Sorry, Reebok, but O'Brien isn't first sure thing to leave with no place to go

Phil Jackman

June 29, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Tragedy was the word used and that seemed a might excessive.

To be sure, it's a huge disappointment not only to Dan O'Brien but to track and field fans everywhere that Dan won't be representing the United States in the Summer Olympics. But is it calamitous, disastrous or fatal?

The decathlete cried a little bit, took a deep breath and was back out competing after failing to attain a height in the pole vault, thus killing his chances to compete in the Barcelona Games.

Meanwhile, his sponsor, Reebok, cried a whole lot, contemplated hara-kiri and quickly moved to salvage all it could from the $25 million "Dan & Dave" advertising campaign. But that's a whole other shameful story.

O'Brien, the world champion in the decathlon and a better than even bet to someday break the 9,000-point barrier in the event, is far from the first athlete to have the world come crashing down around his ears at the Olympic trials. Or at the Games themselves.

For instance, there was George Brown, far and away the best long jumper in the world 40 years ago and a shoo-in for a gold medal. He didn't make the squad.

How about Harrison Dillard? No one could touch "Bones" when it came to scaling the fences in the 110-meter high hurdles. Unbelievably, Dillard failed to qualify as a hurdler, so he regrouped, made the team as a sprinter and won a gold medal in the 100-meter --.

The best sprinter in the world in 1956 was probably Dave Sime, out of Duke. Just before the trials, however, he popped a hamstring and was laid low.

"Best description I heard about what happened to O'Brien was provided by Dwight Stones on the telecast," said Navy's track and field coach Al Cantello, who was on hand at the trials in New Orleans. "Stones [a three-time Olympian] explained how an athlete gets excited, his legs overreact and all of a sudden his stride is off."

Cantello knows all about anxiety. It overtook him as a javelin thrower at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

"I expended way too much energy during qualifying," he recalled. "As a competitor, you're up real early the day of your event and you're so psyched and apprehensive anything you ate burns off in no time. There were three rounds of qualifying and I was in the third group, throwing at noon.

"I had a good one right off, but you get three attempts during qualifying and I was still throwing 2 1/2 hours later."

Cantello, who entered the competition as the world record-holder in the event, easily made the final as the second-place finisher with a heave of 267 feet. The final was the next day and, as Al put it, "there was absolutely no zip left in my arm."

"Same thing happened to a guy from Poland named Sidlo who finished first in the qualifier. He finished eighth in the final and I was 10th. Of course I was disappointed, but these days a guy like O'Brien has so much more at stake . . . he lost a million dollars."

And that's why a pretty decent argument has ensued regarding the strategy used by O'Brien and his coaches in the vault, eighth stop on the 10-event program. After a monstrous, record-setting first day, Dan was golden through the hurdles and discus at the start of the second day.

The beginning height in the pole vault was 14 feet, 5 inches. O'Brien decided to jump in at 15-9. He missed three times, got no points and was to all intents and purposes eliminated from the U.S. traveling squad.

One side points out that 15-9 didn't figure to be a problem for the athlete because he had been handling 16 feet in practice. The operative words here are in practice.

"In the decathlon," explained Cantello, "who wins or loses doesn't matter. It's you against the book. O'Brien hadn't vaulted in competition since his [foot] injury. Taking a beginning height would probably have gotten him into a groove. At 14-5, he probably could have made three mistakes and still made the adjustments to 'get on the book.' If worse comes to worst, you take your 700 points and move on.

"I can remember beating Maryland one time when they had vaulters coming in at 16-6 and missing. Those kids were good and could make that height, but suddenly they pressed and, sure enough, a plebe would win it with a height of 15 feet."

Just as big a deal as the kid's bad day, probably bigger, has been the reaction of the shoe company's ad campaign. What does Reebok do now? Several company spokesmen were on hand to express their grief and whatever. Such a reaction is sad, just as the sight of 50 corporate tents at the site of the trials was sad.

* Vern Novak, a two-time All-American golfer at the University of Maryland in the early 1960s and a PGA tourist for five years, has died at 50. The Minnesota native was stricken on a golf course in Houston during qualification for a U.S. Senior golf event.

After leading the Terps to the ACC title as the individual champion in the conference, Novak enjoyed success on the pro tour until losing his card upon entering military service. He worked public relations for an oil company in Houston the last several years, maintaining his golf game at the point where he was looking to join the PGA Senior Tour momentarily. He is survived by his wife Diane and two daughters.

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