The Worst of Sports
Anyone who was breathing oxygen in the days of olive-colored linoleum, rotary phones, and console TVs most likely remembers the opening montage to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The actual contents of the show—from bowling to horse racing to gigantic South African men dragging Renaults—are now a blur, but the stirring music and the distinct voice of Jim McKay: “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat!” were anything but forgettable. And while the smiling faces and raised arms of those lucky enough to represent the “thrill of victory” might have slipped our minds, the images that accompanied “the agony of defeat” still glow as brightly as ever in our memories.
The defining piece of opening footage from Wide World of Sports is the out-of-control ski jumper, Vinko Bogataj of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, tumbling headlong off the ramp into a cloud of limbs, skis, and snow in a wipeout for the ages. Success just doesn’t linger in the mind or the stomach like failure.
Vinko Bogataj is the Worst of Sports. Yet this book is so much more. It’s the chronicling of the most egregious mistakes and defeats, the most awful teams and regimes on record, and an opinionated take on some of the most controversial events from the history of the games we all love. By no means is this book all-inclusive—an all-inclusive Worst of Sports would require a forklift for carrying around—but the breadth of topics covered is as wide and varying as the opinions professed by passionate sports fans everywhere.
In taking our shots, we did so from the heart—not sardonically or derisively. Satirically? Absolutely! The goal is not to offend, but to stir things up and, in a weird way, to celebrate. The beauty of sports and the fans who love them is that no matter how clear or judicial the outcome, it will not be accepted as such. Emotion, subjectivity, and disputation aren’t just welcome, they’re wholeheartedly encouraged. So pull up a chair and get involved.
Want to sic the repoman on Gino Torretta’s Heisman? Ever wonder about Joe Namath’s career aside from Super Bowl III? Want to inquire of Reebok what was actually settled in Barcelona? Yeah, we do, too.
DAN AND DAVE: TO BE SETTLED IN … NEW ORLEANS?
THE HEISMAN TROPHY
THE WORST OF HEISMAN PRO BUSTS
DAN AND DAVE:
TO BE SETTLED IN …
A Shakespearean Tragedy About a Dreamy and Dynamic Decathlon Duo*1
It was the summer of 1988 in Seoul, Korea, just thirty klicks south of the DMZ, and the U.S. Olympic decathletes were struggling as mightily as the North Korean economy on the other side of the Thirty-eighth Parallel. A nation that produced decathlon greats such as Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, and Bruce Jenner was unable to place a single competitor on the medal stand in Seoul. It was an embarrassing low point for the proud American decathlete.
Meanwhile, Jane Fonda and her overwhelmingly popular workout videos were continuing to motivate housewives across the country into ill-fitting leotards for thirty to sixty minutes of squat thrusts and leg kicks. These women couldn’t do their aerobics in heels—they needed proper footwear, and Reebok filled the vacuum, becoming the first company to exploit the female athletic-shoe market.
With more than $1 billion in sales and a healthy slice of the overall athletic-shoe industry, business was good for Reebok. Particularly good considering the fact that they were stealing market share from Nike, the Greek goddess of (shareholder) victory. Things got even better when they released the exorbitantly priced Pump basketball shoe in 1989. And because every kid wanted to elevate above the rim, Reebok sold about 20 million pairs of those big-ticket items over the next few years.
So it can be said that in the period following the Seoul Olympics, on the proverbial teeter-totter of sports, the American decathlete was the class chubbo while Reebok was flying high, squealing, legs kicking and arms raised in the air.
Their fortunes would soon reverse, then intertwine.
Dan O’Brien was an American decathlete. So was Dave Johnson. In the late ’80s, while O’Brien was a relative newcomer, Johnson was the veteran leading the American decathlon resurgence that developed in the wake of Seoul. And this resurgence happened very quickly. In 1989, Johnson topped the decathlon world leaders list, setting an American record in the process. The following year, Johnson and O’Brien finished first and second in the Seattle installment of the Goodwill Games—Ted Turner’s ill-fated, apolitical, and money-hemorrhaging rival to the Olympics.
Sensing a U.S. decathlon turnaround—and, thus, a possible marketing opportunity—Visa (the nice credit card company that offers money to anyone with a mailbox) opened its coffers to USA Track & Field, in the form of a generous sponsorship, as opposed to a loan with a double-digit APR attached to it. Starting in 1990, the Visa-funded U.S. decathlon program helped enable American [athletes’] return to prominence. A year later, in 1991, O’Brien trounced the competition in Tokyo, winning gold at the World Championships. The Americans were back, baby!
It was 1992. Nike had managed to recover from the negative press related to its overseas labor practices and once again find its stride. In doing so, the Swoosh had begun to absolutely clobber Reebok in the sneaker war. Unable to compete in “cool factor” (translation: Air Jordan trumps all), Reebok’s U.S. market share fell from nearly 25 percent in 1991 to just over 10 percent in 1992. Correspondingly, during the same period, Nike’s market share rose from slightly under 25 percent to 45 percent. In an attempt to cut costs, Reebok announced plans to lay off one-tenth of its workforce worldwide.
Meanwhile, O’Brien and Johnson were rounding into form and emerging as the overwhelming favorites to take the gold and silver medals in the upcoming Barcelona Games. Heading into an Olympic year, the pair appeared evenly matched; Johnson held a three-to-two lead over O’Brien in direct competition, but O’Brien’s résumé showed a higher personal best in the event. Johnson posted a world-leading mark in 1990 en route to winning the U.S. Track & Field Championships. And O’Brien followed suit in ’91, winning the U.S. national title and posting a very impressive world- best point total of his own. It appeared that the stiffest competition each of these gents would face in the Olympic decathlon would be the other.
As it turned out, Visa wasn’t the only corporate bloodhound sniffing out a marketing opportunity. O’Brien and Johnson were hot, and while they still toiled in relative obscurity as far as the general viewing public was concerned, things were about to change.
Life is short. Play hard. Reebok had been passing that advice along to the masses since the summer of 1991. But during the Super Bowl broadcast in 1992, it unveiled what would become the overwhelmingly popular “Dan and Dave” campaign. This series of commercials was obviously meant to create greater brand awareness of Reebok by publicizing their intriguing U.S. decathlon rivalry in the eight-month run-up to the Olympic Games.
They succeeded, and then some. The ads were a huge hit. The viewing public didn’t care any more for track and field than it had previously, but it did care about Dan and Dave. Of course, the success of Reebok’s campaign was dependent upon the ultimate success of the two, but these were the two best decathletes on the planet. What could go wrong?