The much-hyped “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary took place between the U.S.’ Brian Boitano and Canada’s Brian Orser, who was skating on home ice. The official report from the International Olympic Committee deemed it “the single greatest athletic battle of the XV Olympic Winter Games.”
Boitano and Orser had met 10 times in international competition, and Orser led the series, winning seven of those match-ups.
Boitano was born October 22, 1963 and grew up in Sunnyvale, California. He shocked and scared his neighbors with the tricks he could execute on roller skates and fell in love with skating when his parents took him to a show. Boitano started working with coach Linda Leaver at age 8; he and Leaver would continue working together through the 1988 Olympics. He found success on the junior level and was the 1978 World Junior Championships bronze medalist. He won two silver medals at the U.S. National championships in 1983 and 1984, propelling him to the 1984 Olympics. While U.S. teammate Scott Hamilton would claim gold at those Games, Boitano finished fifth. The following quadrennial, Boitano the national championship crown four straight years, 1985-1988. He was also the 1986 world champion, winning silver and bronze medals in 1985 and 1987.
Orser was born December 18, 1961 and grew up in Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada. His mother was the president of the local skating club, and all her children were involved. Orser’s two older brothers played hockey, but he chose to follow his older sisters into figure skating at age 5. He began working with the same coach he’d take to the 1988 Olympics when he was 9 years old. Similarly, he found success on the novice and junior levels before graduating to the senior ranks. He won six consecutive Canadian national titles from 1983-1988. Orser was the first man to land a triple Axel at an Olympics, doing so at the 1984 Sarajevo Games. His efforts earned him a silver medal behind The U.S.’ Scott Hamilton. At the 1985 and 1986 World Championships, Orser won two silver medals. He won the Worlds gold medal in 1987, and entered the 1988 Olympics as the slight favorite.
Being the hometown favorite undoubtedly put extra pressure on Orser: He carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony and was the country’s best gold-medal hope.
Compulsory figures took place first and accounted for 30 percent of the overall score. The Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Fadeyev (the reigning European champion) led both Boitano and Orser, who were second and third, respectively. Later, Orser won the short program, which counted for 20 percent of the score, but Boitano led the field headed into the free skate. Fadeyev was solidly third.
Both Brians chose military-themed free skates. Orser skated to music from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Bolt,” which he chose because he thought it sounded like music that would play during the lighting of the Olympic Torch. He heard it for the first time at the Games in 1984, and wanted to skate to it.
“It starts off with a fanfare,” Orser said in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s dramatic, slow and powerful. It’s about going to battle and returning.”
Boitano skated to Carmine Coppola’s “Napoleon,” written for Abel Gance’s movie. The LA Times described the character as “not Napoleon, but a courier in his army. He is a fighter, a lover, and ultimately a victor.”
Part of the trouble with Boitano’s character, he said, was his expression. A new addition to his team, five-time Canadian pairs skating champion Sandra Bezic, worked extensively on his character’s arrogant demeanor.
The free skate would count for 50 percent of the overall score. The venue, the Olympic Saddledome, was packed to the brim with spectators.
In the final flight of six skaters, Boitano randomly drew the first skate – his favorite position. In the final flight of six skaters, Boitano randomly drew the first skate – his favorite position. Before he stepped on the ice, the voice inside Boitano’s head, which he had nicknamed “Murphy,” started to flare up. Using some of the mental techniques he had developed over time, he was able to talk back to the voice and shut it down. While the voice said, “you’re going to blow it,” Boitano reminded himself that he had been consistent in practice all week, and that he could pull this off. He firmly told Murphy to go away right as they were announcing Boitano’s name in the arena, and it worked.
Known for landing his quadruple toe loop, Boitano intentionally left it off his Olympic program. Instead, he executed what was widely considered the performance of his life. He wanted to buck the trend that skaters rarely perform at their best at the Olympics, under the most pressure. He landed eight triples, including two in combination with other jumps and two triple Axels. He said after the performance that for the first time in his life, the replay looked better than it felt while doing it. Boitano’s coach, Leaver – who told her husband when she first met Boitano at age 8 that she had an Olympic champion in her midst – called the free skate the ultimate artistic performance of his life.
Instead of watching the remaining competitors, Boitano walked into the locker rooms to wipe down his skates and listen to his Walkman. He didn’t hear any of his competitors’ scores announced.
Boitano didn’t have the gold in his clutches, yet, however; Orser skated third in the final group. Orser planned eight triples for his free skate, but only landed six of them. He two-footed the landing of a triple jump (which commentator and two-time gold medalist Dick Button called only “the slightest of slightest glitches) but then doubled a planned triple Axel.
Four judges voted for Orser, who was in second before the free skate, to take the gold; three judges voted for Boitano, who was in first place before the free skate, to win the top prize. The remaining two judges scored it as a tie. The rules as the time allowed for the judges to use the tie breaking criteria of their choice, and they decided to use technical merit to break the tie.
As the skater with the higher technical merit, Boitano won the gold medal. As the scores came up, and Orser realized he earned his second consecutive Olympic silver medal, his hand shielded a curse word from audiences.
The final skater of the night, Viktor Petrenko, a Ukrainian representing the Soviet Union, overtook countryman Fadeyev for the bronze medal. It was Ukraine’s first ever Winter Olympic medal.
Orser walked past Boitano in the dressing room – his memory of the aftermath is hazy, he later recalled – and probably congratulated his friend. But soon, he was in the locker room and cried. The next time he re-lived his 1988 Olympic free skate was 10 years later at a sponsor event, when the introduced him and played the clip.
“After that much time, that’s when I realized I was a pretty good skater,” Orser explained in 2010. “Rather than making myself crazy over stepping out of the [triple] flip, I was watching all the other things, the connections, transitions and spins. I thought, ‘Wow, it was good.’”
But despite their heated rivalry, the Brians were friendly off the ice. Orser said the rivalry had been pushed on the pair of them, and reaffirmed their friendly – not frosty – relationship. Boitano added that they hadn’t fallen into the trap of the rivalry, and instead they laughed about it.
Even on the podium, Boitano explained that he felt mixed emotions. “I almost felt guilty feeling great,” he said later on. “I tried to hold it back, so me feeling great wouldn’t make [Orser] feel worse.”
The next time Canada hosted the Winter Olympics – Vancouver 2010 – the Brians met inside the hallowed Saddledome for a TV special.
“There’s this brotherhood or camaraderie we have until this day because no one, except each other, can understand what we went through that night,” Boitano said at the time.
Those 2010 Games marked significant milestones for both Boitano and Orser. Evan Lysacek became the first man from the United States since Boitano to win men’s Olympic gold in Vancouver. Orser’s pupil, Yuna Kim of South Korea, stood atop the podium in the ladies’ discipline after contesting a heated rivalry of her own against Japan’s Mao Asada.
And today, Orser coaches two giants and rivals in the men’s field: 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan as well as Spain’s Javier Fernandez. Hanyu and Fernandez are the only two men to win world championship titles the past four years, with two each.
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