From heights of despair, O'Brien picks up his pole and takes aim at '96

Ken Rosenthal

July 31, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, SPAIN — "Accountants are predictable.

"Bankers are cautious.

"Politicians are tentative.

"But athletes are glorious."

BARCELONA, Spain -- That's what the first Reebok post-mortem said, but Dan O'Brien doesn't always feel so glorious, knowing he cost himself an estimated $5 million.

"I kind of look at that," he said, "and go, 'Yuck.' "

He went from Olympic decathlon favorite to NBC analystReebok spokesman and Dave Johnson supporter, but he came to Barcelona anyway, going for the gold in dignity if nothing else.

"I could have run a heck of a 1,500 for $5 million," he said yesterday. "Sometimes I look back and think, 'This is just the pits.' But that feeling only lasts 10 minutes at a time."

Meanwhile, the commercials keep coming, and Dan keephealing. His blown pole vault at the Olympic trials was one of the most financially devastating moments in sports history, but he's still only 25.

He's talking now about 1996, and he's continuing his training oa practice track in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. He isn't yet sure of his exact duties for NBC, but it's possible he'll be down on the track for the decathlon, interviewing Dave.

L "Hopefully," he said, "I'll have the best seat in the house."

His Reebok contract runs through '93, and he's expecting an extension through '96. He proudly notes that he hasn't lost any of his six other sponsors -- Visa, Juice Bowl, Fuji Film, Ray-Ban, McDonald's and Chevrolet.

Still . . . .

"It took a good week to get over it," Dan said. "After a decathlonI don't do a lot except rest. I just sat around, played golf and thought about it. It was just unbelievable to me.

"I didn't know what to do with myself. I planned on it so muchYou have to reassess your goals, pick up the pieces. I was even

saying, 'After I win the gold, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' "

The crazy part is, he's even more popular now. Dan wonderehow people would react when he failed to meet his hype, but he's getting more fan mail than ever, the overwhelming majority of it positive.

America loves a loser, a gracious loser most of all. And so Reebok got lucky. Perhaps you've seen the new Dan and Dave commercials. A spokesman for Reebok said they would not have been possible if Dan had reacted bitterly to his loss.

In the latest spot, he's sitting in a lounge chair, under an umbrella, on a track infield. He's clutching a bowl of popcorn, his cool drink resting on a table, as Dave prepares frantically for Barcelona.

"C'mon Dave, faster!" Dan shouts.

A javelin lands at his feet.

"Just kidding, Dave."

At the trials, he wept after blowing the pole vault, but stilcompleted the last two events of the decathlon. Later, when reporters hesitated to interview him, he broke the tension by joking, "C'mon, I know you guys have questions."

"Growing up, my parents always taught me to be a good loser,Dan said. "Losing for me was not difficult. What was difficult was knowing that there are three guys on the U.S. team that weren't as good as me."

He won the 1991 world championships in Tokyo. He expected to become the first decathlete to clear 9,000 points. But at the trials, he could not clear 15 feet, 9 inches in the pole vault, a height he exceeded by 10 inches at a recent meet in Stockholm.

Dan called it "a fluke, a mishap," but NBC approached him almost immediately, "a pick-me-up right there," he said. His spirits were further boosted when an enthusiastic crowd greeted him at the airport in his hometown of Moscow, Idaho.

Athletes are glorious.

But now Dan is in Barcelona.

"I was watching gymnastics the other day," he said. "KiZmeskal was competing in the floor exercise. I saw 50 cameras all getting ready. They were right on her.

"I looked down there and had thoughts of Tokyo, when all thcamera people were surrounding me. I'm going to miss it. You look forward to that. You're competing for the crowd. You're putting on a show."

So now, he's aiming for '96. In February, he plans to compete ithe heptathlon at the world indoor championships in Toronto. A year from now, he'll defend his decathlon title at the world outdoor championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

Just imagine:

Dan and Dave II.

"As an athlete, you feel left out. As a person, you feel you didn'achieve your goals. But as a role model, it will make a great comeback story," Dan said.

"I've already been talking to kids about it. I tell them, 'You've goto keep striving for excellence. You've got to keep chugging along.' "

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