Season 1 Episode 1

The Trials of Dan and Dave

The 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona produced a great many heroes, but in the months leading up to the Games, television viewers were led to believe that they were all about decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson — who were competing not only for the United States but for Reebok, as well. The ad campaign cost some $25 million and made them stars. 25 years later, we revisit the hype, how the campaign went bust — and Dan O’Brien’s path to redemption.
Duration: 52mins

Transcript

JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, you’re listening to 30 for 30 podcasts, presented by Mini Countryman.

 

Today, the Trials of Dan and Dave, it’s the story of a 1992 Reebok ad campaign 25 years ago this summer, unlike anything anyone had seen before.

 

Reebok spent some 25 million dollars on the campaign featuring two top decathletes, a sum equal to their entire previous year’s marketing budget.

 

Those who remember the story, remember it as a bust, but there are many more twist and turns along the way for Reebok, the two athletes and the sport of track and field.

 

One note, this episode features references to legendary decathlete Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner prefers to be referred to as Bruce in regards to her decathlon career.

 

And a heads up, this episode includes mature language.

 

 

*       *       *       *       *

 

 

[Announcer, 1992 Super Bowl: Live at the Metrodome in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Super Bowl number XXVI]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: So, I had a party at my apartment and I got the six–foot subway sub. That was, that was the centerpiece, the six–foot sub. And, you know, because I had a little money and it’s like, man, I bought all the booze all the beer and had quite a few people come over.  And it got wild. It got a little wild.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Super Bowl 26. January 26, 1992. Almost 80 million people watching on television, many of them from parties like the one at Dan O’Brien’s house.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Everybody was drinking beer and then we got into the hard alcohol and it was really fun.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dan is watching from Moscow, Idaho. Dave Johnson is watching from Los Angeles, California.

 

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I probably had 30 or 40 people at my house with multiple TVs set up. And everybody’s there and I kind of kept it a little bit of a secret. I just let them know, “Wait till you see what’s going to be on here.”

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: So, the first commercial comes on and it‘s super short.  

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: It’s in the third quarter just before a Pepsi ad featuring Cindy Crawford. The first Dan and Dave commercial runs featuring old photographs and grainy videos of two toddlers: Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson.  

 

 

[Narrator, ’92 Reebok Ad:

NARRATOR: Dan can run a 100 meters in 10.3 seconds. Dave can high jump 6 feet 10 and ¾ inches. This summer theyll battle it out in Barcelona for title of Worlds Greatest Athlete.]

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The voiceover expounds on the men’s athletic feats, but the visuals, are just the photos of the two toddlers.

 

DAN O’BRIEN:  Me in a bathtub. Dave on a bike.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: It was just little kids.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And that‘s it. And everybody kind of looks around like, that‘s it? What the heck was that?

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Then, later in the same commercial break, another short ad runs.

 

[Narrator, ‘92 Reebok Ad

NARRATOR: Dan can throw a 16 lb. shot put 53 feet 3 inches. Dave can hurl a javelin 236 feet]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: More pictures and home videos.  Only in this one, the kids are a little older, maybe 5 or 6. The second ad ends the same way as the first. A quick Reebok logo, and a promise.

 

[Narrator, ’92 Reebok Ad

NARRATOR: This summer theyll battle it out in Barcelona for title of Worlds Greatest Athlete.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I didn’t know what to expect. They didn‘t show us the commercials before we saw them at the Super Bowl.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Reebok ran two more commercials, making four total, all that same quarter, all during the third quarter and all of them just 15 seconds long.

 

 

[Narrator, ’92 Reebok Ad

NARRATOR:  Dan won the decathlon at the World Track and Field Championships. Dave won the decathlon at the Goodwill Games. This summer theyll battle it out in Barcelona for the title of Worlds Greatest Athlete.]

 

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I remember people really being confused at first and then eventually they were going, “Man, that is genius.” They’re talking about how amazing that Reebok thought of doing small little commercials all the way to where there’s a culmination of what they really were talking about and that’s these two athletes that are going to go to the Olympics this year and it’s going to be settled in Barcelona.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: By the way, the game– it’s pretty lame, with Washington beating Buffalo 37-24. But, the ads have made their impact.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: When the Super Bowl was over and the party was over and everybody got out of there, it was, it was a little bit shocking really like wow, we‘re here to celebrate commercials that I was in. Hm.  

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I remember sitting with a group of people that I had there and they’re all kind of going, “I can’t believe that we’re here with Dave,” and I never really thought of myself that way that somebody would think it’s cool to be with Dave.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: That was the first time I really sat there, I was going, I mean, people are going to know who I am now. I remember almost being scared, what do you do with that?

 

 

[90s Reebok Ad [Song]: Get your body into the right stuff. Its best gear from the ground up. Reebok!]

 

RICK SITTIG: In 92, Reebok was known primarily known as a shoe your mom took aerobics classes in and they were desperate to increase their athletic credibility.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: In 1992, Rick Sittig worked for Chiat Day, the ad agency hired to put together Reebok’s latest campaign.

 

 

RICK SITTIG: The task was pretty daunting. We’ve got two guys no one has ever heard of in an event no one really cares about. All the best known athletes were Nike athletes. The Michael Jordans of the world, the most famous professional athletes in the world. If we wanted to stand out, we needed to do something else. The basic ideas was that in sports circles, the winner of the decathlon is the World‘s Greatest Athlete.

