For two years Dan O'Brien looked like a world decathlon record waiting to explode. Of late, though, he has only imploded. At the Olympic trials in June, O'Brien no-heighted in the pole vault and failed to qualify for Barcelona, where he was slated to be the odds-on favorite for the gold medal. And in Stockholm a month later, he no-heighted once again, this time in the high jump, and failed to finish the competition.
But last Saturday, O'Brien's time finally came: In Municipal Stadium in Talence, France, a suburb of Bordeaux, O'Brien broke Daley Thompson's eight-year-old world record in the event, scoring 8,891 points to become the first decathlon-record holder from the U.S. since Bruce Jenner in 1976. Far behind in second place, with 8,344 points, was Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia, the Olympic champion. "The world's greatest athlete," O'Brien summarily declared, "has come back to America."
So great is O'Brien's talent, in fact, that even his performance in Talence was hailed less as a fulfillment than as a promise of things to come. O'Brien achieved personal bests in four of the decathlon's 10 events—the long jump, shot put, discus and javelin—but his coach, Mike Keller, said the 26-year-old from Moscow, Idaho, struggled throughout the meet. "Nothing went smoothly," Keller said.
It hardly ever does in the decathlon, an event in which the world mark had seemed all but unassailable since Thompson set it at the Los Angeles Olympics. Then in 1990, O'Brien appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and finished second at the TAC championships—though still inexperienced in the pole vault. O'Brien spent the next year learning to vault, and at the 1991 TAC meet he scored 8,844 points, missing the record by three points—about half a second in the 1,500 or¼ inch in the long jump. Three months later, he scored 8,812 points at the world championships in Tokyo to become the first decathlete ever to score more than 8,800 twice in the same year. By then the question no longer seemed to be if O'Brien would break Thompson's record, but when, where and by how much.
Even Thompson marveled at the man who chased his mark. "He's bigger than me, faster than me, and stronger than me," Thompson said last year. "He can be anything he wants to be. I see him as a 9,500-point man."
First things first: O'Brien had to prove that he could surpass the world record, not just threaten it. But from the beginning of the year he seemed to be jinxed. In February a stress fracture in his right foot forced him to do all his running in a pool for a month. In early June, two weeks before the trials, he sprained his left ankle throwing the javelin. "This whole year, we haven't been able to train six days in a row," says Keller.
Even O'Brien, who is almost unfailingly optimistic, had begun to question his status in the sport—particularly after the debacle at the trials. What would it mean, both to sponsors and to the public, if he went through '92 without at least approaching the level of performance expected of him? O'Brien's desperate search for an answer was what brought him to Talence.
O'Brien could not have chosen a better site for his final assault of the year on the record. Every summer the town holds a track meet that consists of only two events: the decathlon and the heptathlon. For two days the 5,000-seat stadium is filled with some of the most raucous track fans—and best athletes—in the world. Last Friday, 5,200 people showed up, and when news spread that O'Brien was on world-record pace, 4,000 more came on Saturday. Meet organizers, strapped for space, asked fans to come down to the edge of the track, where they stood 10 deep, some close enough to touch the competitors. "They clapped for every single jump and every single throw," said Keller.
O'Brien quickly gave them reasons to cheer. Like Thompson, O'Brien's greatest asset is speed—raw, explosive, elemental speed. Track coaches describe his gift as "ballistic." He opened the competition by running the 100 in 10.43, to take a 75-point lead over Zmelik. In the stands, Libor Varhanik, Zmelik's manager, sat with Keller and generously acknowledged O'Brien. "We both know," he said to Keller, "that if Dan had been at the Olympics, it would have been a different story."
Meet organizers, in another nice touch, had asked each athlete to choose music—a sort of personal theme song—to be played whenever he jumped or threw. O'Brien picked Kris Kross's Jump, which proved to be a perfect choice. On his first long jump attempt he sailed 26'6¼", the longest non-wind-aided jump ever in a decathlon.
O'Brien's ascension continued in the shot put, which he tossed for a personal best 54'9¼". Even after a ho-hum high jump of 6'9½", he was still on record pace, and in the first real test of his fitness, the 400, he finished in 48.51, almost two seconds slower than he had run at the '91 world championships. "He didn't want to go through the pain barrier," said Keller. Still, at the end of the first day, O'Brien had 4,720 points, 43 ahead of Thompson's record pace.
O'Brien opened the second day by running 13.98 in the 110 hurdles, just .04 of a second off his best. He then spun the discus 159'2", another personal best. That brought him to the pole vault.
At the trials, O'Brien had entered the competition at 15'9", a decision that will undoubtedly be criticized for years to come. With that mistake in his mind and tricky winds swirling all around him, he decided in Talence to come in at 15'1", a nice, safe height. So he thought. On his first attempt, O'Brien stalled out without coming close to the bar. But before the specter of the trials began to weigh on him, he sailed over cleanly on his second attempt, and went on to clear 16'4¾". "I boomed that one," he said. "It was big."
O'Brien needed a good performance in the javelin, and he got it, surpassing his previous best on all three throws, the longest of which measured 205'4".
That left only the 1,500. By this time much of the crowd had moved onto the track, where spectators stood clapping and shouting themselves hoarse. To break Thompson's record, O'Brien needed to run 4:49, 16 seconds slower than his personal best. "The last 100 meters I could see the clock," he said later. "I knew I was going to make it." His time was 4:42.10.
No doubt O'Brien can push the record much further—if he stays healthy next year. He has already announced that his goal for '93 is the 9,000-point barrier. "I need to start realizing my potential," he says. In Talence, he made a great start.