Next stop: 9,000 points.
Or will the train ever get there?
In the fellowship of the decathlon, they’ve been waiting for Dan O’Brien to reach that station ever since his rapid rush to prominence in 1991. From a 7,200-point decathlete at the Community Colleges of Spokane, O’Brien rose to more than 8,800 points to become world champion in the space of just three years. The world record fell in 1992, and he’s since established a remarkable consistency.
Now with an Olympic gold medal finally his, O’Brien is making noises about a full assault to become the first to 9,000 - threatened, perhaps, by the stunning emergence of 21-year-old silver medalist Frank Busemann of Germany.
“He’ll score 9,000 eventually,” O’Brien said of Busemann, “so that’s incentive to keep going right there.”
(Technically, neither would be the first to score 9,000. Decathlon scoring tables were revised in 1962, in part to adjust for the advent of the fiberglass vaulting pole, but before they went into effect C.K. Yang of Taiwan scored 9,121 points. His marks are worth nearly 1,000 points less on the most recent tables.)
One of O’Brien’s coaches, Rick Sloan, approaches the 9,000 question matter-of-factly.
“He doesn’t have to do anything special,” said Sloan. “He doesn’t even have to come close to his lifetime bests.”
It’s reasonable. O’Brien had only one personal best - a 219-foot, 6-inch javelin - in winning the gold, so there’s obviously a 9,000-something medium between his 8,824 Olympic score and the aggregate of his lifetime bests in each event: a whopping 9,525.
“We were talking before the Olympic Trials and I went down the line, saying he should be able to do this, this and this,” said Sloan. “Not one of those marks was a PR, just solid marks, and they added up to 9,100-something. I said, ‘I’d better go back through this,’ but not one of those performances is out of line with what he can do. It’s just a matter of stringing it together and keeping it going.”
If O’Brien was disappointed in any events at the Olympics, it was the long jump (24-10), high jump (6-9-1/2) and pole vault (16-4-3/4) - all well below his bests.
“Say he clears two more heights in the high jump and vault,” said Sloan. “That’s 120 points right there.”
Throw in the average long jump from his last eight decathlons and O’Brien would be just 10 points away from 9,000 - still with no personal bests.
“I’m at the point where I don’t have to be perfect to win,” O’Brien said. “As a younger athlete, I laid it on the line more - I had nothing to lose. As you go on, you tend to want solid, consistent marks and maybe you give up the big throw or big jump for that consistency.”
No need to be tentative now. And, with O’Brien now 30, no time.
In a decathlon invitational like DecaStar in France, where O’Brien broke the world record, or a proposed September meet in Palo Alto, the conditions might be perfect.
“A meet like the Olympics doesn’t favor the athlete,” Sloan said. “There are 40 guys and you take a long jump and have to wait a half hour before you take another one. That’s not conducive to performance.”
In any case, the decathlon world is ready.
“It’s almost like when Michael Johnson runs the 400 and every time you say he’s going to break the world record - and then he doesn’t,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to let it go in the decathlon. But 9,000 will come when conditions are perfect. Maybe Palo Alto.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo