The title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” is traditionally given to the man who wins the Olympic decathlon. It was first bestowed upon the great Jim Thorpe by King Gustav V of Sweden in 1912 after Thorpe won the decathlon in the Summer Games in Stockholm that year. It was bestowed upon Daniel Dion O’Brien 84 years later in Atlanta.
Born in Portland, Oregon on July 18, 1966, O’Brien is of African American and Finnish heritage and, at the age of two, was adopted into a home with seven other children of racially mixed backgrounds in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He played Little League baseball and attended a high school football game with his dad in the sixth grade where, at halftime, kids competed in a one mile fun run. O’Brien entered and won, coming away with a big ribbon and establishing his passion for competition. He ran cross country in junior high and was five feet tall and weighed 100 pounds entering high school, where he played trumpet in the band. He grew 8 inches over the next two years and left the band to play football, where he helped the Hornets to a state football championship. He also played basketball and ran track. Needing financial assistance in order to afford college, he accepted a track scholarship to the University of Idaho but flunked out and later ran into legal difficulties. He attended Spokane Falls Community College in 1988 before returning to UI to continue his track career and complete his bachelor’s degree.
The 6’2”, 185 pound O’Brien trained for the decathlon under Idaho’s track coach, Mike Keller, and competed in The Athletics Congress meet and Goodwill Games in 1990 in his first year. One year later, he won a gold medal at the World Championships in Toyko and entered 1992 as the favorite to win gold at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. At the U.S. Olympic trials in June, he performed brilliantly in the first day of competition but disaster struck on Day Two in the Pole Vault, his 8th event of 10, when he failed to clear the bar on all three of his attempts. He scored no points and dropped from first place to 12th, failing to make the team. This was devastating for O’Brien and embarrassing for his sponsor, Reebok, who had started running a popular TV ad campaign around “Dan versus Dave” during the Super Bowl over five months earlier. The campaign was adjusted to ads featuring Dan cheering on Dave Johnson, who had made the team and won bronze in the decathlon in Barcelona. A few weeks after the close of those Games, O’Brien competed at a meet in France and set a world record of 8,891 points, a mark that stood for nearly 20 years until it was eclipsed in 2012. He went on to win gold at the World Championships in 1993 and 1995 and the Goodwill Games in between, in 1994.
Mr. O’Brien qualified for the U.S Olympic team in 1996 and became the first American to win the gold medal in decathlon since 1976, joining the list of legendary decathletes that includes Thorp, Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey and Bruce Jenner. He moved into first place after the third event [shot put] and never trailed again in posting a point total of 8,824 to easily beat silver medalist Frank Busemann of Germany. Dan O’Brien was world-ranked # 1 in decathlon from 1993 to 1996 and again in 1998 before injuries forced his retirement. He was elected into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012, the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2006 and Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. Henley High School renamed its football field after him in 2010 and University of Idaho named its track & field venue after him in 1996. On May 7, 2009, Dan O’Brien set the world record for fastest hopscotch game with a time of 1:21.
Dan O’Brien currently serves as an emcee for USA Track & Field, is involved with USATF’s Win with Integrity program, is a motivational speaker, volunteers as an assistant coach at Arizona State and trains athletes of all ages.
Tomorrow Dan O’Brien celebrates his 49th birthday.