One-tenth of a point.
That was the margin between gold and silver, between victory and bitter disappointment, in the epic Battle of the Brians at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
One-tenth of a point separated Canada and the United States.
One-tenth of a point robbed the host country of its only legitimate shot at hearing O Canada during the medal ceremonies at Olympic Plaza.
One-tenth of a point changed the life trajectories of two young men at the centre of one of the finest duels in the history of the Winter Games.
Nearly 30 years after the fact, Brian Orser can still, on occasion, perform mental gymnastics over the gold that got away.
“You do the 'What if’ game,” Orser, 56, says in a rare break from coaching some of the world’s top figure skaters in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “What if the judging panel had been drawn differently? What if I had a Finnish judge instead of a Danish judge? It came down to one-tenth of a point from any of those four judges who split the tie in Boitano’s favour.”
And the result?
“It totally changed my life,” says Orser, who works out of the esteemed Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. “I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now if I had won the Olympics. But who knows? I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Brian Boitano, now 54, doesn’t have a crystal ball or a time machine. But the gold medallist in men’s figure skating can recall every moment from the free skate on Feb. 20, 1988, an unseasonably warm winter day in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.
He remembers his shock at seeing so many American flags in the capacity crowd of more than 19,000 at the Saddledome. He can still envision himself talking back to the inner critic that told him he would fail with the world watching and gold on the line. He can even picture himself sitting in a bathroom stall with his headphones so he didn’t have to hear the inevitable standing ovation for Orser.
“It’s impossible to measure,” Boitano says of the impact that victory had on his life. “It’s incredible. It’s all etched in my memory and something I will never be able to forget.”
Mental performance coach Peter Jensen has supported Canadian athletes at nine Olympic Games, and he’ll never forget the build-up to the Battle of the Brians.
The genesis of that hype can be traced back to the 1976 Montreal Games. For the first time in Summer Olympic history, the host country failed to win a single gold medal.
Twelve years later, Orser stood out as the only man or woman who could save Canada from a similar fate in Calgary. The Belleville, Ont., product had settled for silver behind American Scott Hamilton at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo.
The upstart Boitano won the world title in 1986 in Geneva, but Orser finally graced the top of the podium at the 1987 world championships in Cincinnati.
In a sport where, especially at the time, reputation carried a lot of weight, Orser’s time had come.
Or so Canadians thought.
“When you look at what that young man dealt with — not just there in Calgary, but the whole year prior,” says Jensen, who worked for the Canadian Figure Skating Association at the time. “He was on the cover of Maclean’s. He was our hope. There wasn’t any other in terms of the top of the podium. He was it.”
In the year leading up to Calgary, reporter Steve Milton stopped in regularly to watch Orser practise at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ont. He saw no signs of pressure wearing down the man known for his exquisite blend of artistry and jumps.
“I would contend this,” says Milton, who later co-wrote Orser: A Skater’s Life with the man himself. “In the history of Canadian sport, there’s never been one single event where there was so much pressure on one guy as Brian Orser faced in Calgary. It was the first Canadian Winter Olympics. We had no gold-medal favourites in any other sport. It’s a solitary sport. You perform by yourself for four-and-a-half minutes.”
Known for his tireless training regimen, Orser travelled in early January to Ottawa to skate with Elizabeth Manley (who would go on to win a surprise Olympic silver in the women’s event).
Jensen tagged along for the trip.
“Just walking through Pearson Airport in Toronto, you wouldn’t believe the number of well-meaning Canadians who came up to him and basically said, ‘We’re counting on you. Don’t let us down,’” Jensen recalls. “Those weren’t the exact words. But that was the impact of their words. By the time I got to the plane, I was exhausted — let alone him.
“I later said to Brian, ‘It’s like you had a backpack on and people just kept putting rocks in it.’ And by the time he got to Calgary, he was fairly weighed down.”
To be sure, Boitano faced his own brand of pressure as a gold-medal hopeful for the behemoth that is the United States. But Linda Leaver, his coach from age eight onwards, figured her star pupil had little to lose.
