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.
And it was. Nailed it. Boitano, the American, skated off to wait for Brian Orser, the Canadian, who was practicing in the hallway even as the Saddledome crowd applauded madly for his rival. The whole event all along had been these two skaters — The Battle of The Brians — but the pressure was now on Orser, and he has never worn pressure well. 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.
It 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 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.
“I thought it was the best performace I ever saw anybody do, I was going nuts!” said American Paul Wylie, who finished 10th. And that’s a teammate talking.
Wasn’t everybody saying that? Boitano’s program was 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.
“When I took the ice I heard two voices in my head,” said Boitano, 24, when it was all over. “One said, ‘This is it! This is the Olympics.’ The other voice told me to treat it just like another competition. It was a fight, it was a tug of war…
“It was exhausting. It was like no other competition I’ve ever been through. It was pressure at its ultimate.”
How does a skater win one of these things? It’s impossible to say. Yet if you had a hard time stating just why Boitnao won, it may be easier to say,
“How could he lose?” Technically, his program was to the others like calculus is to the multiplication tables.
At one point, he executed the Tanno Triple, a triple Lutz jump 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. The roar from the crowd sent a shiver through any red, white and blue fan.
“Has it sunk in yet?” he was asked. “Has it sunk in that you’ve won the Olympic gold medal?”
“Winning the 1986 World Championship hasn’t sunk in yet,” he joked. “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 will thrill to Boitano’s victory (the first U.S. gold medal in these Olympic Games), only the insensitive would not feel something for Orser, who won the silver. He was runner-up in the 1984 Olympics to another American, Scott Hamilton, despite winning both the long and short programs. Now he is a bridesmaid to the U.S. again.
To make it worse, it 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,, only one jump was missed
(double-footed landing.) But entering in second place, his marks needed to outshine Boitano’s, and that was nearly impossible.
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. So Boitano wins, a Saturday night of glory for the U.S. When he finished his program, he clenched his fists, shook his head slightly, and almost began to cry right there. And when he stood on the medalists’ platform, the first time the “Star Spangled Banner” has been played here in seven days of competition, his lower lip trembled and if he wasn’t crying, a lot of other people were.
“All I really wanted to do when I came to the Olympics was skate my best,” said Boitano, the fifth American male figure skater to win a gold. “I knew if I did that, if I could skate cleanly, do my best, then I really wouldn’t care what color medal I got.”
He obviously meant it. During Orser’s routine, which could have cost him the gold, Boitano didn’t even bother to watch. Having done what he came there to do, he was doing the next logical thing: He was packing his bag.