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Brian Boitano and Brian Orser: The Battle of The Brians

Nov 29, 2017
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Many of the greatest moments in modern Olympic history have been where two champions have met and not just competed against each other to win gold, but also they have become inextricably linked. It could be because they were from the same or from different countries. It could be because they shared a strong friendship, or the reverse were bitter rivals. It could also be that one was on the way up, the other one the way down. So many Olympics have had their story told through the competitions between athletes like Zatopek and Mimoun, Powell and Lewis, Johnson and Yang, Thorpe and Spitz. From this type of perspective the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics will always been known for the legendary “Battle of the Brians”; the men’s figure skating competition where the American Brian Boitano and the Canadian Brian Orser went head to head in arguably the greatest men’s skating program at the Olympics.

Calgary won the right to host the 1988 Winter Olympics on September 30th, 1981, after two previously unsuccessful bids. Canadian Summer Olympic history was long and prestigious, however the Montreal 1976 Games had been a traumatic experience thanks to the cost blow-outs, the African boycott and the failure of any Canadian to win a gold medal at their home games. Therefore, with the Canadian passion for such winter sports as ice hockey, speed and figure skating, and skiing it was hoped that the Calgary Winter Olympics would do much to redeem the emotional and financial investment in Canadian Olympism.

Four years before the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics Canada found a new emerging figure skating star to support, who would hopefully bring them gold in their home-town Olympics. In the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics Ontario-born Brian Orser had skated well enough to surpass the eventual gold medallist American Scott Hamilton in both the short and long programs of the men’s figure skating, however his relatively poor performance in the highly technical figures meant that Orser ended up with the silver medal. The best result for a Canadian male figure skater at the Olympics, it was reasonable to assume he climb one step higher up the podium in Calgary. Between 1984 and 1988 Orser developed into a genuine gold medal hope with one world championship gold, two silvers plus the 1987 season saw him win almost every championship he entered. However there was one particular rival who loomed large as a gold medal threat; his name, Brian Boitano.

Boitano, an American from the state of California with Italian ancestry had first competed against Orser in the 1978 Junior World Championships where Boitano had won first place, followed by the Canadian in second. The first American male skater to land a triple axel, at Sarajevo he finished fifth. Then, at the 1985 ISU World Figure Skating championships he came third behind Orser again (with Soviet skater Alexandr Fadeyev winning the title), followed by winning that championship one year later in Geneva. Significantly for the build up to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, at the 1987 World Championships in Cincinnati Orser reversed the preceding year’s result as Boitano failed to land a new move, a quadruple toe loop. The stage had been set; the two Brian’s were established as the leading contenders for the Calgary gold medal and whilst Orser was arguably more proficient artistically (which made him more attractive to spectators during the long program), Boitano arguably more athletic but not as inspired in his choreography. Naturally there would also be the home-town factor; unlike Sarajevo where neither of the two Brians had any support from local spectators, in Calgary it was to be expected that Orser would have fanatical Canadians willing him on to gold.

The 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary were in full swing by the time the men’s figure skating program began. After the first round (the compulsory figures) the men’s figure skating was actually led by the 1985 world champion, the Soviet skater Fadeyev, in front of Boitano (second) and Orser (third). However it wasn’t that part of the program which would define who would win gold; the artistic segments of the skating program where the skaters would spend most of their time on the ice with the greater potential benefit score-wise. Plus both the short and long artistic would bring to bear the influence of the spectators, both on the skaters and possibly the judges.

The short program saw Fedeyev drop dramatically down to 9th place, whilst as expected Boitano and Orser lifted into second and first respectively. The Ukrainian skater Viktor Petrenko rose into third, but his compulsory figures weren’t good enough to threaten the two Brians. It all depended upon the long artistic or free skates from Boitano (who had chosen a routine developed by his relatively new choreographer Sandra Bezic which aimed to show him off as less “a jumping robot”) and from Orser (who also used a military theme in his free skate, with music from Shostakhovich). Pundits noted that whilst Orser was perhaps more skittish on the ice, he had the advantage (or disadvantage) of Canadian expectations.

Boitano was the first to skate in the long artistic program, and his performance was near perfect technically. He scored five 5.9’s from the judges which reinforced the reputation of him as a strong and correct skater. His artistic points weren’t quite as strong, with three 5.9’s and one 5.7. The majority of the crowd may have been Canadian however they recognised a great skater with strong applause. The opening was there for Brian Orser to take the gold medal with a higher scoring performance, and as he skated out to begin Orser looked unusually confident.

For the first 90 seconds of his skate Orser was both technically and artistic brilliant. However when Orser attempted a triple flip jump he failed to laucnh off his toe pick correctly, and whilst he didn’t fall his two feet landing was a small flaw that the judges interpreted as a difference between him and Boitano. Then, at the 3 minute 41 second mark Orser flew into what was supposed to be a triple axel was performed as a double axel as Orser’s fatigue level increased. With the end of his free skate the two Brians were incomparably close, but the judges had two specific reference points to differentiate them on technically.

As the technical points were displayed for Orser’s free skate Boitano’s chances for the gold rose even higher. Orser was only able to secure one 5.9 score, yet this was compensated for with five 5.9s in the artistic scores plus one 6.0. Orser had skated with flair and imagination, but it was Boitano who got the nod from the judges, splitting the decision 5-4 in his favour. Two judges had both Brians tied, but when they looked to break the tie they went to the technical scores. The final score in factored places was Boitano rated a position of 3.0 whilst Orser ranked 4.2. Boitano took the gold, Orser the silver and Petrenko the bronze.

Sadly for the Canadians this meant that just as in Montreal they would be denied a home town gold medal at their own Olympics. Yet no matter the medals awarded to them, both Brian Boitano and Brian Orser were good friends with each other and they had provided the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics a defining moment. During the medal ceremony Boitano reflected on his rival and friend, saying afterwards “I almost felt guilty feeling great. I tried to hold it back, so me feeling great wouldn’t make him (Orser) feel worse.” The Battle of the Brians had been won and lost, yet as always in the best Olympic moments rivalry and winning was pushed into the background. The victor was not arrogant, the loser not humiliated; it was a sublime moment of competition elevated by generous human spirits.

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