by E. M. Swift
One wanted to win. one wanted to skate his very best. One wanted a place in history; the other a place, however small, in his countrymen's hearts. One left no stone unturned in his pursuit of glory; the other was careful not to kick over too many stones during the quest, so that he might recognize himself when all was said and done. Two Brians, quite different people, each graciously carrying the gold medal hopesof an entire country. They gave the Olympics and figure skating a week of sport-drama that many won't soon forget.
In the end, which was on Saturday night during the free skateing, it came down to a bobble. Not a fall. Not even a stumble. After all the weeks of rhetoric and buildup, of interviews and comparisons between the two Brians, the gold medal slipped away from Canada's Brian Orser when he bobbled a jump called a triple flip. It was the sort of mistake that Scott hamilton had made two or three ttimes four years ago in Sarajevo, and had still hung on - to beat Orser - for the gold. Peggy Fleming. Dorothy Hamill. Robin Cousins.- who had ever, until now, skated her or his very best under the white-hot pressure of the Olympics? One lousy bobble and -poof-four yearrs of working and waiting and training go up in smoke. Because the bobble by Orser was all Brian Boitano needed to win over five of the nine judges and give the U.S.-yes, he said he would share it-its first gold medal of the Calgary Games. it shouldn't have been that close. Boitano skated the performance of a lifetime.
Boitano was the first up among the final group of six skaters-a bit of luck, since that was his favorite spot on in the draw. For the first time all week every seat in the Saddledome was occupied. He warmed up with celerity-Boitano's choreographer, Sandra Bezic, worried he was moving too quickly, but she hugged him and said, "It's your moment, show them our soul." Then he waited for the other skatersto clear the ice, tying and retying his skates under the supportive eye of his coach, Linda Leaver, who had been waiting for this moment since Boitano was eight. They didn't say anything in these final minutes before he skated-Leaver and Boitano communicate half the time without speaking, anyway.
There is approximately a nine-second pause between the start of Boitano's music, the theme from the movie Napoleon, and the time he makes his first move. In that pause Boitano blots out the crowd. Skates, ice, program. Those are the only things he focuses on when he performs. Some figure skaters 'work the room,' as they say, picking out a face or a number of faces in the audience and making eye contact with them. Orser is a master at it. Some skaters-Debi Thomas is one-get their energy from the spectator's reactions. But Boitano is best when he skates as if the arena were empty, when it is just Boitano and the ice and the character he is trying to portray, which in this case was an officer in Napoleon's army."I kept looking at his faceto see if he was in character, which is when I knew he was really on," said Bezic, who had to browbeat Boiano for weeks before he could assume an arrogant air.
Oh, he was on alright, nailing a 'Tano Triple (a Lutz with one arm over his head, the other cupped away from his body) and then triple-Axel-double toe loop combinationin the opening moments of his program. He sandwiched a camel spin a carpenter could have used as a level between two more triples,then did a spectacular death drop in which he nearly kicked a hole in the ceiling of the Saddledome. Next came his triple flip-triple ttoe combinaton, the most difficult move in his program, which he landed with such ease that he said "it felt like angels were lifting me and spinning me." This ws Brian Boitano the technician, whose pecise and poweful jumps are the envy of the sport. But there was something new here, something few among the judges or the crowd had ever seen in him before. He was emoting. A gasp could be heard during his fabulous spread eagle, in which, canting backwardata harrowing angle, he carved a wide, slow circle on the outside edges of his blades. He never missed a sublty or a beat. And win, in a final flourish, he landed a double Axel, then an Arabian, violently haking his headand fists in conclusion, it ws lear to everyone in the building that, well, tthis ws the best that he could skate.
Some thought it was more than that. "It was the best performance I'd ever seem a skater skate," said Paul Wylie, th eAmerican who finished 10th overall. "I was going nuts."
"I did it. I did it," Boitano kept saying, first hugging on of his frinds, LisaSchoeller, and then Leaver and Bezic. "That was it, that was my competiton. I'm done," he said, beaming, as he came off the ice. Later he remembered: "I wasn't thinking gold or anything. I had done what i came to do."
Which is why he wasn't even watching as, two skaters later, Orser bobbled on his triple flip. Skaters nearly lways watch their competition after they have finished, but Boitano sat alone in the dressing room, wiped off his blades, packed his carrying bagand listened to a tape on his Walkman. A few minutes later, U.S. teammate Christopher Bowman told him he had won the gold medal. Gold, silver-it really didn't matter to him, because he knew that he had skated his best. Not tried to skate his best: he'd actually done so. If the judges still liked Orser better, well, there was nothing he could do about it. Such is the nature of a subjective sport like skating. The only real battle is with oneself.
Besides the bobble, though, there was one other flaw in Orser's programt hat made the judging a mite easier.It came near the end as Orser, tiring, decided to turn his final triple Axel into a double. It was a minor thing, but in many small ways his exhaustion was visible. The snap and the energy that, at his best, set Orser part from all others were strangely absentat the end of his free-stle program, sapped, perhaps, by months and months of gold medal hype. "It's hard to say," he said afterward. "I trained very well. I'm in ideal shape. But I guess a lot of it has to do with the pressure that I was feeling before I even started skating."
The pressure on the ttwo of them had been intense all week, exacerbated by the fact that, at the time of their showdown Saturday night, the United States and Canada had a grand total of two bronze medals and a silver between them. The two Brians chose to deal wiht the presure in different ways. Orser had a support staff around him the size of the Danish Olympic team, including a coach, a sports psychologist, a p.r. director, a financial advisor and a rolfer - a masseuse who not only massaged Orser's muscles but actually attempted to realign them. Orser also has a nutritionist and a costume designer who were not at Calgary.