 

And so It wasn‘t hard for Reebok to get excited about a campaign that said, who’s the world‘s greatest athlete, this Reebok athlete you’ve never heard of or this other Reebok athlete you’ve never heard of?

 

DAN O’BRIEN: The decathlon by nature is in my opinion the toughest of all the track and field events

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The decathlon is so tough because it combines so much. It’s ten events, contested over the course of two days, each one adding to a competitor’s overall point total. Day 1 is the 100 meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, and the 400 meter run.  Day 2 is the 110 meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and last, the 1500 meter run.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: and it attracts some really interesting individuals… we don‘t say that athletes find the decathlon. We say that the the decathlon will find those athletes. That’s what happened to me, and I think that’s what happened to Dave.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Born in 1963, Dave Johnson grew up in Montana and Oregon.  By his own admission, he was hardly the model young man …

 

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I was one of those kids that was in a lot of trouble growing up I was actually throwing snowballs at cars. And I think I did definitely learn how to throw so well because I was able to stand farther back than anybody else and throw that apple, or throw that snowball, throw that rock.

 

I remember the first time a coach told me what the decathlon was, he said you should do the decathlon. I thought he said marathon, “Coach, no, I’m the hurdler. I don’t run distance.” And he goes, “No, no. The decathlon,” he said, “you know, Bruce Jenner.”

 

 And I go, “Well, Bruce Jenner, that’s the guy on Chips. I remember watching television, Jenner was on a show called Chips at the time. He was doing a cameo with them, so I just knew him as a Hollywood TV guy. He said, “No, he was an Olympic medalist.”

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dave Johnson was hooked. Dan O’Brien also grew up in Oregon, just a few hours south of Dave, near the small town of Klamath Falls. And he also had his ups and down before finding his sport.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Well growing up in Southern Oregon to me always felt like I was out of place. You know, we had six adopted kids in the family. I have a sister who‘s biracial like myself, a little brother who‘s Hispanic. I have a Native–American sister and then two Korean sisters.

 

Well, when you‘re the only kid of color or kids of color in your entire town, which the O‘Brien family was, you know, it‘s interesting because all you want to do when you‘re young is fit in. Blend in. Go along get along. And there we are looking like the Rainbow Coalition every time we get out of the car and go to church, the movies. It‘s a very weird feeling when everybody is watching you. And I can just remember thinking why are people staring at me? Why are people staring at us? This is just our regular family.

 

It wasn’t until I got into team sports that I felt like I belonged. I always thought that sports was the equalizer for me. Didn‘t matter what you looked like or where you came from if you were good at sports you were good.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: And Dan was good. He became a star athlete in high school, landed a scholarship at the University of Idaho, and there, started to compete in the decathlon. And in his senior year, 1988, he first crossed paths with Dave Johnson, a few years older, and already well established on the scene.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: You know, Dave was the best American, up until that point.

 

JODY AVIRGAN: But Dan’s star was rising quickly and others in the tight–knit track community were noticing.

 

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: I’m Jackie Joyner–Kersee, the world’s greatest female athlete.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Jackie Joyner–Kersee can say that, even now, thanks to her six Olympic medals, and the heptathlon world record she set in 1988 that still stands today.

 

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: When you see this young talent, it’s just a matter of time until they gonna have this breakthrough.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Well it’s interesting, Jackie Joyner–Kersee made the comment that I could be the next Bruce Jenner. And that was what I was striving to do, most of my career. He was the hero we all needed in 1976. He was the golden boy.

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: And Dan was that very explosive athlete. I mean he was just this young kid, very raw, very talkative, and he had a personality that could pull people to him.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: We were a perfect combination. I think he and I were a great duo that was meant to be, where we were going to push each other to the levels that we ended up going to.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: And by the time the 1992 Barcelona Olympics came into view, Dan and Dave had pushed each other to the top of the global stage.

 

[Narrator, ’92 Reebok Ad

NARRATOR: Dan won the decathlon at the World Track & Field Championships. Dave won the decathlon at the Goodwill Games.]

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: You know, usually, the multi–events were dominated by the Europeans, and finally, in America, it’s the breakthrough and now all of a sudden, it’s like, wow, you start seeing this young talent put it all together.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: And among the observers who took notice were executives at Reebok. Your mom’s apparel company was on the hunt for athletes to get into business with. Dan and Dave, two dominant competitors, but unknown personalities, were the perfect fit.

 

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: Here are two athletes putting our sport, you know, in the limelight. To have that commercial showing during the Super Bowl was, wow.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And we kind of looked at each other and said “wow?”

 

DAVE JOHNSON: These two young little decathletes are getting attention and it’s about time track and field athletes got that.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: The decathlon? Really? Us? This is unheard of.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I can’t believe they’re asking us to do this. This is what Jordan does, Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, all the best basketball and football guys do.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: With Dan and Dave, Reebok was looking to promote their new “cross–trainer” to the masses, a shoe designed for use across multiple sports and workouts.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: The greatest athlete at the time was Bo Jackson, and he played two sports.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Bo knew ‘everything’, Nike’s ad campaign went.  But the truth was, Dan and Dave were more equipped to back up that claim.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: So when I look at Bo Jackson he‘s a great baseball player he‘s a great football player, but you know what, I thought I was the world‘s greatest athlete because I could do 10 events.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: And that thought played right into the case Reebok was trying to make, as they rolled out more and more ads after the Super Bowl.

