The curtain closes early on Dan, Dave Pre-Olympic hype unfolds quite unlike real-life script

July 01, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

There's Ricky and Lucy and Ozzie and Harriet and Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy and Kate and Allie and the Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Tastes Great and Less Filling and Dan and Dave.

Television characters all, millions of dollars ride on their ability to appeal to the collective taste and imagination of the American public.

The problem was that nobody got to write a script for Dan and Dave, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, the two decathletes whose battle for the title of the world's greatest athlete was, television told us again and again, "to be settled in Barcelona."

So, when something slipped in the sinews and synapses, Reebok's continuing advertising drama came crashing down along with the pole vault bar that Dan failed to clear three times during the Olympic trials in New Orleans.

Television, particularly in the eyes of all the youngsters who tune into sports for their clear-cut, exuberant drama, had lied. Unlike every series or sitcom -- or even those ongoing will-they-or-won't-they Taster's Choice ads -- this drama would never make it out of the first act. Nothing would be settled in Barcelona.

Such a pre-event letdown is fairly new for the Olympics. It used to be that the audience tuned in to see not the Michael Jordans or Reggie Jacksons whose names and faces and ad campaigns were all-too-familiar, but to watch unknowns, emerging from the shadows of their obscure disciplines, their dedication shining in this quadrennial spotlight.

"I remember the first Winter Olympics we did, in 1964," Jim McKay, the perennial voice of ABC's coverage, said. "Terry McDermott was a barber from Bay City, Wisc. We didn't even know much about him. And he wins the United States' only gold medal in speed skating.

"Four years later, with Peggy Fleming, there was some build-up because of her age and she was the world champion. Olga Korbut certainly came out of nowhere in 1972, and that caused a build-up for Nadia Comaneci four years later.

"Then you have the U.S. hockey team in 1980 that wasn't even supposed to make it to the medal round and wins the gold. Those are the type of Olympic stories that are great for kids, the ones that tell you that if you work hard enough you can achieve your goal."

But that victory caused ABC to over-promote hockey four years later going into the Sarajevo games. When Team USA flopped early, the network had to scramble.

There were few athletes who labored in more obscurity than the decathletes, these jack of ten trades, masters of all, whose names and scores are known only to the most dedicated of track and field fans in non-Olympic years.

An American winner of the Olympic decathlon can cash in big time, as Bruce Jenner, the last U.S. gold medalist, did following his 1976 victory. Reebok's ad campaign was simply lifting the veil from these men in advance, cashing in on, and contributing to, the hype that has become part of the Olympic year.

"It's all because the networks have to get a certain rating because there is so much money involved," said Bud Greenspan who has produced a series of award-winning films on the Olympics and will head to Barcelona later this month to film there.

"To me, the Olympics used to be for sports what Christmas was to all other holidays -- in a class by itself. I put it up on a pedestal. The World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA tournament, they are all fine, but the Olympics was a grade above.

Like most creations of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Dan and Dave were images. "You know that Nike commercial, where Andre Agassi says 'Image is everything'?" Mr. McKay said. "I think that's terrible. What kind of message is that to give to a kid?"

Three bad misses in the pole vault delivered the message that Dan and Dave were not just images, they were Dan Johnson and Dave O'Brien, real people with real lives that do not follow scripts. Which might not be a bad message to give to a kid.

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