Olympic champion Dan O’Brien offers message of overcoming adversity

February 15, 2019
Olympic decathlon champion Dan O'Brien speaks Friday morning during the Fosbury and Friends breakfast, hosted at Idaho State University in conjunction with Simplot Games.

POCATELLO -- Leading up to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Reebok launched a risky advertising campaign that made a household name of a little-known University of Idaho track standout in an obscure event.

The shoe company was sponsoring both Dan O’Brien -- a Vandals athlete who was the odds-on favorite to claim gold in decathlon at the Barcelona games -- and his top American rival Dave Johnson, of Los Angeles.

O’Brien shared his story about overcoming adversity and starring in one of the most “exciting, interesting and strange commercial concepts ever” as the keynote speaker Friday morning during Breakfast with Fosbury and Friends. The breakfast, hosted at Idaho State University’s Pond Student Union building, included a star cast of visiting Olympians, here to support the Simplot Games, scheduled for Feb. 14-16 at Holt Arena.

Reebok went all in on the unusual campaign, investing its entire year’s marketing budget to repeatedly pose the question: “Who is the world’s greatest athlete? Dan or Dave?”

“Dave and I became the first reality commercial stars, and overnight, when they started showing these commercials, Dave and I were well known,” O’Brien said.

But the hype was all for naught; O’Brien failed to establish a mark in pole vault at the Olympic trials and didn’t qualify for the Olympic team.

“Devastation. I didn’t expect it. I was just numb,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said his focus on Olympic glory began when he was in junior high school, watching the TV broadcast of the U.S. men’s hockey team upsetting Russia for Olympic gold in the 1980 “miracle on ice” game.

“I was jumping up and down on the couch, and my mom came in and said, ‘What’s going on in here?’” O’Brien recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to Olympics!’ and she said, ‘In what?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’”

O’Brien admits he didn’t initially want to make his mark as a decathlete, until he had a conversation during a rainy track meet with a legend in the sport, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She advised O’Brien to stick with the decathlon because he was good at it, adding, “It’s a wide-open event right now.”

Joyner-Kersee’s words proved to be sage advice.

O’Brien became world champion in 1991 and set the world record for decathlon the following year. Then he Johnson got a call from Reebok.

“Dave and I showed up. Our agents are there, and they present to us this idea: ‘We want to take two unknown guys in an unknown event and do these commercials,’” O’Brien said.

He explained the company, better known for its basketball shoes, wanted to get a foothold in the running industry.

“We thought they were nuts,” O’Brien said. “What are you talking about? We’re decathletes. Twelve people show up at the start of our decathlon. Nobody watches this really.”

But the ad executives read their audience well. Dan and Dave became immediate sensations. At the Modesto Relays, O’Brien recalled 15,000 people packed a stadium meant for a crowd of no more than 5,000 to watch him and Johnson face one another.

“I tell kids we were so famous we were on the Arsenio Hall show. Kids look at me like ‘what?’” O’Brien joked.

Prior to the Olympics, O’Brien suffered a stress fracture. Though he was fully recovered by the trials, he said it affected his training. And the ad campaign added to the pressure. On the first day of the trials, Reebok dropped thousands of white T-shirts from a helicopter, emblazoned with the names Dan or Dave.

After he failed to clear the bar in pole vault -- he set his starting mark at a lofty 15 feet, 9 inches -- most spectators anticipated O’Brien would sit out the remaining events. O’Brien’s coaches had other plans.

His coaches informed him after his high-profile failure, “We’re going to go out and throw the javelin, we’re going to run the 1,500 meters and we’re going to shake the hands of the guys who made this Olympic team.”

He went on to set a personal best in javelin and to run a pressure-free 1,500-meter race.

“I ran free like I did in junior high and high school. It took me to a time when I remembered I did this for fun,” O’Brien said.

The show of good sportsmanship also helped O’Brien land a gig as an NBC analyst in Barcelona. But his quest for gold didn’t end when he failed to clear the pole vault bar. Prior to the 1996 Olympics he said he became “personally responsible” for his training and his results, and he bought in fully to his coach’s training program.

There was no colossal marketing campaign. There were no crowds in Dan O’Brien T-shirts. And O’Brien won the gold medal in decathlon during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

“If somebody asked me, ‘What do you want your legacy to be?’ while I was a competing athlete, of course I want to be the greatest decathlete that ever lived,” O’Brien said. “As you move past that, how do you want to be remembered? What kind of a champion do you want to be, and it’s the champion who makes the positive impact on their community -- a champion who leaves a legacy, who helps family members.”