 

 

[’92 Reebok Ad

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Hi, worlds greatest athlete here to talk to you about Reeboks new running cross trainer

 

DAN OBRIEN: Hi worlds greatest athlete here to talk to you

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Hey! Excuse me! Reebok asked me to talk about the new running cross trainer.

 

DAN OBRIEN: No, no, no, this is my commercial!

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Its mine!

 

DAN OBRIEN: Mine!]

 

STEVE MILLER: The boldness of Reebok to come out with two people was really incredible.

 

[’92 Reebok Ad (cont.):

 

NARRATOR: Introducing the new running crosstrainer, the official shoe of the worlds greatest athletes

 

DAVE JOHNSON: The public likes me better!

 

DAN OBRIEN: Im better looking!]

 

STEVE MILLER: My name is Steve Miller and at the time of Dan and Dave I was the head of US sports marketing for Nike. We became very aware of the fact that Reebok was onto something very special.

 

What you‘re looking for as a consumer is somebody who does something you can‘t do or something you aspire to do or somebody who inspires you. And Dan & Dave caught the eye and the ear of consumers throughout the country and globally, as well.

 

Each time that Reebok ran the commercial and revised it and upgraded it, you became more affectionate to the two athletes.

 

RICK SITTIG: And so people picked their favorites.

 

            [’92 Reebok Ad:

 

NARRATOR: Who is the worlds greatest athlete? Dan or Dave?

 

NARRATOR: Dans Mom

DANS MOM: Dan!

           

                        NARRATOR: Daves Mom

DAVES MOM: Dave

 

NARRATOR: Dans dentist

DANS DENTIST: Dan

 

NARRATOR: Daves mailman

DAVES MAILMAN: Dave

 

NARRATOR: Dans girlfriend

DANS GIRLFRIEND: Dan

 

NARRATOR: Daves wife

DAVES WIFE: Dave

 

NARRATOR: Dans exgirlfriend

DANS EXGIRLFRIEND: Definitely, Dave

 

NARRATOR: To be settled in Barcelona]

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Reebok had a hit on their hands.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I remember being in meetings and Reebok was just talking. We’re going to compete with Nike. We’re finally getting there.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Reebok had filmed dozens of commercials to air during the spring, and while Dan and Dave already knew each other as rivals, the filming brought them closer together as friends.

 

 

DAVE JOHNSON: We were competing against each other to be better actors. But we were both not very good. And I think we both kind of knew that.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: And there was plenty of down time to bond on set.

 

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I couldn’t believe for a thirty second commercial

 

DAN O’BRIEN: It’s setting up cameras and all kinds of stuff

 

DAVE JOHNSON: It would take two days of twelve hour a day shooting.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And you just sit around

 

DAVE JOHNSON: To shoot thirty seconds.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Finally, they call for you, and you do an hour’s worth of work. And Dave and I looked at the each other a couple times and we said, “I can’t believe what a waste of time this is.”

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: By late February, Dan and Dave were on talk shows. Dan and Dave were giving joint press conferences. Dan and Dave were being profiled on local morning TV.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Dave and I got to shoot a commercial with Sinbad, the comedian. He was the most incredible guy because he was so chill off camera but then when the lights were on he went crazy. “Hey everybody I’m Sinbad and I’m here with Dan and Dave and we’re playing basketball today.” And at the end of the day my stomach hurt because I was laughing so hard and Sinbad was maybe the worst athlete I’d ever seen.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Here I was one of the top five people sports celebrity figures in the U.S.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Everybody knew who Dan and Dave was.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I remember Dan and I were going, what do we do with this?

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Well, an athlete‘s life is pretty simple. You get up, you train, you eat, you go to bed, and you just repeat that cycle each and every day. When Dan and Dave campaign was going on you know my life got complicated.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I couldn’t go anywhere. I mean there was nothing—I’d go to an outhouse and come out and there was a camera there to see if I wash my hands I guess.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And that‘s what I wasn‘t prepared for to is to understand that you know what I just wasn‘t another face in the crowd.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: It got to a point where I told my manager we can‘t do this anymore. We just stopped appearances. We’ve got to get this thing going. I mean I’ve got like four months up until the trials.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The trials. The first Dan and Dave ads aired at the Super Bowl in January 1992. The Olympics were in Barcelona in July.

 

 

            [Narrator, ’92 Reebok Ad

NARRATOR: To be settled in Barcelona]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: When Reebok approached Dave and I and told us about the Dan and Dave campaign, the first thing both of us said was, “You know neither of us are on the team yet. Neither of us have made this Olympics team. We still have to go through the Olympics trials.”

 

[Announcer,1992 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: Hello everyone and welcome to New Orleans at the US Olympic track and field trials a day already dominated by…]

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: In 1992 the United States Olympic track and field trials were held at Tad Gormley stadium in New Orleans the last week of June.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I arrived in New Orleans and I think the first thing I noticed when I got off the plane was, it was hot.  

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: The heat was blistering

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Upper 90s with 99% humidity or something like that.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Phew! Like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: Everywhere you went, Dan and Dave, Dan and Dave. All eyes are on who is going to represent the United States and who would go on and win the gold medal.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: You have the pressure, a little bit, for me, with Reebok and the money they had spent. And I’d better make Olympic team was in my mind because everybody’s wanting to know who’s better. We gotta see who wins in Barcelona, that’s the commercial.

