NEW ORLEANS — Dave, it is.
The question--Dan O'Brien or Dave Johnson?--that Madison Avenue's advertising experts told us would be settled at Barcelona was answered prematurely during the U.S. Olympic track and field trials Saturday, when O'Brien failed to qualify for the team in the decathlon.
The result was at least as stunning as Carl Lewis' sixth-place finish one week earlier in the 100 meters, perhaps even more so because O'Brien seemed to be in command of the competition. Through seven events, he was 512 points ahead of his closest pursuer, Johnson, and 59 ahead of the world-record pace set by Great Britain's Daley Thompson in 1984.
But disaster lurked in the pole vault at Tad Gormley Stadium. After passing at the first four heights, O'Brien entered the competition at 15 feet 9 inches, and failed to clear the bar on all three attempts. As a result, he scored no points and plummeted from first to 12th place among the 24 decathletes.
He consulted with Frank Zarnowski, the country's foremost decathlon expert, who told O'Brien that it would take a "big, big miracle," for him to score enough points in the final two events, the javelin throw and the 1,500 meters, to finish among the top three and qualify for the Olympic team.
It was not to be. Although O'Brien fought gamely against the odds, he improved by only once place to 11th with 7,856 points, 793 behind winner Johnson's meet record of 8,649. The previous record of 8,454 was set in 1976 by Bruce Jenner.
"When Dan missed that third time in the pole vault, I almost started crying," said Johnson, who trains at Azusa. "Dan's a good friend of mine . . . we're a team. This whole year, I've been thinking about going to Spain and bringing the best out of each other. Now, a part of me's gone, too."
O'Brien's failure overshadowed Johnson's outstanding performance Saturday, when his 4,455 points were a record for the decathlon's second day. He had been in fifth place after five events Friday, when O'Brien set a record for points scored on the first day.
"When I came to the track today, I felt invincible," O'Brien said. "I felt it was impossible for Dave to beat me and that there was no way I wouldn't be on the team."
That was before the pole vault, the most daunting event for most decathletes. O'Brien, who has been hampered by a stress fracture in his right leg and had not vaulted outdoors this year before Saturday, said last week that he would not breathe easily until he had cleared his first height.
In that case, it was easy to second-guess his decision to pass the first four heights. If he had cleared the lowest, 14-5 1/4, he would have scored 731 points and qualified for the Olympic team in second place.
But he said afterward that he routinely opens at 15-9 and had cleared 16-1 in the warm-ups. "If I had to do it again, I would still come in at 15-9, just like I do every day in practice. I believe that's a safe height for me. I believe I can go out and make it every day. Except today."
He came closest on his second attempt, when he cleared the bar but dislodged it on his descent. On his third attempt, stifled by the 89-degree temperature and 52% humidity and the high expectations born of his sponsor's $25-million advertising campaign, he hurried his steps and never reached the bar.
When he left the track, he was in tears.
"There was incredible pressure on that third attempt," Zarnowski said. "That was the problem. He was carrying the world on his shoulder's. Or Reebok's world."
Zarnowski said that he is writing a book about decathletes since 1912 who either were world record-holders or ranked first in the world and did not compete in the Olympics because of wars, boycotts or injuries. He had 10 chapters before Saturday.
"This will be a sad 11th chapter," he said.
But O'Brien, 26, said that he will be back, perhaps as soon as a decathlon competition in September in France, where he predicted that he will break the world record.
"I have pity on anyone who comes up against me in the next four years," he said.
O'Brien's misfortune was fortunate for Rob Muzzio, a computer programmer for a Bethesda, Md., defense contractor who never expected to earn a berth on the Olympic team. But he did not seem particularly happy about the circumstances that enabled him to finish third.
The University of Tennessee's Aric Long, who finished 412 points behind Johnson in second place, questioned the selection process for the U.S. Olympic track and field team.
"I don't know how good any system is to let someone like Dan O'Brien not compete in the Olympic Games," he said.
O'Brien is the fourth 1991 world champion to fail to earn a berth on the team in the event that he won last year at Tokyo, along with Lewis in the 100 meters, Antonio Pettigrew in the 400 and Kenny Harrison in the triple jump. So far, the only world champion who has earned a berth in his Tokyo event is Mike Powell in the long jump.