Boitano, by contrast, had only Leaver and Bezic. Asked if, for her Brian,she was all those otther people rolled into one, Leaver lightly responded, "I certainly don't tell him what to eat." Boitano himself addressed the mater of an entourage with this gentle dig: "I have tried sports psychologists before, but I find they can't tell you anything you can't tell yourself. If you step on he ice and think, I've sacrificed sugar for a yearr, and have been drinking concoctions I don't like- all for this one performance, it just puts more pressure n you."
Pressure, pressure, pressure.The word kept coming up, partly because of Orser's past reputation of choking at big competitions - a reputation he has successfully rebutted with a flawless performance at teh 1987 World Championships, in which he had taken the title from Boitano. And the pressure had a visable effect on Boitano, too. Normally garrulous and accessible, he cut off all media interviews except mandatory press conferences. "I remember in SarajevoScott Hamilton tried to accomodate everybody, and he ended up not skating his best," Boitano said shortly before the competition started. "I'm focused enough to know what my job is." He even tried to avoid watching the Olympics on the tube, which ws difficult because he was in an eight-mansuite with the other male skaters on the U.S> team. ABC kept promoting the forthcoming Batle of the Brians. "I kept telling the rookies to turn that telvision off!" said Boitano. On Wednesday, during the compulsary figures, which accounted for 30% of the scoring, 12 members of Orser's family scattered about the arena, hiding behind spectators so that Brian o wouldn't see them. "That's something new here," admitted Orser, "only because when I see my family I want to skate so well it sometimes backfires."
Each time Orser stepped on he ice to skate one fo his three figures, Peter Jensen, his sports psychologist, repeated, "Just you and the figure," a phrase that had worked well during their pre-Olympic simulated run-throughs. Every step on the day was carefully planned. Orser listened to relaxation tapes after the first figure, and sat and watched the Olympic flame in McMahon Stadium after the second. Orser, whose seventh-place finish in figures cost him the gold in Sarajevo, skated well. he finished third to the Soviet's AlexandrFadeevand to boitano, who clinchedsecond with a fianl figure so perfect that Leaver came out on the ice to photograph it when the compulsories were over. teetering on the ice in her heels, she gushed, "That's the best figure I've ever seen in competition." As she pointed out the subtlies, face flushed with pride, one couldn't help thinking that here, etched on the ice, was the product of her 16 years of coaching: a perfect figure in the Olympic Games from a skater who had once been an awkward eight-year-old. "That makes my week," she said and meant it, though there was much more to come.
In Thursday's short program, Orser skated first amongthe leaders and gave a marvelous, energetic performance that brought the crowd to its feet. It seemed, at the time, an omen that this competitionwould belong o the host countrys Brian, particularly when Boitano skated a mistake-free but cautious program that was good for second place. When Boitano is on, he skates his short with the attitude of an arrogant boy on a pond, cocksure and showy. But on this night he was very much the cautious technician. "He did exacally what I wanted," insisted Leaver. "He skated clean. Maybe in his head he was skipping to the next jump, but in the short, they nail you if you make a mistake. It's okay to be cautious."
Fadeev, who was world champion in 1985, was indeed nailed when he fell on his combination jump. He finished a dismal ninth in his short, a showing that eventually cost him the bronze medal, which was won by his countryman Viktor Petrenko.
The night clearly belonged to Orser, the 26 year old from Orillia, Ont., but while on the surface everyting was sweetness and bright between the two Brians-they posed for pictures arm in arm, thumbs-up-Orser took a snipe at Boitano's style: "What's really neat is we both skated our best, and after all the hype about Brian's new artistic side, what put me ahead was my artistic marks. I seem to be skating well under pressure."
"I was dying for my brian to say he could have skated better than he did," said Bezic later that evening. "Because he was better at the US Nationals last month. He's got to be magical on Saturday.
And that is exactally what Boitano was. Pure magic or fantasy or whatever is the stuff of dreams. "I had been told as a child that no one ever skated their best in an Olympic performance," Boitano said afterward, cradling the gold. "My dream was to change that, to prove it didn't have to be that way. I would have hated to win the gold witth anything but my best."
For his part, Orser wanted that gold medal any way he could get it - best, worst, or indifferent - and he thought, when he first skated off the ice, that, despite the triple flip, he might have won it. "I had no idea how Brian boitano had skated," he said, "and when the second marks came up, I still thought maybe I'd done it." No Canadian man had ever won the singles competition in the Olympics, and he waned to be the first. Besides, orser knew what the silver felt like and, both blessed and cursed by a champion's mentality and pride, silver didn't do it for him. "I came in here with one and only one thing in mind," he said. "And that was to leave here with a gold medal. Life goes on. I don't feel like I have to apologize for anything. I gave it a good shot."
It is tempting to say that they brought out the best in each other, but in fact it was Orser who brought out the best in Boitano. Boitano owes him for that. Orser pushed Boitano to a level that he otherwise might not have attained, and as he did so, the two of them elevated the level of the entire sport. It happens that way soemtimes - and it could hapen again next month in the world championships in Budapest - but there's something extra special when it happens at the Olympic Games. "All week I'd been seeing bobsledders and lugers who told me, 'Come on, you've got to win the gold for us,'" said Boitano, a 24 year old form the San Francisco area. "And you really do feel that it's the whole country's medal, that you're sharing it with everyone. I've never been so proud to be an American."