Black Student Athletics: Dan O’Brien

Another Black student-athlete, who identifies as bi-racial, that passed through the halls of the University of Idaho and later rose to the Olympic podium was Dan O’Brien. Dan O’Brien was born on July 18, 1966, in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon.1 He is of African-American and Finnish descent, but was adopted and raised in an Irish-American home. He attended Henley High School in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and in the Oregon State High School Championships led his team to a runner-up finish in which he earned four gold medals for the 110-meter high hurdles, the 300-meter hurdles, the long jump, and the 100-yard dash.

After graduating from high school, O’Brien initially enrolled at the University of Idaho , but eventually left the University and instead completed his Associate of Arts degree at Spokane Community College. Despite this, he would return to the University of Idaho to complete his bachelor’s degree and join the Vandals track-and-field team in 1988 and 1989. While at the University of Idaho, O’Brien showed his prowess when he earned All-America honors in the 55-meter hurdles with a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He also scored a school record and a Big Sky record of 7,988 points in the decathlon, earning him the Big Sky Track and Field Athlete of the Year honors.2 From this achievement in his collegiate career, O’Brien would take the next step to becoming an athlete of world-renown.

In 1988, O’Brien competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials, but due to an injury during his long jump attempt, he had to withdraw.3 Despite this, O’Brien participated in the Goodwill games in 1990 and came up second behind Dave Johnson.4 In 1991, he traveled to the Tokyo World Championships and took first in the decathlon, earning a gold medal, and afterward entered the 1992 US Olympic Trials.

He entered the 1992 trials being proclaimed as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” and as the crowd favorite to win the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics; however, he failed to clear the pole vault and did not make the team.5 Regardless of this, O’Brien would later participate in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996,6 winning the gold medal with 8,824 points. He would also win the Goodwill Games title in 1998 and solidify his professional career. But after these last two wins, he would not participate in the Olympics again as injuries prevented his return. Despite that, he was still honored by both halls of fame and universities for his achievements.

After O’Brien’s gold medal win at the 1996 Olympics, he was honored with “Dan O’Brien Day” by the state of Idaho and a parade was held for him in Moscow, Idaho.7 He has since been inducted into four halls of fame: the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2006, the University of Idaho Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012.8

His significance at the University of Idaho was further cemented when the outdoor track and field complex was named after him, and after its renovation in 2012, he was there to rededicate it.9 It is clear that, even though he did not spend much time at the University, he played a significant role in the development of University athletics policy, though he may not have had similar experiences to those who were not biracial and instead identified as Black.


  1. “Dan O’Brien,”,
  2. “Dan O’Brien,” University of Idaho Hall of Fame,
  3. “Lavine in Discus Finals; O’Brien Sidelined,” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, July 21, 1988.
  4. Bert Sahlberg, “O’Brien Settles for Second Fiddle – For the Time Being,” Lewiston Morning Tribune, July 26, 1990.
  5. “Pole Vault Disaster Ends Dan’s Hopes for Olympics,” Lewiston Morning Tribune, June 29, 1992.
  6. Bob Baum, “O’Brien Buries Memories of ‘92,” The Register Guard, August 2, 1996.
  7. “Idaho Celebrates Dan O’Brien Day,” The Deseret News, August 19, 1996.
  8. Jared Slinde, “Devers, O’Brien, Temple, Connolly Selected to U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame,” USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, 2012,,-O%E2%80%99Brien,-Temple,-Connolly-selected-to-U-S-.aspx
  9. “O’Brien Helps Cut the Ribbon on Revamped Track,” Track and Field/Cross Country News, 2012,


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The Seminal History and Prospective Future of Blacks at the University of Idaho Copyright © 2023 by Brody Gasper and Sydney Freeman Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.