                                                               

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Meanwhile, the trials were Reebok’s last big marketing event before Barcelona and the company took full advantage

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN:  And I noticed everyone was wearing these white t–shirts,

 

DAVE JOHNSON: And hats that had “Dan” or “Dave” on them.

 

DAN O’BRIEN:  They either have a red “Dan”

 

DAVE JOHNSON: And blue “Daves”.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And when you get into the stadium, everybody’s wearing the t–shirts. It’s almost like somebody dropped them from a helicopter to these people in the stands. At least half the people are wearing these white t–shirts.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The top three finishers in the New Orleans decathlon would qualify for the Olympics and the first day of events, a Saturday, went according to script, with Dan and Dave both racking up tons of points.  Dave, as usual, was solid, while DAN O’BRIEN, the reigning world champion, shot into first place.   

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Somebody was telling me that I was ahead of world record pace, so that made me feel pretty good.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Dan was on fire.

 

JODY AVIRGAN: If there were any concerns for either of them, it was a lingering foot injury for Dave.  But he was the best second–day decathlete of all time and the headlines leading into Sunday were all about whether or not he could catch up to his arch–rival.

 

[Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: They dominated the airwaves, now their battle really begins. Dan OBrien and Dave Johnson, who will win the decathlon?]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Over the first two events of the second day, hurdles and discus, Dave started to close the gap.

 

And then—

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Sure enough, we got to pole vault.

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The pole vault.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: The most stressful time, I think, for a decathlete or the coaches is the start of the pole vault decathlon. Any coach will tell you that‘s where they‘re the most worried.

 

JODY AVIRGAN: In the pole vault, competitors aim to clear increasing heights one–by–one. The higher the bar, the more points received.  Each vaulter gets three attempts on a given height and each can choose whatever height they’d like to start at. But, if they fail to clear the bar at that first height, they get no points.

 

To start earning relatively high points immediately, Dan and Dave made the same aggressive choice, to begin their vault at 15 feet, 9 inches.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: The higher vaulters, it takes a while to get to your turn to vault at your starting height, so you warm up and they might give you a few other warm ups but it‘s never enough.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: It‘s the eighth event. You‘re feeling your legs a little bit and the sun was really starting to get hot.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: While we‘re sitting around, the cameras or in our faces. They‘re following us wherever we go and I remember just thinking how distracting that was.

           

DAN O’BRIEN: Well, by the time the warm ups ended, it was almost two solid hours till I took my first jump.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I vaulted first. I remember that.  And so I made my first height and had no problem with it, other than my foot was getting more and more sore. Sat down and was battling the heat again and I remember seeing his first attempt at that same height.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: You know, once they call my name, I kind of looked down the runway, kind of assess the wind, look over at the coach and he gives me a thumbs up. All I remember is putting my hands up way too late and so literally I just went straight up and straight down with hardly any bend in the pole.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: He looked like he‘d never vaulted before, just something was way wrong than I’d never seen him have.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And so on my next attempt I make all the adjustments come down the runway, good take off good plant. I feel like I‘m way over the bar. And I come down on it slightly. And the bar falls off. And then I start to think, it’s like, oh, no, I‘m on a third attempt. You don‘t want to be in third attempt. At an opening bar. At an Olympic Trials.

 

[Announcer,1992 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: This height or thats it. Thats where he has lost maybe all chance. He had been on a world record pace and now risking not even qualifying for the team. The pressure has to be immense. Did you ever experience…]

 

DAVE JOHNSON: That’s when I sat up and said “What is going on here?” And it was kind of a– it was kind of a quiet in the stands or wasn‘t as much, “Dan,” “Dave,” “Dan,” “Dave.”

 

DAN O’BRIEN: You kind of see the crowd begin to stir a little bit. Other athletes sit up and they look over your direction. “Oh, O‘Brien‘s got two misses. It‘s his opening bar. Is that his opener? Oh, did he make one? No, I thought I saw him make one.” Then you hear the people talking in the crowd, as well. It’s like, “No, no he made one. I saw him make one about an hour ago.” No, that was a warmup.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: The third attempt he might’ve taken a little run and then stopped and went back.

 

[Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: This is his third and final attempt and he goes down the wrong way and stops. That was not a good sign right away.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: As soon as I start my run on the third attempt, I get a big gust of wind coming from the right and so I stop.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: He just didn‘t look confident.

 

            [Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: This is it. Hes not on the team if he doesnt make his height and he knows it and its going through his mind.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And just telling myself, “Settle down. Just relax. Just relax.” And so I get back there and I take off and down the runway I go.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: There‘s a look on his face like I‘m just going to go and I‘ll makes sure I make it

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And I feel pretty good. I plant the pole. The next thing you know I‘m stalled out on the top and I‘m looking at the bar, and I think, get over it somehow. And I can’t.

 

            [Announcers, ‘92 Olympic Trials:

TOM HAMMOND: And Its not even close.

 

DWIGHT STONES: No, he went on to the bar.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I come crashing down to the pit and I‘m just in a daze. “What happened? What, what happened?” And at that moment I wanted to turn to somebody and say, “Help me.”

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: It was it was almost as if the sun, all that heat, that it became cloudy and it became dark because you knew something bad had happened.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I blew a chance to go to the Olympic Games. I‘m not on this Olympic team.

