ATLANTA -- The disappointment stayed with Dan O'Brien for most of the past four years. First it caused him to drink, then to burn.
Last night, he found a way to chase away the ghosts of New Orleans forever.
He won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon.
With more than 81,000 fans at Olympic Stadium cheering his every step in the last of the 10 events, the 1,500-meter run, O'Brien, 30, added to his legacy that included three world championships and the world record.
The disappointment of not making the U.S. team four years ago evaporated as O'Brien crossed the finish line and raised his arms in triumph.
With it, he became the first American to win the Olympic decathlon since Bruce Jenner 20 years ago.
"Believe it or not, I expected to be here. That's what I thought about every day for the last four years," said O'Brien, whose point total of 8,824 was the sixth-best in history and 67 behind his world record. "That's why I'm up here. That's why I won the gold medal."
Coming into yesterday 124 points ahead of German Frank Busemann, O'Brien finished 118 ahead of Busemann and 160 in front of the bronze medalist, the Czech Republic's Tomas Dvorak. American Steve Fritz was fourth.
Asked if his effort was as good a performance as his world record, set at a low-pressure meet in France two months after his debacle at the '92 trials, O'Brien said: "I don't think it was. I left a lot of points out there today. The last two days were the roughest of my career."
O'Brien joins a prestigious list of some of this country's most famous Olympians who have won this event. From the legendary Jim Thorpe in 1912 to Bob Mathias in 1948 and again four years later. From Rafer Johnson in 1960 to Bill Toomey in 1968 to Jenner.
And now O'Brien.
The gold medal was won with the 1,500, but it might have been secured, at least psychologically, when O'Brien easily cleared his opening height of 14 feet, 9 inches in yesterday's first event -- the pole vault. It was the same height at which O'Brien, a heavy favorite, no-heighted at the 1992 trials in New Orleans.
"It was a great relief to go over on the first vault," said O'Brien, who would go on to clear 16-5. "But I was thinking that about every first attempt. I didn't want to put myself in a hole."
With his personal albatross removed, his lead continued to grow. O'Brien tore into his eighth event, the javelin, unleashing a throw of 219-6 after Busemann had put some pressure on with a throw of nearly the same length.
By the end of the 1,500, O'Brien's memories from New Orleans were a blur, just as they were when he went on a three-day drinking binge in the aftermath of his trials failure. So were the memories of what Johnson did a couple of months later in France, when he set the world record and started on the road back. It wound up here last night at Olympic Stadium.
With a gold medal. With a string of new memories to carry for the rest of his life. The only thing O'Brien forgot to do was bring a uniform to wear for the medal ceremonies. Michael Keller, O'Brien's coach since high school, had reminded him, but O'Brien was a bit preoccupied.
"I told him to go borrow Michael Johson's uniform," said Keller. "They're about the same size."
Built from legendary proportions.
Pub Date: 8/02/96