IF THERE IS A LESSON TO BE LEARNED from the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships in Budapest, besides the obvious one-that it is redundant to hold such a competition in an Olympic year-it is that retirement has a sweet-sad fragrance more powerful than winning or losing. Somehow it seemed as important to know who was leaving the world of amateur skating-for starters, all the world champions, the first time that has ever happened-as to know who finished this long year on top. There were no big losers among the skaters. Rather, every one of this memorable group lost a little something, as Brian Boitano and Brian Orser, and Katarina Witt, Debi Thomas and the late-blooming Elizabeth Manley competed against one another as amateurs for the final time.

The singles skaters weren't the only ones making their last hurrahs in Budapest. Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, the theatrical Russian ice dancing champions, won their fourth consecutive world title, then retired.

In the pairs competition, the Soviet husband-and-wife duo of Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev pulled the biggest upset of the worlds by beating their young compatriots Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, who had won the last two world titles and are the reigning Olympic champions. Gordeeva, shaky from the effects of a cold, fell during a triple Salchow throw in Wednesday night's final, giving Valova and Vasiliev the tiny opening they needed. In their final amateur performance the '84 Olympic champions, who are leaving the sport to start a family, left the international ranks the way they had entered them in 1983: on top. "It's such a pity we won't compete anymore," said Valova, who missed five weeks of training this winter because of a foot injury. "Every medal was pleasant, but to finish with the gold is the best."

The most dramatic confrontations, as usual, took place in the men's and women's singles, with their veteran, charismatic cast. Following his loss to Boitano at the Calgary Games, Orser, the '87 men's champion, had trained mostly on his own for a week. It had given him a chance to gather himself after the searing glare of the Olympics. The Toronto Star had not taken his defeat very well. "I remember one headline: ORSER MAGNIFICENT-BUT STILL A LOSER," he said. "I cried when I read that. No one likes to be called a loser." Orser had arrived in Budapest nine days before the competition, anxious to defend his title. "It wasn't like I had to scrape myself off the bottom of the barrel to be here. I skated well, came close but didn't win."

Unfortunately, Orser had brought an old nemesis with him to Hungary: the compulsory figures. Although he has steadily improved that aspect of his skating, he finished fifth. Boitano was third. Alexander Fadeev of the Soviet Union, who would later withdraw from the worlds with a groin injury, finished first in all three figures. A number of competitors were outraged by the judging. "I saw Fadeev's loop," said Boitano, "and it was about eighth-best. Christopher Bowman's was better. So was Orser's. They should get rid of the figures altogether."

There is a proposal to do just that before the International Skating Union, which will vote on it in June. The Canadian Figure Skating Association (CFSA) and others have proposed a number of less drastic alternatives, such as reducing the number of figures from three to two; they would then count for only 20% of a skater's overall score instead of the current 30%. "If you've got a judging problem in figures-and they do solve it," said David Dore, director general of the CFSA, "because once you get rid of figures, they aren't coming back."

Boitano, loose and relaxed all week, had been on a high since Calgary. After winning the gold medal, he had gone to the White House to meet the President, then to Los Angeles, where look-alike Bronson Pinchot, who stars in the TV series Perfect Strangers, had offered Boitano a guest role as his character's long lost brother. Back home in San Francisco, Boitano had signed on with lawyer and agent Leigh Steinberg, who is negotiating contracts with ice shows. Then it was on to Budapest.

Orser needed to beat Boitano in both the short and long programs to retain his title. But on Thursday night Boitano performed a magnificent short program. It earned him a standing ovation and a slew of 5.8's and 5.9's. When Orser missed his combination jump, the title

became Boitano's to lose. Boitano could now finish second in the freestyle program on Friday night and still win the championship. He had been promising all week to try his quadruple toe loop-a move that had never been landed cleanly in competition-in the long program, and he now had the cushion to do so.

Later Thursday night Elaine DeMore, a U.S. judge for the men's competition, bumped into Boitano's coach, Linda Leaver. Few in the U.S. figure skating establishment wanted Boitano to try his quad, because a fall would automatically take one tenth of a point from his score. Play it safe was the advice from above. "What's he going to do tomorrow?" DeMore asked Leaver, referring to the quad.

"What do you want him to do?"

"I want a nice clean program."

"He can do a nice clean program with the quad in it, can't he?"

"I just want to enjoy the beauty of the program," insisted DeMore.

"You can't ask him to duplicate what he did at the Olympics," said Leaver with a smile. "It's not fair."

"I know it's not," admitted the judge. "I just don't want any more gray hairs. You won't give me any more gray hairs tomorrow, will you?"

"No, we won't," promised Leaver. As DeMore turned to catch her bus, Leaver added coyly, "How about white?"

The quad was in. A few minutes before Boitano went out to skate, however, Kurt Browning, 2 1, of Canada, who had been nailing quads in practice, became the first to land one in competition. Did Boitano, at that point, consider removing his? "I never said I wanted to do the quad to make history," he said. "I want ed to land one within my own program. That's what I came here to do."

Boitano two-footed the landing on his quad. There is no mandatory deduction for that. Later he popped a triple Axel into a single, but the rest of his program was strong, good enough to have won the freestyle, really, had Orser not turned in a tour de force performance. In what may well have been his final amateur performance-he will wait a few weeks to make a final decision-Orser received three perfect 6.0's, a standing ovation and an admiring embrace from Boitano. It wasn't enough for the gold, though. Boitano took that-it was his second world crown-and Orser had his sixth silver medal in Olympic and world competition.

"I hope that we have set an example," said Boitano, speaking of the legacy of the two Brians, "that people who want the same goal can push each other as friends. Not in a feuding way, like there is in the women's competition, but as sportsmen who can raise each other's level of performance."

So sentimental was the atmosphere in Budapest-it was more like a graduation ceremony than a world championship-that even the distaff side of the competition produced little controversy. And for a while it seemed as though a career-ending upset was in the offing, but as has usually been the case the past few years, Witt prevailed.

Thomas didn't even want to be in Budapest. "The three weeks after the Olympics were probably the hardest of my life," she said. "I cried every day. I didn't feel I had to redeem myself for the Olympics, but every day I had to go out there and train, wondering, How am I going to get through this?"

The compulsory figures didn't help matters. Thomas finished third, behind Witt, who won them, and Manley, who believed she should have won them. "I

skated the best figures of my life," Manley fumed, furious at the judging. "I'm going back to the hotel and award myself the gold medal in the compulsories."

But Thomas turned things around with her short program on Friday afternoon. She was, quite suddenly, the Debi Thomas of old-vibrant, jazzy, spontaneous beating Witt for the first time ever when they had both skated a clean program. Witt, in fact, skated spectacularly, garnering a 6.0 and seven 5.9's for artistic impression. But Thomas's technical marks were superior. "I was more nervous than I was before the Olympics," she said. "I've been skating pretty badly in practice, and I have to be worried to get my adrenaline flowing. I had more energy tonight. I saw Brian Boitano in the stands and stuck my tongue out at him before the footwork section. I was just having more fun tonight. Plus I knew if I messed up on my birthday, I'd really be upset," The day of the short program, Debi turned 2 1.

But there were no miracles left for her. Not in skating, anyway. Before Saturday's long program, she was in the same position she had been in at Calgary: Win the long, win the gold. As in the Olympics, she was skating last. And, too, the judges left her room-Witt, skating fourth, had turned in what was, for her, a very middling performance. The East German skater, who will begin taking acting courses in Berlin this summer, attempted only three of her five triples and turned a double Axel into a single. "It was really hard for me," she said after the competition, tearful from her victory and her retirement after 17 years of competitive skating. "I wanted to give my very best performance for last. I kept thinking, Try to feel the music, try to feel the audience. I felt paralyzed a little bit from concentrating too much on my program. It wasn't quite the best, but it was enough."

It was enough because Thomas skated her long program as she had at the Olympics-woefully. She muffed two triples and fell on another. At the performance's conclusion, she shrugged and gave an embarrassed laugh. "This wasn't my year to be a dynamo in skating," she said later, relieved that her competitive career was over. "I want to get out of the public eye for a while, go back to school and get on with the rest of my life." (On Sunday, Thomas revealed that she and Brian Vanden Hogen were married on March 15.)

Manley, who is retiring to join an ice show, finished second to Witt in the long program and took the silver, proving her Olympic showing was no fluke.

On the victory stand Thomas embraced Witt, which she had neglected to do at the Olympics. "I was in a daze then," Thomas says. "I felt I'd let down the whole U.S. But then I got so many letters of support. I realized it really didn't matter that much that I didn't win the gold. Katarina is a beautiful girl, a warm person, and I'm happy for her."

Nor did it matter that Debi and Elizabeth and Brian Orser didn't win in Budapest. Nor, really, that Witt and Boitano did. What matters is that this rich, buoyant chapter of figure skating history is now, reluctantly, closed.