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: It was, it was devastating.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I was devastated. I just tried to get away from people. But there’s guys with cameras, there’s people and so I cried that I didn’t make the team, I cried that I let everybody down. I was kind of in a daze, just freaked out by all of it.

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: The thought never ever crossed my mind that Dan nor Dave would not make that Olympic team. And that just wasn‘t a thought.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: My main goal is to win an Olympic gold medal here. And that was what my coaches and I thought all along. And we were so not ready for it, we were not ready to fail, to not make this team, to not win this meet.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: It was hard. Everybody was still in disbelief. You could hear the buzz in the stands.  

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it.” You are the best athlete in the world and I knew it was hard to deal with dealing with all the commercials and all the hype and everything that went into it.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: It was too much. It was a lot to have to deal with all at once.  

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: And the first thing I thought about is I got to get to him and tell him “It‘s going to be okay.” Because I cared about him as a person.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: You know we were Dan and Dave singular and everywhere we went we had to be that person. It was one of those things where, dang the perfect situation wasn‘t happening. The exact thing that would have been what everybody wanted to see, wasn’t going to happen.

Suddenly I was alone.

 

[Announcer, ’92 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: Dave Johnson, now all alone, no more Dan and Dave.]

 

DAVE JOHNSON:  You know I was able to become Dave again, the real Dave, not the Dave Reebok.

 

            [SportsCenter Host, ’92 Clip

HOST: Johnson in the javelin competition, knows hes thrown a beauty right here. It turns out to be an American record of 244 feet. Dave places first in the overall competition meanwhile Dan fails to qualify and they share an emotional embrace when it was over.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Dave came over and said, “I love you man. I love you man. You‘re going to be all right.”

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I just decided he needed a hug. Give him a big hug and just said I’m so sorry that that happened.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And I just– I couldn‘t even hug him back. You know it’s just kind of a hands on my side, it‘s just like, “What the heck just happened?”  

 

For the next 48 hours, I walked around in a daze and I didn‘t think much about Dan and Dave. Some people asked me, “Well what‘s Reebok going to do?” And, at the time, I thought, “I don‘t care.” But, I got the real sense that someone was getting yelled at somewhere.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: There was probably some yelling going on at the ad agency. Rick Sittig was watching the events that afternoon on television in New York.

 

 RICK SITTIG: So, it’s a bad situation. The mood at the agency is just “Oh crap.” Reebok has made a huge investment in these athletes to pump up their credibility in the athletic world, and they’ve got media to fill, and the future of the company is kind of resting on the outcome of this and it’s now just gone to hell.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: And in my head I’m going, “Oh no.” We were planning to be on Johnny Carson, we were planning to be hosting Saturday Night Live. All those commercials they’d already made. They‘d made 10 or 15 commercials that were going to play during the Olympic Games with Dan and Dave there.  

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Steve Miller, from Nike, was in New Orleans, with a few of his colleagues in a small section of seats in the middle of the stands, watching the drama play out.

 

 

STEVE MILLER: Sitting in the stands and watching it was a dream come true.

 

JODY AVIRGAN: For months, Steve and Nike had been secretly fantasizing this exact scenario.

 

STEVE MILLER: Yeah, we were actively hoping that something bad would happen. I don‘t know how else to put it. I‘d like to lie and say, “No, it didn‘t make a difference,” but it made a difference, of course.

 

The truth is, we were just fucking happy. What are you going to say? It was one of those moment where you feel so happy that you get a little lightheaded. It’s the first moment in time where I can remember taking pleasure in someone else’s pain.

 

[SportsCenter Host, ’92 Clip

HOST: Reebok, the creator of those Dan and Dave commercials, say its huge ad campaign isnt dead yet. It just needs a slight readjustment.]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The re–adjustment came in the form of a new series of ads, embracing the change in the Dan and Dave story.  Reebok re–booted its campaign on the fly.  They had new ads out within 48 hours. In the coming weeks, there was an ad with Dan coaching Dave

 

            [’92 Reebok Ad

 DAN OBRIEN: Now that Ive got some free time, Im helping Dave train. Faster Dave! Push it!]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: One with Dave consoling Dan…

 

[’92 Reebok Ad

DAN OBRIEN: Hey you should be happy youre going to represent the United States.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I guess, I just wish you were going Dan]  

 

JODY AVIRGAN: And that same ad also announced a new role for Dan O’Brien in Barcelona

 

[’92 Reebok Ad

DAN OBRIEN: Dave, I am going, Ill be up in the broadcast booth

 

DAVE JOHNSON: You mean well both be in Barcelona?

 

DAN OBRIEN: Uh huh

           

DAVE JOHNSON: Together? Again? Really? You want a hug?

 

DAN OBRIEN: Nah, we already did that…]

 

            [Announcer, 1992 Olympics

BOB COSTAS: Okay, the decathlon continues this morning at Olympic stadium. American Dave Johnson expected to compete for the gold medal]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: When you‘re in the broadcast booth it‘s really hard not to put yourself out there on the track.

 

            [Announcer, 1992 Olympics

BOB COSTAS: Here, Dwight Stones, and the guy who might have been Johnsons toughest competition at the Olympics, Dan OBrien]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: It was a little strange though looking down there at guys who I thought I could beat for the Olympic gold medal.

