Keg of trouble to toast of town Johnson's 1st races were with the police BARCELONA 92

August 02, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Dave Johnson trained for the decathlon by throwing rocks at cars, breaking into buildings, hauling away beer kegs and leaping over bushes as he was being pursued by police.

The man bidding to become the world's greatest athlete was once a bush-league juvenile delinquent. Nothing real serious. Just a little weekly theft from a beer distributor in his hometown of Missoula, Mont.

"Pre-decathlon training," he said. "I didn't even know it."

From beer to Barcelona, Johnson has pulled himself up by his Reeboks, and enters the 1992 Summer Olympics as the favorite for the decathlon gold. Beginning Wednesday, he'll be aiming for what may be the most demanding medal in track and field.

To most of America, Johnson simply remains part of a never-ending "Dan and Dave" advertising blitz. Dan O'Brien may have eliminated himself from the Olympics by failing to clear a height in the U.S. trials pole vault, but the commercials must go on.

The campaign to sell athletic shoes tends to obscure Johnson's greatness as an athlete. He may deliver punch lines with the split-second timing of a Vegas comic, but if you really want to see Johnson in action, spend 24 hours over two days under a broiling sun in a track stadium. There, he will perform the decathlon's 10 events -- 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters.

"When you've run the 1,500, it feels like you've been hit by a truck," Johnson said. "And then, we have an 11th event -- who can lay down and scream in agony the loudest."

The decathlon is the discipline for track and field's tough guys. The titles don't always go to the men who run the fastest, throw the longest and soar the highest. Often, they go to the ones who can outlast all their opponents, including fear and exhaustion.

"A lot of us don't have a tremendous talent," said two-time Olympic champion Daley Thompson of Great Britain. "We have determination to plug away for five, six, seven years, to get things right."

The description fits Johnson, now 29. At 6 feet 3, 200 pounds, he could have been a pro football defensive back, had he been a bit faster. Instead, at Azusa Pacific College, he found the decathlon and God.

A born-again Christian, Johnson said the world's greatest athlete isn't a man, "it's Jesus Christ."

Still, while some may be put off by the earnestness of Johnson's religious devotion, he claims that spirituality steered him on a path to athletic greatness.

"Sometimes, it's portrayed that my childhood was completely out of control," he said. "It could have been if I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I'm sure I would have been in the middle of gangs. Now, when I talk with kids, I can relate to their problems."

Meet him for the first time, and you discover a polite, gentle man. But you wouldn't want to be his training partner.

"Dave plays by the rules, but he goes to the edge to make things happen," said his coach, Terry Franson. "He trains like a maniac. He has gone through eight to 10 training partners. He burns them out. There isn't a decathlete here who can run with him, train with him. he'd blow them out in six minutes."

Despite his ability to outwork his rivals, Johnson has not found instant success in the decathlon. He was 11th at the 1984 trials, and it wasn't until two years later that he won the first of his four national titles.

But just when he should have been the dominant decathlete in the United States, along came O'Brien, a stronger, faster athlete who was expected to become the sport's first 9,000-point man after he won the 1991 world championship.

Johnson's plan all along for 1992 was to ride O'Brien's coattails, staying out of the limelight until Barcelona. But all that changed at the trials in New Orleans, when O'Brien failed in the pole vault and dipped from a record pace to 12th place.

"I almost started crying," Johnson said after he gave O'Brien a hug on the pole vault runway.

Six weeks later, Johnson is in Barcelona as the favorite. He's the sport's best second-day man, using his middle-distance speed to pile up points.

"I don't think he has looked at himself as the guy who will definitely win," Franson said. "He is going to go out and do his very best, and if he puts it together, that will put him at the top. He isn't going into this like the medal is in his hand."

But O'Brien said that Johnson will put up a number -- 8,600 -- and let others, led by Canadian Chris Smith, take aim.

"Dave is solid, the most dependable guy in the competition," O'Brien said. "He surprised me last year when he came back from some tough competitions. I thought he might wrap it up. But he looked good. He looked like he was in good shape. And now, he'll get his score. You can't wait for him to lose the decathlon. You have to go out and win it."

Johnson knows the score, and the lore. The decathlon is about myth-making. It's Bruce Jenner roaring around a curve in Montreal, and then picking up a tiny American flag on a victory lap. It's Rafer Johnson sticking to C.K. Yang's shoulder to win in Rome. And it's King Gustav V of Sweden, telling Jim Thorpe, winner of the first Olympic decathlon in 1912, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."

If he wins in Barcelona, the title, the gold, and yes, even the commercials, will belong to Johnson.

"With the decathlon, you don't think of records or medals," he said. "The first thing you think about is just finishing."

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