I Have an Ad Contract, Therefore I Am


July 03, 1992|By ED MOORE

Newport News, Virginia. -- Dan O'Brien isn't going to Barcelona and the public is shedding tears for both him and Reebok. Olympic athletes apparently no longer represent the United States, they now represent corporations.

There is some consternation that Reebok will have to change its $25 million ad campaign, which had 3 of 12 spots remaining to run, since the Dan and Dave duo lost one of the partners.

Poor Reebok, how could Mr. O'Brien burn the company after it gave him all that money? The thought process actually has some logic to it. The public didn't know who Mr. O'Brien was until the ad campaign began during the Super Bowl. Maybe he owes Reebok more than he owes the United States Olympic Committee.

This recent hostile takeover by corporate raiders had already infected other sports, of course, as the National Basketball Association learned when Nike told the league it would not allow the uncompensated use of Michael Jordan's likeness.

The commercialization of sports is so complete that many free agents choose teams based on sponsorship opportunities, which is the only way the Yankees can get players these days.

In the case of Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, he may choose an entire league based on that reality.

Such relationships were already the norm in some other countries, so the U.S. is following the trend. The phenomenon has been creeping toward U.S. shores for awhile.

Years ago a comic strip authored by a Pulitzer Prize winner depicted an overstuffed couch potato opening a beer whenever a commercial appeared on television during a sporting event. As observer in the strip noted, Madison Avenue was calling the shots in his life.

The shots are both pervasive and persuasive. When people watch football games together they talk during the game and fall silent to hear the commercials, especially if it's the start of a new high-profile campaign.

So Mr. O'Brien's gaffe brought protest. He was one of five U.S. track stars who were world champions in their event, yet missed making the Olympic team at the trials. Their missteps have fans calling for a change in the method used to select the Olympic team.

Why? Let the losers stay home. The Olympics isn't an all-comers meet.

The current focus is on choosing the hottest athlete at the time of the Olympics, the man or woman in peak form. Mr. O'Brien missed the Olympics because he wilted under pressure, and in theory, he might do so again at the Olympics.

Does the public want Mr. O'Brien, Carl Lewis and Mary Slaney in Barcelona because they are the best or because they are the best-known? If the latter, advertising, not performance, accomplished that feat.

Mr. O'Brien has never competed in an Olympics, Mrs. Slaney is one of the biggest flops in Olympic history and Mr. Lewis missed not because he had a couple of bad days but because his age finally became a handicap in a young person's sport. As a 30-year-old sprinter, he's older than dirt.

If casual fans don't know who the new track stars are, it's only because the young Olympians haven't yet been in ad campaigns, not because they haven't been running fast and winning races.

''I am a spokesman for a multimillion-dollar campaign, therefore I am,'' Rene Descartes must have meant to say.

Remember Bo Jackson? Deion Sanders has already replaced him as Nike's multi-sport ad star.

Mr. O'Brien missed millions of dollars when he missed the vault, and Reebok missed a golden opportunity. But the Olympics won't miss Mr. O'Brien. If you think so, Madison Avenue has you right where it wants you.

Ed Moore is assistant sports editor for the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia.

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