 

            [Announcer, 1992 Olympics

DAN OBRIEN: Yeah its really too bad, you always hate for it to come down to your third attempt]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: There were moments when I wasn‘t horribly complimentary to Dave.

 

[Announcer, 1992 Olympics 

DAN OBRIEN: Well, Dwight, it just looks to me like Dave has just lacked enthusiasm all day long]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And I just saw him struggling and I kept thinking this isn‘t the Dave Johnson that I saw all Spring. This isn‘t the Dave Johnson that I saw at the Olympic trials. And I thought, you know, “Golly is he is he crumbling under the pressure?”

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dave was underperforming, but not because of the pressure.

His foot injury from the trials had only gotten worse. The public didn’t know about it, but a few weeks before the games, Dave had met with a doctor about his foot.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: And the doctor said, “You can’t go. You shouldn’t go to the Olympics cause it’s going to break in half.” And, I’m going, “Wait a minute, I‘m the Dave guy from the Reebok commercials. Dan didn‘t make the team. Didn‘t you see? Somebody‘s got to go.”

 

JODY AVIRGAN: In Barcelona, on a broken foot, starting day two in 9th place, Dave toughed it out and finished third.

 

[Announcer, ‘92 OLYMPICS

DWIGHT STONES: Dave Johnson becomes the first U.S medalist in the event since Bruce Jenner back in 1976]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: you know he did his absolute best which was phenomenal to walk away with a bronze medal.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Even as I stepped up and received the bronze medal and I saw that American flag go up, I’m thinking man, I’ve overcome this Dan and Dave ad campaign, and the broken foot, and just the career of fourteen, fifteen years of training and I was so fortunate to be able to step down from that medals ceremony and go to the people who really knew me, my family, my coach, and the people that were really there in my life who were there to get me to that moment.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Dave wins the bronze medal. Robert Zmelik comes home with the gold from the Czech Republic. Neither Dave, nor I, claim the title of the World‘s Greatest Athlete in Barcelona.

 

And I think it was two or three days later in USA Today, Reebok has a big ad that says, “Congratulations to Dave Johnson for winning the Olympic bronze medal. Thank you Dan and Dave for a great year.”

 

And I think for me at that particular moment Dan and Dave ended.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dan and Dave was over as an ad campaign, and with Dave coming off a major injury, Dan and Dave looked to be over as a major rivalry too.

But, Dan O’Brien was already thinking about what was next.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: All I could do was really think about what was down the road for me. And the great thing about track and field is you don’t have to wait four years for a big event. I knew I was going to get another shot the following year at the world championship.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Starting in the fall of 1992, just a few weeks after the Barcelona games, and for the next few years, Dan O’Brien went on the best tear of his life.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: September that same year, I break the world record. The winter of 1993, I win the first heptathlon world indoor championships. I break a world record.  I win a US outdoor title in Eugene, Oregon. I go on to defend my world title in Stuttgart Germany, I get my third world title in Gothenburg, Sweden

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: But no one cared.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I remember eating lunch with Bruce Jenner. and Bruce kept telling me the only people only thing people are going to remember is the Olympic Games. And I thought to myself, “Man, this guy‘s crazy. He doesn‘t know what he‘s talking about. He didn‘t have World Championships when he was a competing athlete. I get to compete at world championships every two years.” But, it wasn‘t until later, that I realized, “Man, Bruce was right.”

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: So, Dan O‘Brien set his sights on the next Olympics and the chance to win a medal people would care about. But, even as he was winning meet after meet, Dan felt he needed help — because he was still struggling with the mental side of the decathlon.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I used to get so nervous before I competed that I would question why I would do this. Almost throwing up, wanting to quit.

 

JIM REARDON: My name is Dr. Jim Reardon. I am a sports psychologist from Columbus, Ohio.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dan had come to Dr. Reardon to talk about the anxiety he faced before every competition, but Dr. Reardon suspected there was a deeper element at play — the fallout from the missed pole vault in New Orleans.

 

 

JIM REARDON: What can happen is, people come in for treatment from trauma and the first thing the therapist wants to talk about is the trauma and the last thing the therapist wants to talk about is the trauma.

 

I just made the decision pretty early on, if he brings it up and wants to talk about it, we‘ll talk about it. But, if he doesn‘t, then we won‘t because he‘ll know when the time will be right.

 

And so we didn’t.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: For almost three years, the pole vault miss didn’t come up. They talked about other parts of the decathlon, their personal lives, the real world, but never New Orleans. Until one day in August 1995, 311 days until the next Olympic trials.

 

 

JIM REARDON: We were having this conversation and he kind of started it out by by saying, “Gosh, you know what? Last night was weird. I had a dream about the pole vault from 1992. He said I haven‘t thought about that in years.”

 

And I‘m thinking to myself, OK, I guess this is this is the moment.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Over the coming months, Reardon realized he had to take a big aggressive step. Dan had to watch footage of the failure in New Orleans.

 

 

JIM REARDON: somebody got me a copy of it and I had a couple of, back in those days, DVDs made. I kind of caught him off guard and I said I‘ve got something I want you to look at. And we watched it. He’s watching it and I‘m watching him.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: It was ghastly.

 

It brought back all the feelings that I had in 1992. I remembered seeing the white T–shirts Dan or Dave T–shirts in the crowd.

 

 [Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: He knows it and its going through his mind]

 

DAN O’BRIEN:  I remember what side of the field I was on and how hot it was. Oh my gosh, it was hot.  

 

[Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: He knows it and its going through his mind]

 

JIM REARDON: And I remember thinking to myself, “Holy mackerel.”

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I relived the horror of missing on a third attempt

 

[Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

(OBrien fails to get over pole vault bar)

TOM HAMMOND: And its not even close]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: And coming down landing on the pit and just being in a complete daze. And it was absolutely ghastly to go through those emotions again.

 

 [Announcer, 1992 Olympic Trials

            DWIGHT STONES: This is it. He isnt on the team]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: The video continued to roll. It showed Dave come over to hug me. I didn’t even know what to say afterwards.

 

JIM REARDON: And I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I don‘t want to look at this.” And I said, “OK” and then I replayed it

 

And I said, “What do you think?” He said, “I feel like I feel like throwing up.”

           

And I said, I said, “You know what, I would much rather have you feel like that in a hotel room in Chula Vista in December than on the runway in Atlanta in June.”

 

I wanted him to get to the point where he would have seen that video so many times that he would just get pissed off when he would think about it, and develop the mindset that pressure is nothing. Pressure is going to bring out the best in me.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

BOB COSTAS: Its a trials double header today folks. Hello, Im Bob Costas we have competition from two Olympic trials track and field here in Atlanta]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The trials for the 1996 Olympics were held in Atlanta, which would be the site of the games themselves later that summer. And once again the decathlon featured two familiar faces, Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson.

 

But no one was talking about Dan and Dave in 1996. No Reebok campaign — in fact, Dan was a Nike athlete by this point. And Dave was living the typical battle of the injured athlete, one problem piling up on top of another. These trials were not about who would be the world’s greatest athlete, Dan or Dave. The storyline was all Dan O’Brien.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: I would say that the 1992 Olympic trials debacle by Dan OBrien is a part of track and field lore and legend at this point.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I was nervous going into the 96 trials. I’ll be honest with you.

 

I can remember waking up the morning the decathlon started, I put my head in my wife‘s lap and just sobbed because I was nervous and I was scared you know, but I needed to get that out.

 

            [Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: I think every decathlete that competes now is affected by his no height in the pole vault four years ago. I would submit that will be the hardest track meet that Dan OBrien will ever compete in.]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Even if Dan felt like he’d put 1992 behind him, the organizers wouldn’t let him shake it so easily.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I‘ll never forget as I walked out to run the 100 meters, the start of the very first day at the Atlanta Olympic trials, I look up at the big screen on the north end of side of the field and they‘re showing my failure in the pole vault.

 

JIM REARDON: When I saw that footage, I was pissed off. I don‘t even know to this day whose idea it was.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: It really didn‘t upset me that I saw the video. I kind of almost chuckled. I laughed it off.

 

JIM REARDON: Because of the training that Dan had done it became just nothing.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I was ready.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Proving he was ready, Dan got off to a great start. Going into day two, he was in second place and he’d remain there through the first two events, the hurdles and the discus.  

 

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: And today with 7 of the 10 events complete, next, the dreaded pole vault. What must be going through his mind?]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I get a little nervous and you know just I‘m tired of sitting around 20 minutes has gone by, maybe a half hour, since I took my last warm up jump.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dan was cooling off. And just like ‘92, losing his rhythm.  So he made a last minute decision to change his strategy.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Two bars before I‘m supposed to come in, I get a little antsy and I walked over to my coach, Rick Sloan, and I said, “What do you think about me coming in at the next bar?”

 

It was a scheduled bar lower than I was supposed to come in and he‘s just like, “You feel good? Go for it. Do it.”

 

I didn‘t tell anybody else, looked at my coach, and all of a sudden I took my sweats off and I step up to the runway and they say, “O‘Brien up.” And I think that surprised even my competitors at the time.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

DWIGHT STONES: Well Tom they made one intelligent decision theyre starting at a height one foot below what Dan started at four years ago and everyone in the stadium holding their collective breath.]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I am on the runway. I got my starter pole. Don‘t even think about missing. Just think, “You know what, I‘m here to vault head down the runway” and think to myself, “Look, I‘m probably not as warmed up as I should be.” I push a little harder than I normally would on the first attempt jump. As I take off the ground, my top hand slips about an inch and I regrip real quick. Swing up. go over the bar

 

(Sound of Dan attempting opening pole vault)

 

And I got a first attempt make.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: Thats kind of like hitting the lottery.]

 

And by virtue of that first attempt make I‘m on the team.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

BOB COSTAS: Here is the sweet irony for OBrien. It looks like Dan OBrien is going to gain the lead in the decathlon because of his performance here in the pole vault. The event that was his undoing four years ago.]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: A few hours later, Dan would finish first in the Trials decathlon, a stark contrast to four years earlier. In 1992, it had been Dave Johnson watching Dan struggle. This time, the roles were reversed.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I ended up placing sixth and pretty much knew that that was my retirement after that event, after that Olympic trials. I just remember being able to encourage Dan to go on in Atlanta and represent the United States.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympic Trials

TOM HAMMOND: NBC Olympic Trials, 1996: And here comes Dan OBrien. Lets let the crowd carry him home here. He is finally going to make a U.S. Olympic team.]

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dan O’Brien was world champion. Record holder. He’d exorcised the demons of New Orleans. Now the only job left to do was to win the gold 6 weeks later.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: The trouble is when you‘ve won everything except for the Olympic gold medal and you feel like it‘s the last thing on your list, it‘s not as exciting as it could be.

 

It was stressful. I was trying to just not make mistakes.

 

            [Announcer, 1996 Olympics

TOM HAMMOND: Atlantas Olympic stadium where the decathlon competition continued today. And for a report on day two of the decathlon, lets go to Dwight Stones]

           

JODY AVIRGAN: In Atlanta, in his quest to finally settle the question, “Who is the World’s Greatest Athlete?” that had been first asked four years earlier, Dan O’Brien’s first day of competition went off without a hitch.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: As prepared as I was for the Olympic Games. Sometimes what you‘re not prepared for is what other people are going to do.

 

This crazy young guy from Germany, Frank Busemann, this young, kid he had personal best after personal best. He was going crazy.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: So on this new stage, Dan suddenly had a new rival. Busemann, the German, was right on his heels. Through day one, through the pole vault, and right up to the decathlon’s final two events, the javelin and the 1500 meters, a race that had never been Dan’s strongest.  

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I need a big lead before the fifteen hundred meters and, when I got to the javelin, I didn‘t have as big a lead as I would have liked. He was a little too close for comfort.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympics

BOB COSTAS: Lets head back to the track, the twoday decathlon ending tonight]

 

And so as I got into the javelin, it was the twilight of the night.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: The Olympic Stadium was packed – with both hometown American fans rooting on Dan, as well as a noisy contingent of Germans cheering on Busemann.  

 

Each of the competitors selected a javelin, and took their first throw. Dan’s first attempt was disappointing.  He tried to stay calm, scanning the crowd as he waited his next turn.

 

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I look over and see a guy in red white and blue jersey USA jersey and it‘s Dave Johnson.

 

He‘s got his Oakley‘s on the back of his head backwards like he always used to wear them. He was down in the front row you know just kind of hanging.

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Dave had been standing with the US coaches, quietly watching the drama play out.  But now, he was noticing something

 

DAVE JOHNSON: As Dan threw his first throw I think I could tell at the javelin he was throwing wasn‘t flying exactly as well as it should be for his type of throwing.

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: After the second throw, another disappointment, Dan came over to talk with his coaches on the sidelines. With Dave standing right nearby.  

 

 

DAVE JOHNSON: We had that eye contact…

 

DAN O’BRIEN: and I say to Dave — which javelin should I use? You got 100 to choose from out there.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: I had him pick out the javelin that I knew would work really well you know because I had javelin is just my best event.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: Dave, Dave said, “The 90 meter Demuth,” and I knew exactly which javelin he was talking about. And I said, “All right.”

 

Something about him being there… put me at ease. It was just refreshing to my soul. I just felt good that he was going to be there to witness my greatest moment.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympics

DWIGHT STONES: And Dan O stepped up to the line for his third throw, he needs a five a half personal best]

 

DAVE JOHNSON: Maybe, in my mind, I might have stepped out of myself and went out into his body a little bit and I got to be Dan for for about 20 seconds and help him throw that thing.

 

[Field Archival/Broadcast Announcer, 1996 Olympics

 DAN O’BRIEN (after throwing personal best): Oh, I needed that one!

 DWIGHT STONES: Truer words were never spoken]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I threw farther than Frank Busemann so I didn‘t give up any points. I didn‘t give up any ground. This is what it‘s all about.

           

[Announcer, 1996 Olympics

DWIGHT STONES: Dan OBrien is on the brink of the gold]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I‘m going to win an Olympic gold medal.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympics

TOM HAMMOND: Dan OBrien showing the courage of a World Champion and an Olympic Champion is picking it up]

 

JACKIE JOYNER–KERSEE: When Dan won a gold medal in ‘96 and I was just glad that it came full circle for him. Being able to go through busting throug h and not give up on the sport and it was great to see him finally be an Olympic champion.

 

[Announcer, 1996 Olympics

TOM HAMMOND: And Dan OBrien takes the title of Worlds Greatest Athlete]

 

DAN O’BRIEN: I think it would be `tough to talk about Dan and Dave if I hadn’t come back in ‘96 and won the gold, but I think failing in 1992 gave me an opportunity to re–write the narrative. I had to change people’s minds every time I stepped out onto the track.

 

DAVE JOHNSON: People, when they think of Dan and Dave, they remember something went wrong. Reebok, they had this big campaign that we both were going to be at the Olympics and then only one of us went, so it was a failure because of that. But, the reality of that situation is the campaign was a huge success. They sold more shoes of that particular running cross trainer shoe than any other shoe throughout the year and a half that they were promoting it.

 

DAN O’BRIEN: that whole year was such a such a great experience except for two hours on the second day in the eighth event of the decathlon. I meet people who say, “I remember where I was when you didn‘t make that third attempt in the pole vault.” They have they have where were they stories when Daniel O’Brien didn‘t make the Olympic team.

 

And I think that‘s just in our human nature. We are just programmed to remember the bad times a little bit better than the good times. People remember the field goal that was missed. People remember the free throws that the guy didn‘t make. Nothing prepares you for really having your dream just kind of slip out from underneath you.

 

But a personality, a great performance, can change an athlete’s life.

 

[’92 Reebok Ad:

NARRATOR: To be settled in Barcelona.]