Outside magazine, August 1996
Fewer shadows in track and field are longer--or stranger--than the one that Dan O'Brien has cast over the decathlon in the last four years. During that span, the 30-year-old O'Brien has quashed the traditional "Who's the world's greatest athlete?" debate by setting a world record and notching three straight world championships. But he has also endured a remarkable span of personal melodramas, which include admitting to a drinking problem, taking medication to combat attention deficit disorder, and securing his reputation as a world-class flake by famously tanking in the pole vault at the 1992 Olympic Trials, missing the cut for Barcelona. He's a one-man publicity machine, cranking out both good and bad press, yet is still the prohibitive favorite to walk away with the gold in Atlanta. Which many observers will tell you means that the most intriguing battle in the decathlon this summer figures to be the one raging off-camera, in O'Brien's head. As American decathlete Chris Huffins puts it, "So far the person who's got the best record against Dan O'Brien is Dan O'Brien."
Ironically, though, O'Brien may have more legitimate competition this year than he would have had in Barcelona. The biggest threat comes from American Steve Fritz, who lacks the notoriety of former Reebok-hyped O'Brien rival Dave Johnson but has proved the superior decathlete. Fritz, 28, emerged as a legitimate contender in 1994, when he tallied 8,548 points to rank second in the United States (O'Brien's world record is 8,891 points). But it's the advances Fritz has made since that ought to rattle O'Brien: adding five feet to his shot put, airing out his discus throws an additional 20 feet, and shaving nearly a second from his best time in the 110-meter hurdles. If Fritz can finish the first day within 200 or so points of the lead, he should be able to chip away at it on day two in the hurdles, discus, and javelin, forcing O'Brien to actually sweat in his worst event, the competition-ending 1,500-meter run.
Another scenario knocking O'Brien from the tallest pedestal involves Eduard H„m„l„inen, who nearly stunned the favorite at the 1993 world championships in Stuttgart, losing by just 93 points despite a woeful 23-foot long jump. Though he'll compete this year for Belarus, H„m„l„inen moved a year ago to his ancestral homeland of Finland, where he's had access to decent indoor training facilities for the first time in years. Watch H„m„l„inen's performance in the long jump, the second event of the decathlon. If he hits 25 feet or better, he could push for the gold medal. The only other noteworthy contenders--unless 26-year-old up-and-comer Huffins suddenly discovers how to run the 1,500--are Canadian strongman Michael Smith and Estonian speedster Erki Nool, but they're likely to be vying exclusively for the silver and bronze.