O'Brien won't let '92 failure be a hurdle

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Dan O'Brien's versatility ends at the decathlon. The world's greatest athlete is a rotten actor.

He would have us believe he is past his past, that his epic failure in the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials will have no effect on him now. O'Brien insists that he will be thinking of his technique and not his famous pole vault fiasco as he approaches the bar Saturday. He must think us fresh off the turnip truck.

A man might distance himself from his disasters, but he is never fully free of them. Much as Dan O'Brien might want to check his personal baggage with the bellman, he bears a heavy burden this weekend. He owns the world record in the decathlon and has won three world championships but has yet to qualify for an Olympic Games. He has known victory, but he needs validation.

Despite whatever he might say.

''I like to go forward,'' O'Brien said Thursday. ''I don't like to go back and make up for things. I think I've done so much since '92 . . . and I don't want to go back to '92. I want to make this '96 team and do the best I can here. If I keep dwelling on four years ago, I'll be stuck there and the same thing may happen. I need to concentrate on what it is that I need to do in this meet and forget about the other things.''

Athletes are forever claiming temporary amnesia, but they rarely achieve it. Even if O'Brien succeeded in blocking out his bad memories, someone would be sure to remind him.

We have all seen this story line before. It is as old as the Greek myth of Achilles and as modern as Dan Jansen. Greatness is a blessing, not a guarantee, and fate has a remarkable capacity to expose tragic flaws.

Came up short

O'Brien has been among America's most poignant athletes since June 27, 1992. Leading the decathlon competition at the U.S. Olympic Trials after seven of the 10 events, O'Brien was unable to clear his initial pole vault height of 15 feet, nine inches, and consequently failed to qualify for the U.S. team.

He was by far the best man in the field that day in New Orleans and would have made the team with a pole vault of only 9 feet, 2ì inches. But in aiming higher, he fell short. His resounding zero in the pole vault limited him to an 11th-place finish in the Trials, and a seat in the broadcast booth in Barcelona. It ruined Reebok's elaborate Olympic advertising campaign and led to calls for change in USA Track's selection procedures.

It led O'Brien to the French Quarter, in search of alcoholic salve.

''I had a great time that night,'' he recalled. ''I went to Bourbon Street with my girlfriend and my massage therapist, and we were out from eight in the evening till four in the morning. Someone poured me into a cab. I was in a daze for three days.''

Big comeback

O'Brien soon snapped out of it and set a world record that summer by scoring 8,891 points in a meet at Talence, France. Olympic champion Robert Zmelik, of the Czech Republic, finished 547 points behind.

It was a brilliant victory for O'Brien, and yet bittersweet. World records are ephemeral compared to gold medals. The title of world's greatest athlete rings hollow unless it is acquired in the Summer Games.

''The world record isn't important,'' O'Brien said Thursday. ''Nine thousand points isn't important. I need to make this team at all costs.''

Had he qualified four years ago, O'Brien says he might have moved on to something else by now. He says he is not haunted by 1992, but it plainly left a void he is still trying to fill. Semantics.

''I'm not here for redemption,'' O'Brien said. ''I'm not here to make up for past mistakes. I'm here for one thing: to make it on the '96 Olympic team. I never forget about what happened in '92. And it's something that motivates me every time I step onto the pole vault runway in a major competition . . .

''I think that the '92 experience for me, it was a part of my life, a learning experience, like first or second grade. I almost got held back in the first grade, if you want to write about that.''

Dan O'Brien talks a pretty good game, but it is not his best event. As an actor, he's a great athlete.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 21, 1996.