Twenty-five years ago, the advertising campaign was ubiquitous. By Summer 1992, it would be infamous – one of the biggest sports marketing campaigns to date, featuring two relatively unknown track and field athletes who became household names almost overnight. Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson were American decathletes on a crash course to compete against each other for Olympic gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Reebok pumped $30 million into the “Dan & Dave” campaign and invited the nation to choose sides.
Twenty-five years later, Johnson and O’Brien spent time remembering that summer that turned them into unlikely celebrities.
Dan: Even today, people remember me as much for “Dan & Dave” as for winning the Olympic gold in 1996.
Dave: People still recognize me. It’s mostly my students’ parents. The students have no idea. I tell them, “Go home. Talk to Mom and Dad. They come back and say, “Oh, man, we Googled you!”
Dan: It’s just kind of a vague story, but people remember parts. They’ll come up to me and say, “My brother and I were in junior high, and you guys were the bomb. We used to play ‘Dan & Dave’ in the backyard. I was Dan.” For a lot of people, the story’s not always clear. They’ll say, “Hey, where’s your brother? Was that Dan and Dan? Well, you made it to the Olympics, but the other guy didn’t, right?” So I try to explain it.
Dave: In ’88, I made the Olympic team and competed for Nike at the Olympics, took ninth place, was pretty excited. So I began trying to get Nike to get a little extra cash on my contract. They were really focused on sprinters, though. In 1989, I trained hard and was more confident, and at the U.S. championships, I broke Bruce Jenner’s American record. I went to Nike and said, “Okay, I’ve proven myself,” but they still weren’t interested in doing much. At the same time, Reebok was starting to check in. They offered three or four times more than Nike.
Dan: The biggest hump for me was making the decision to do the decathlon. I qualified for the Olympic trials in ’88, but I didn’t love the decathlon. It wasn’t my first and favorite event. I always wanted to be a fast hurdler and a long jumper. But I went to the ’88 trials based on sheer ability, and I still at that point thought, “If I could just long jump 27 feet, I could get out of this decathlon.” I wouldn’t have to do all this stuff. When I went home from those Olympic trials — I didn’t make it past the second event; I had a strained hamstring going in — but I remember going home and deciding in that moment, I’m going to do the decathlon. I’m going to be the next Bruce Jenner. And literally that’s the point my life turned.
Dave: I think Reebok picked up on both Dan and I competing at the U.S. championships in 1990. We go head to head and have the top two scores in world. In an interview after, I remember saying, “The decathlon is back. It’s always been here; it had a little nap, but now it’s back.”
Dan: Dave and I would connect at certain events. We would go to Colorado Springs where we did some physical testing, but we weren’t really good friends at the time. Kind of got to know each other a little bit. I knew he was the best American decathlete at the time. I signed with Reebok in ’91, and I remember at some point they told me, “We signed Dave Johnson.” I thought that was a little strange. It was like, “You got a decathlete already. Why would you sign another?” But then I didn’t feel so bad because Reebok’s uniforms that year were pink, like hot pink. If you look at pictures from ’91, we’re competing in these neon pink uniforms. I was glad Dave and I were both on the same team because I didn’t want to be the only one wearing that uniform.
Dave: So in late 1991, around Christmas, Reebok had Dan and I go out to their corporate convention in Florida at Disney World. They said we want you to come meet our advertising team. So we went to a special room. They sat us down in front of some monitors and they had drawings of what their plan was for the next year’s ad campaign.
Dan: They laid it on us right there: “Look, this is what we want to do. We want to take two relatively unknown guys in a sport that’s relatively unknown and put you guys in a national commercial and promote you guys and the decathlon.” They told us, “Who’s the world’s greatest athlete … to be settled in Barcelona,” and we kind of looked at each other like, “Wow, is this for real?”
Dave: It was big stuff, equal to the top athletes: “Bo knows,” all the Michael Jordan stuff. We just couldn’t believe they were going to use us.
Dan: The first thing either one of us said was, “Well, neither one of us have made this team yet. Do you understand this?” They said, “Yeah, we’re banking on you guys winning. If you guys think you can do it, then we want to do it.” Dave and I said, “Yes, one of us is going to win this thing.”
Dave: I think it was within a week or two after we returned, we went out to Los Angeles. I think we spent almost two weeks filming as much as we possibly could. They knew we still had a little time before our hard training happened and they wanted to get most of it done before that.
Dan: What I wasn’t prepared for was 5 a.m. call times, sitting in a Winnebago and waiting hours and hours for them to change camera positions and things like that. It was a little bit shocking to me: Hours go by, and you don’t do anything. All you can think about it is, “Ugh, I’m missing training. I wish I was at home on the track.”
