Twenty years ago, Reebok introduced us to "Dan and Dave."
Once American sports fans moved beyond their game of word association -- "Who?" -- the two men involved became part of one of the most memorable marketing campaigns in history despite a letdown of Olympic proportions.
In 1992, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson were given such a great chance to medal in the Olympic decathlon in Barcelona that Reebok launched a $25 million "Clash of the Titans" marketing campaign. The campaign was really about Reebok's clash with a titan, Nike. Reebok hoped to crack Nike's stranglehold on the track-and-field market.
We saw clips of Dan as a little boy taking a bath, Dave as a toddler in a high chair. Dan riding a stick pony in his yard, Dave pedaling his bike. Dan in a Little League uniform. Dave competing at the Goodwill Games. Dan at the World Track and Field championships.
"Battling it out," Reebok reminded us, "for the title of world's greatest athlete."
Dave Johnson grew up in Missoula, Montana. Not a place you'd associate with street gangs but Johnson was part of the West Side Gang. They broke into houses. They fought other gangs. One story told of how he made his own brass knuckles out of a dog chain. Once, Johnson stole the key to a Budweiser distributorship and the gang stole $5,000 worth of beer.
Johnson would later tell reporters covering his accomplishments in the decathlon, "Running from the police made me fast."
When his father was transferred to Oregon, Johnson got a fresh start. A friend introduced him to Christianity and he straightened out his life.
Attending Azusa Pacific College, Johnson began to blossom as a decathlete. When the United States Olympic Committee identified him as a possible medal winner, it offered him a position through the USOC job opportunity program.
Johnson had to think long and hard because he felt the job clashed with his religious beliefs. Others found it only ironic. The job was with Budweiser.
In 1990 he won the gold medal at the Goodwill Games. Over the next two years, he got endorsement deals with Body Fuel and Oakley. Nothing quite compared to the offer and exposure Reebok came up with for him and Dan O'Brien.
O'Brien grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Born to an African-American father and a Finnish mother, he was adopted at age two by an Irish-American family.
O'Brien attended the University of Idaho. Sort of. He flunked out. After a few legal entanglements, he dedicated himself to returning to school and track and field. By 1991, he was the reigning world decathlon champion. At one point he'd won all eight decathlons he entered. That and his point totals made him the favorite to win Olympic gold.
His impact on American track and field was as quick as it was impressive. Daley Thompson, the great British decathlete who won gold in 1984 with a record 8,847 points, said of O'Brien, "I see him as a 9,500 point man."
O'Brien was 25 years old in 1992, a few years younger than Johnson. The friendly competition they shared fit perfectly in Reebok's plan to launch an eight-month world-wide marketing campaign to grow the company brand leading into Barcelona.
Johnson was 3-2 against O'Brien in head-to-head competition. O'Brien was better in the first-day events (100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters). Johnson was the stronger second-day decathlete (100-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters).
Reebok was betting nothing could keep them from a great showdown at the Olympics. Reebok was expensively wrong.
At the Olympic Trials in New Orleans in June of 1992, while Johnson scored 8,649 in an impressive showing, the unthinkable happened to O'Brien.
He failed to clear any height in the pole vault. He missed all three attempts at 15-9 and was done. Just like that, his Olympic dream was over.
The Reebok ad campaign soldiered on, significantly altered. The company ran some ads of Dan shown cheering for Dave to win Olympic gold.
Except that didn't happen either.
Competing with a stress fracture in his foot, Johnson managed to win the bronze medal in Barcelona -- becoming the first American to medal since Bruce Jenner in 1976.
But a country that needed to be introduced to them in a marketing campaign suddenly knew them best for not winning Olympic gold -- in O'Brien's case for not even making the Olympics.
Not all was lost for Reebok. The winner of the gold medal, Czech Robert Zmelik, was a Reebok client.
The Next Chapter
O'Brien kept compiling world championships, winning two more. Then he won the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Armed with a sports psychologist and four more years of training, he wisely lowered his opening vault to 15-1 and easily cleared it at the 1996 Olympic Trials.
Johnson enjoyed some endorsement deals in the year after winning bronze at Barcelona. He published his memoir: Aim High: An Olympic Decathlete's Inspiring Story.
Where Are They Now?
Dan O'Brien, 46, lives in Phoenix and owns a health club, Gold Medal Acceleration. He does some work for Yahoo Sports!
In June, he published Clearing Hurdles: The Quest to be the World's Greatest Athlete. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame this year.
Little known fact: He broke the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the fastest game of hopscotch in 2009. His time of 1 minute, 21 seconds broke the previous mark by two seconds.
Dave Johnson, 49, became a motivational speaker and educator after retiring from competition. He was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (along with Dan O'Brien) in 2005. In 2009, he was named athletic director at Corban University in Salem, Ore.
Best quote after the Reebok campaign got sidetracked at the 1992 Olympic Trials: "We were supposed to be on Johnny Carson. Instead we ended up on Arsenio Hall."
The 2012 Decathlon
Twenty years after Dan and Dave, the talk was again of American domination in this week's decathlon in London. With 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay, defending world champ Trey Hardee, and phenom Ashton Eaton, there was talk of a possible American sweep.
They say history repeats itself, but that's not true. It only resembles itself.
At the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Clay hit a hurdle and then failed on all three attempts in the discus. Like O'Brien, he missed the Olympics.
O'Brien, who was on hand, told reporters the obvious: "This event can claim you."
Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.