decathlon is a beast, a beast that can devour you," said O'Brien's coach, Mike Keller. "It's like good, old-fashioned New England democracy. Nothing is given to you. You have to do it."

Through seven events, O'Brien was leading by 512 points and chasing history, Daley Thompson's world record established at the 1984 Summer Games of Los Angeles. And then, in the eighth event, disaster. O'Brien couldn't clear 15-9, even though he had soared over 16 feet in practice.

"I kept asking them to count that practice jump," O'Brien said, a grin spreading across his face.

"What happened in the pole vault? I didn't make a height. I kept knocking the bar down."

The other decathletes knew the score. Tough luck for O'Brien. An opening on the Olympic team. Johnson walked over to his rival and gave him a hug.

"I knew he needed that hug," Johnson said. "I was so mad, I almost cried. He's a good friend. A partner."

O'Brien left the track and headed to a corporate box leased by Visa, the sponsor of the U.S. decathlon team. He talked with Olympic champions Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner. They consoled him. And then they demanded he continue.

"This is a tragedy," Jenner said. "Dan O'Brien is the best decathlete in the world, and he's not going to the Olympics."

Jenner has seen decathlon disaster before. In 1975, a year before he claimed Olympic gold, Jenner lost the U.S. championship because he failed to clear a height in the pole vault.

"You miss the first jump, you start to panic," Jenner said. "You miss the second one, and you go numb. And, on the third attempt, you have no chance."

O'Brien would not quit. He had a personal-best throw of 199-2 in the javelin and jogged home in 4:46.53 in the 1,500 and finished with 7,856 points.

Later, he would talk of going on to France to compete in another decathlon, of watching the Olympics and cheering for his American teammates, of working another four years to prepare for the 1996 Games at Atlanta.

"With his eyes, Dan said, the next four years will be his," Johnson said. "By the time Atlanta comes, you'll be sick of us. It will be Dan and Dave all over again."

But who can be sure? In the trials, in the decathlon, failure can become part of the game, transforming a cute campaign into a compelling drama.

"I didn't lose," O'Brien said. "I finished."

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