The answer, for now, is Dave. Definitely Dave.
Of course, no one—especially Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien, the principals in a decathlon competition that Reebok executives hoped would be a clash of truly Olympian proportions to determine the "World's Greatest Athlete"—had any idea how prematurely the answer would come. It arrived on June 27, a month before the Barcelona Games, when O'Brien failed to clear any height in the pole vault at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in New Orleans and thus did not make the Olympic team.
"I was sad for Dan," recalls Johnson. "It's something that happens to every decathlete at some point. I was mad and upset that it happened to Dan at the trials."
Johnson's reaction, caught by TV, was somewhat pithier. But he claims he only said, "Oh, shoot!" The folks at Reebok cannot have been so restrained. Hoping to crack the track and field market now dominated by Nike, they had sunk $25 million into an ad campaign featuring two virtually unknown decathletes.
Lost in all the commotion was Johnson's masterly performance in New Orleans. He racked up 8,649 points, second best in the world this year to the 8,727 he had accumulated at the Mt. SAC Relays. Frank Zarnowski, the author of The Decathlon, the event's standard history, rates Johnson as a "little bit of a favorite" over Michael Smith of Canada, the silver medalist (behind O'Brien) at last year's world championships. And to the list of top contenders, Johnson's coach, Terry Franson, adds Christian Plaziat of France, whom Johnson has not beaten in three tries, and Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia.
But it's hard to imagine anyone in Barcelona stepping into O'Brien's role. Athletically, Dan and Dave are perfect foils. The order of the decathlon's 10 events makes them look like hare and tortoise: Dan is the best first-day decathlete in history, Dave the best second-day decathlete. "The Dan-Dave thing was very clever," says sports agent Art Kaminsky. "If it had gone to its logical conclusion—Dan and Dave dueling in the 1,500 [the final event] in Barcelona—it would have been an incredible story."
Of course, it can't reach that conclusion now. "Dave cannot be a clear winner now," says NBC track commentator Craig Masback. "Only with Dan in the competition can he prove himself the world's greatest athlete."
Kaminsky disagrees, pointing out that Johnson is an appealing package on his own. "He's an articulate, handsome guy, and he seems very sincere," says Kaminsky, whose clients have included cyclist Eric Heiden, swimmer John Naber and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. "He helped himself tremendously with his human reaction to Dan's suffering."
Competitively, Johnson may benefit from O'Brien's absence, and not just for the obvious reason. "They make the mistake of trying to be the other guy," says Fred Samara, TAC's decathlon coordinator. "They worry they are losing too many points in the other guy's strong events. Dave is never going to beat Dan in the 100. He has to stop pressing. In the 100, the long jump and the hurdles, he tightens up in the face and shoulders when Dan is in the competition. He's got to be patient and remember that he has that incredible swing in the last two events."
A sign hangs on the wall of the weight room at Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University. It quotes part of Matthew 6:33 in letters 15 inches high: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD, AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU.