CALGARY, Alberta — It was over before the second guy even skated. You knew that watching Brian Boitano Saturday night, knew it when, in the middle of the final cyclone twist of a brilliant routine, he jerked his head skyward with a smile that said it was all worth it, all the wait, all the work, everything, because the gold medal was coming, it was just a matter of time.
“I had such a feeling of accomplishment,” Boitano said Sunday, recalling the pinnacle moment of his skating career. “I looked at the ceiling and just sort of said, ‘Thank you.’ “
Boitano skated off to wait for Brian Orser, his Canadian rival, who had yet to perform, and you had to wince for Orser at that moment. Remember that in the 1986 world championships, Orser was so nervous waiting out a Boitano performance, he fled to the locker room and turned on showers to block the noise.
This time he pretended to ignore the enemy applause by practicing his routine in the hallway. Didn’t matter. He could have put himself under self-hypnosis and skated as Superman. How do you improve on perfect? You could record Boitano’s program on tape, run it a frame at a time, forward and backward, and you wouldn’t find a single glitch. Can you imagine the pressure to succeed like that? In the Olympics? Forget about the sequins and the makeup and all the frilly things that give men’s figure skating a marshmallow image. Pressure is pressure.
How did you find out you had won the gold medal?” Boitano was asked hours after he had waved to the crowd and fought back tears on the victory stand.
“Well, during (Orser’s) routine I was in the locker room,” he said. “I was washing off the makeup, packing my bag, just moseying around, and Christopher Bowman (a U.S. teammate) came in and he just nodded. But he’s a practical joker, so I didn’t know for sure. He said, ‘It’s true.’ I said, ‘It’s not.’ He said, ‘It is.’ I said, ‘It’s not.’ Finally the team doctor came in and said,
‘It’s on the screen. You did it.’ “
“And then what?” he was asked.
“Then the doctor gave me a high five.”
Why not? Give him a couple. Boitano, the first American gold medalist of these XV Winter Games, skated a program nothing short of brilliant — even non-skating fans had to appreciate it. Set to the music of the movie
“Napoleon,” he whipped through military simulation, marching, stabbing, twisting, turning, leaping with height almost unimaginable. Each jump bought a lump to your throat, because anyone who has ever tried to stand on a skate blade — much less leap on one — knows how vulnerable a skater can be. Yet he never fell, never faltered. It’s hard to say he even blinked.
“This was the first time in my life that I looked better than I felt,” said Boitano, who finally saw a tape of his performance early Sunday morning at a party. “Usually, I find something wrong.”
How does a skater win one of these things? In Boitano’s case, it might be easier to ask, “How could he lose?” Technically, Boitano’s program is to the others skaters’ like calculus is to the multiplication tables. He executed eight triple jumps (as opposed to Orser’s six) and looked fresher as he went along. His first jump was called a Tanno triple, a triple Lutz with one arm extended over head, which, considering the strength you need to do it, is akin to hitting a double with one hand on the bat.
And afterward, when it was all over, Boitano stood on the medalists’ stand, to thunderous applause, and watched the U.S. flag raised to the highest position. “That’s the moment I see now over and over in my head,” he said.
“The flag raising. I will never forget that.
“But the rest of it, well, it still hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t think it ever will sink in. That’s part of the magic of winning the Olympics.”
Sadly, someone also had to lose. And while the U.S. patriots thrill to Boitano’s victory, only the insensitive would not feel something for Orser. He was runner-up in the 1984 Olympics to another American, Scott Hamilton, despite winning the long and short programs. Now he is a bridesmaid to the United States again.
“I’m disappointed, of course,” said Orser, the smallish (5- feet-6) skater who is the reigning world champion. He initially thought he had won. To make it worse, this had to happen here, in Canada. Home-ice advantage works backward in figure skating: The desire to please can hurt you. (“Personally,” Boitano had said before the competition, “I would rather skate the Olympics anywhere but before my home fans.”)
Orser, 26, did an excellent program, missing only one jump. (He double-footed on a landing.) But entering in second place, he needed to outshine Boitano, and that was nearly impossible. Orser tired as he went along. Before the final note of his music, it seemed clear who had captured the gold.
Orser couldn’t even catch a break from TV. Sitting before the camera with his scores flashing on the board, unable to immediately compute who had won and who had lost, Orser turned to David Santee, the designated announcer, who said the following: “Brian, I’ve got good news and bad news. . . . “
Geez. What a way to break it. S o Boitano wins, a Saturday night of glory for the United States. To his credit, the California native put the reins on his emotion while on the victory stand. “I almost felt guilty feeling great,” he said. His friendship with Orser was well documented during the week. Their competition was an example of how the best man can win without a dagger in his back.
When he returned to the athletes’ village, somewhere around 3 a.m., Boitano found the hallways to his room decorated with posters and cards of congratulations. His fellow American athletes — lugers, bobsledders, skiers
— had done it. He looked once more at his medal, and then the Games’ first American golden boy tried to call it a night.
“I don’t know why,” he said, “but I just couldn’t fall asleep.”