When we remember New Orleans, it will be for the heartbreak. Time and again the crowds at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials were transfixed by champions running or vaulting in pursuit of their dreams, or for justice, or for millions of dollars. And time and again they saw dreams dashed, justice thwarted, fortunes squandered. There was classic racing, crowned by a near world-record 19.79 in the 200 meters by the masterful Michael Johnson. There was wild gratification, as displayed by Jim Spivey in winning the men's 1,500 after years of injury and fourth-place finishes. A tough, seasoned team was chosen. But it was the losses, the mounting losses, that imparted a melancholy gravity to the occasion.
Four of the nine Americans who won individual world championships last year will not be going to Barcelona. A fifth, 100-meter champ Carl Lewis, will only be long jumping, having finished sixth in the 100 and fourth in the 200 in New Orleans. In the 110-meter hurdles, 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom and '91 world champion Greg Foster didn't make the team. Middle-distance runners Steve Scott, Joe Falcon and Mary Slaney didn't make it, either. And even these losses, tearful and wrenching as they were, paled before that of Dan O'Brien, the most talented decathlete who has yet lived.
Last Friday night, after finishing the first five events of the decathlon with a record total of 4,698 points, O'Brien was relieved. He had sprinted the 100 and the 400 strongly, had jumped long and high and had put the shot a personal best of 54'5½", despite the fact that he was still recovering from a stress fracture of his right fibula. All that concerned him now, he said, was the pole vault. He had not vaulted in a meet all spring.
But the next day, after scoring solidly in the 110-meter hurdles and the discus, O'Brien warmed up well in the vault. On his last practice jump, he cleared 16'¾" with a foot to spare. With his lead a yawning 512 points, it did not enter the imagination that he would not win this decathlon from his friend and celebrated rival, Dave Johnson, by an embarrassing margin. Indeed, if O'Brien were to vault somewhere near his best of 17'¾", he would have an excellent shot at Daley Thompson's world record of 8,847 points. O'Brien passed four early heights and started at 15'9".
His first jump was an awkward somersault below the bar. He hadn't been able to control the bending pole and bailed out. "This scares me," said Fred Samara, TAC's decathlon coordinator, who was sitting with Mike Keller and Rick Sloan, O'Brien's two coaches. They all knew a decathlete scores no points if he makes no height. Jim O'Brien, Dan's father, knew it too. He had tried to take a picture of his son vaulting but found he was so nervous he couldn't press the shutter release.
On his second attempt, O'Brien rose encouragingly high over the bar but came down on top of it, sending it bouncing off the standards. He had one try left. Samara was ashen.
Twice O'Brien started his run and stopped halfway to the pit, sensing that his steps were off. After the second abortive attempt, he walked back, toweled off, took up the pole like a long lance and started his final approach. He slammed the pole into the box, swung up and began to stall. Well before he neared the bar, he knew he could not clear it. He kept a hand on the pole and curled almost into a fetal position before dropping to earth, his eyes shut, his face a mask of agony. He was suddenly in 12th place with only the javelin and the 1,500 remaining. They are his weakest events.
"I felt numb at first," O'Brien would say. He attributed the misses to pressure, to the way a man's chest becomes granite when he suddenly sees the abyss. "I wanted to turn to somebody and say, 'Hey, this shouldn't be happening to me. Do something. Somebody do something.' "
O'Brien went to a skybox at Tad Gormley Stadium and wept. Then he, Keller and Sloan huddled with decathlon expert Frank Zarnowski, who confirmed for them the awful, unbelievable truth: It would be impossible for O'Brien to make the team. Their decision to start at 15'9" now looked like the worst tactical blunder in trials history, with immense costs both competitive and financial for O'Brien (box, page 18). "You'd think they'd get something down, some mark, something in the bank," said Jim O'Brien with terrible wistfulness.
Yet there had been good reasons for Dan to let the bar climb past the early heights. The temperature was 91°, and it was hotter on the track. The heat and his stress fracture made it important that Dan not take too many jumps. Further, Team O'Brien believed that 15'9" was safe, mundane. "I jump that as an opening height in practice," said Dan. "I can't remember a day when I didn't clear that height."