Sunday, February 9, 2014

OLYMPICS, DAY 2: Dan and Dave

NBC, going into the Olympics, was, as is their or any other Olympic network's perogative, hyping some of the key, big-name athletes for the United States prior to the Olympics. You know the names. Lindsay Vonn. Shani Davis. Shaun White. Bode Miller.

So far, things haven't gone well for these big names. Davis is yet to skate, but Miller lost out on the podium, finishing 6th in the men's downhill. White pulled out of the event he was being hyped for, the men's slopestyle, to focus on the halfpipe. And Vonn, due to injury, never made it to Sochi at all.

It's only natural to hype the big names. Have to give people as many reasons to watch as possible, after all. Those are the names most likely to draw eyeballs, and they are among the most likely to succeed as well. But the thing about sports, a major reason we watch, is that it isn't that simple. The big name, Harlem Globetrotters aside, doesn't always win. The element of unpredictability is major. Sure, you can air replays of old games, but those are never going to draw all that much interest outside of the key highlights. You know how the game ends already. You watch to find out who does. Once you know that, the only thing left to do is find another game with an unknown result to watch.

So when promoting a contest, you want to at least keep options open as to how things will turn out. Put too many eggs in the basket of one result, and you'd better hope that result happens.

Ask Reebok.

Some of you know this story all too well already, but I like it, so I'm-a tell it anyway. Going into Barcelona 1992, two of the world's top decathletes were Americans Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson. Those of you who watched Super Bowl XXVI in January 1992- Redskins 37, Bills 24- were treated to a series of four ads showing home videos of Dan and Dave at progressively older ages while hyping their athletic abilities. The first three are here; here's the fourth of them:

Later on, this ad happened:

Clearly, Reebok had only two possible results in their mind about what would happen in Barcelona. The problem was, the road to Barcelona went through Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, site of the United States Olympic trials.

Many countries have a selection committee to decide who goes through to the Olympics, and in fact, you saw such a procedure decide the American figure skating team this year when Ashley Wagner was selected ahead of Mirai Nagasu, who had performed better at the US championships. But in a lot of events for the Americans, the procedure is simple. In track and field events, any American citizen who has achieved a sufficient verifiable performance in the given event within a time window of about a year and a half is invited to compete in the trials. Once at the trials, the slate is wiped clean, and the trials, and only the trials, decide who makes the Olympic team.

One of Dan's strengths was the pole vault, the eighth event of the decathlon. He had a comfortable lead of 512 points. (To remind you, points are awarded for each event based on how well you do, and to be in any sort of contention at these trials, you needed to be averaging over 800 points per event.) The pole vault was expected to bring Dave at least 900 points, and he knew it. A common tactic in events which ask athletes to clear a progressively more difficult benchmark, such as the pole vault (or high jump, or weightlifting), is to save strength by deliberately passing on lesser benchmarks and waiting for something more their speed before they make their attempts. Dan, who it should be noted was fighting a stress fracture in his right fibula and a sprained left ankle, did just that, until the bar reached 15 feet, 9 inches, a height worth 849 points.

Dan missed at 15 feet, 9 inches.

The other thing about progressive-benchmark events is that you aren't allowed to go backward. Once the bar is raised, it's raised. You can't miss at one benchmark and say 'no, wait, I'd like to try an easier one'. You're stuck. Pass it or GTFO. Dan had two more attempts.

He missed them both. His score in the pole vault: zero points. He would eventually finish 11th, with 7,856. There were only three tickets to Barcelona, and while everybody knew Dave was laying claim to one of them, the other two went to Aric Long and Rob Muzzio, who got in with 8,163.

Long would end up bowing out before the pole vault in Barcelona, though not before setting the best mark of the 36-man field in Event #4, the high jump. Muzzio came in 5th with 8,195 points, and managed to set the best mark of the field in Event #7, the discus throw. But Reebok, who now had a lot of egg on their face and a lot of money down the toilet simply by Dan not even making it to Barcelona, wasn't concerned with them. They needed a win from Dave, and altered their ads to now show Dan cheering Dave on.

They didn't get that either.

Dave, by now fighting his own injury, a stress fracture in his foot, did make the medal stand, but his efforts were muted, and his medal was bronze, scoring 8,309 points. He was the only occupant of the top five to not lead in any single discipline. The gold went to Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia, who scored 8,611 points. Silver went to Antonio Penalver of Spain, who scored 8,412 points. Nobody had told them they were supposed to be the fall guys for Reebok, and if they did, they didn't listen.

Especially since Zmelik was also a Reebok man. If you didn't know that going in, you'd know it from the Reebok shirt that wound up on Zmelik afterwards.

Have to cover those bases, after all.

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