Dave: I don’t think either of us knew what it was all going to lead to. So it was good we got to know each other. I guess we did compete a bit to see who was the better actor a little bit, who could do a take faster. But in the end, we both weren’t very good, and it was a good thing we had a day job.
Dan: The one major thing was they were going to debut the campaign at the Super Bowl. That was a time we’d start to see how big those commercials were. I had an apartment in Moscow, Idaho. Had a bunch of people over. The commercial comes on, and it’s 30 seconds. Everybody kind of went, “Is that it? That’s all?” I was like, “No, man, we filmed a dozen. There’s got to be more to come.”
Dave: They just kept showing stuff. Like every day, every sporting event, anything. They just saturated the market with those commercials. Within a month, there was a track meet I went to, and people were recognizing me. That’s when it really hit me. That was another piece that I didn’t know about. There’s people who’d recognize you and want autographs and interviews. It felt like another event: the media, the attention, all that other stuff. It was another event I needed to do really well at.
Dan: It was almost immediate. I walked down the street the following day, and people know who I was in my small town, but now everybody knew exactly who I was. It was an immediate shift. Every track meet we went to, it was twice as many people. The track meets were promoting the fact that Dan and Dave were going to be there. We sat courtside at Lakers games. We were on late-night talk shows. It was just a crazy phenomenon.
Dave: In the end, it was nowhere near what Jordan was making for something like that back then. But it kind of set the stage for us to be out here, and I think it was great for USA track athletes in the future to have their sponsors look and see what was possible.
Dan: It’s easy to look back now and say, “Oh my gosh, how underpaid were we to do an ad campaign like that?” At the time, you’re not angry at it. These are the woes of the “amateur” athlete in a sport that people don’t watch three times a week.
Dave: It was a good pressure. It was a lot of fun.
Dan: I didn’t feel that pressure building until a little bit later. Throughout the spring, I just did what I did. I would say the commercials were almost a little bit more a distraction than they were a hindrance. But as we got closer to the Olympic trials, you could feel this was big.
Dave: Once we got to the trials, it changed. It was all “Dan & Dave.” There was nothing else on anybody’s mind by then. Reebok had set the stage with lots of fanfare: “Dan & Dave” stuff everywhere, in everybody’s hand, and the media all wanted to tell the story. It was a big distraction. The pressure of that extra event was bigger than I could have predicted.
Dan: I was just in shock for a while when I didn’t make the team. We had the pole vault, and then I still managed to compete in the last two events. But it was devastating.
Dave: It was obviously difficult to see what happened with Dan.
Dan: I do remember getting so much support after that. When I got home to Moscow, Idaho, it was like the flag was at half-mast. Felt like somebody died. I had to deal with everybody else’s disappointments as well as my own.
Dave: For me, personally, part of me was relieved that that pressure of making the team was over. I did realize all of a sudden some of that pressure of the Reebok campaign was all on me now.
Dan: It was a short while later, a couple of weeks, I think, that Reebok called. I think somebody got back to the drawing board, and I got a call from my agent at the time. He said they want to film some more commercials. I thought, “Why? It’s over. Why would they want to do that?” At the same time, you feel grateful that you’re still being thought of in that light and that you’re still part of the campaign because it was fun to be a part of that.
Dave: As Barcelona got closer, I had this foot injury. The doctors were saying you have to stay off the foot as much as you can. I ended up in the pool for that whole month before the Games. I ended up not going to the Opening Ceremonies. I didn’t go to all the pre-Olympic team events. I didn’t go to anything where I’d be standing on my foot. The doctor said we risked it breaking all the way through, and then I’d be a real mess.
Dan: I used to have dreams that I got a phone call and somebody said, “Hey, we need an alternate.” I wasn’t really the alternate. But in my dream, I was. I do know that through all of that, Dave Johnson took me to another level. He was the best in the U.S. I wanted to beat him. When we got together in “Dan & Dave,” it stepped up both our scores. He pushed me, and I pushed him. It’s kind of too bad that we were just off by a few years. If we were just in the same career cycle, we could’ve had epic battles for 10 years.
Dave: When I got to Barcelona, Reebok set it up where I was hanging with the Dream Team, met O.J. Simpson, hung out with Bruce Jenner, just all this cool stuff with all these other people. In the end, I kept battling through and did the best I could. I wish my foot was better, but I still won a bronze.
Dan: It would probably be tougher to talk about if I didn’t go on to win, but it was certainly something I had to live with the next few years. Every time I had a major championship, I always felt like it was an opportunity to erase what happened in ’92. So at the ’93 world championships, Goodwill Games, U.S. titles – I was always eager to get out there and say, “Look, ’92 isn’t what defines me.” I always felt like every time I won, it was an opportunity for me to say, “No, you guys, I actually am the world’s greatest athlete.”
Dave: I think forever Dan and I are going to be linked. We’re both in our 50s. I guess now the goal is to see who lives the longest.