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 hopes of 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 skating, 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 times four years ago in Sarajevo, and he 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 years of working and waiting and training go up in smoke. Because that 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 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 your soul." Then he waited for the other skaters to 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 a room," as they say, picking out a face or a number of faces in the audience and making eye contact with them. Brian Orser is a master at it. Some skaters—Debi Thomas is one—get their energy from the spectators' 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 face to see if he was in character, which is when I really knew he was on," said Bezic, who had to browbeat Boitano for weeks before he could assume an arrogant air.
Oh, he was on, all right, nailing a 'Tano Triple (a Lutz with one arm over his head, the other cupped away from his body) and then a triple Axel-double toe loop combination in 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 toe combination, 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 was Brian Boitano the technician, whose precise and powerful 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 backward at a harrowing angle, he carved a wide, slow circle on the outside edges of his blades. He never missed a subtlety or a beat. And when, in a final flourish, he landed a double Axel, then an Arabian, violently shaking his head and fists in conclusion, it was clear to everyone in the building that, well, this was the best that he could skate.
Some thought it was more than that. "It was the best performance I'd ever seen any skater skate," said Paul Wylie, the American who finished 10th overall. "I was going nuts."
"I did it. I did it," Boitano kept saying, first hugging one of his friends, Lisa Schoeller, and then Leaver and Bezic. "That was it, that was my competition, 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 always watch their competition after they have finished, but Boitano sat alone in the dressing room, wiped off his blades, packed his carrying bag and listened to a tape on a 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 program that 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 apart from all others were strangely absent at the end of his freestyle 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 two 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 with the pressure in very 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 adviser 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 in Calgary.