“It really wasn’t about winning, because I didn’t think he could,” Leaver says from San Jose, Calif. “I thought he could be the best and still not win. So I just wanted him to be his best. It was more stacked in Brian Orser’s favour because he had been second at the prior Olympics. And at that time with figures, they sort of had this ‘Well, it’s his turn’ mentality… It just didn’t seem like it was something that was worth trying to worry about.”
Frenzied anticipation, not worry, greeted Orser upon touching down in Calgary for his second and final Olympics. And everything went, more or less, as planned.
He carried the Canadian flag in the opening ceremony. He finished behind Boitano in the compulsory figures — long since expunged from the Olympics and world championships — but won the short program. That set up the winner-take-all long program, the marquee event of the Games in that era.
“It was such an awesome spectacle, and we lived up to every part of the competition,” Orser says. “It could have actually gone either way. Everybody was on the edge of their seat. It just came down to that last-minute accounting to see where it all ended up. We gave everybody what they were looking for, from start to finish."
Both Orser, in red, and Boitano, in blue, wore military outfits, soldiers for their respective countries. Boitano skated to music from the film Napoleon. Orser opted for music from the ballet The Bolt.
As Boitano tied his skates, a familiar voice started to talk inside his head.
“You’re going to blow it,” the voice said.
“No, I don’t blow it,” Boitano replied, in a conversation only he could hear. “I’m consistent. I can do this.”
“No, you’re going to blow it, and it’s going to be in front of all these people at this super special moment of your life.”
Boitano heard his name and skated into position. He told the voice to go away and he blinked three times.
“I got into this real zone — this complete almost hypnotic state,” Boitano says. “Even until the end of the program, I wasn’t tired at all. It was this incredible altered state that I felt like I was in through the entire program. And after I would do one thing successfully and the next thing successfully and the next thing, I just acknowledged it in my head and I just kept going.”
In the performance of a lifetime, Boitano landed eight triples, including two triple Axels.
“Just stay with it,” Leaver was saying, hoping her thoughts would somehow make their way to Boitano’s brain. “Stay with it. Stay with it until the last note and until you have your final bow. I’ve seen so many people pre-celebrate five seconds from the end of their program and they get over-excited. But he did it, and it was wonderful, really.”
With Orser set to skate, Boitano retreated to the locker-room. He put his headphones on, turned up the music and locked himself in a bathroom stall.
“I thought if I kept my headset on for eight minutes, I should be OK,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll feel the building rumble but at least I won’t have to hear anything.”
Orser skated confidently off the top and nailed his triple Axel-double loop combination. Then he put a foot down to keep his balance on a wobbly landing.
“I didn’t really see that, and Boitano had a few little mistakes, too,” Milton says. “But what I did see was no Axel.”
With fatigue rolling in, Orser made a tactical decision on the fly. Determined to skate clean, he turned a planned triple Axel — the jump he was known for — into a double.
He did turn a double flip into a triple later on but, because he’d already landed that jump, it didn’t help his cause.
But he was happy with the skate, clasping his hands together and looking upwards with a smile after the music stopped. Even when the marks flashed across the screen, Orser clapped his hands and asked his coach, Doug Leigh, and choreographer, Uschi Kesler: “Is it gold?” And then, to the TV booth, “Is it?”
But it wasn’t.
“There were a lot of Canadian people who thought Brian Orser was jobbed — but I didn’t ” says retired national sports columnist Cam Cole, who covered the Calgary Games for Southam News. “I was hoping for Orser. But when I saw the two programs side-by-side, you couldn’t find a flaw in Boitano’s skate.”
In spite of the flaws, Orser was ranked first outright by four judges, compared with three for Boitano. He even won a perfect 6.0 from the Czechoslovakian judge for artistic impression.
But the judges from Denmark and Switzerland called it a tie. At the time, ties were broken by technical-merit marks, and in those two cases, the judges favoured Boitano.
The Japanese judge was the only one of the nine to give Boitano the edge in artistic merit. If he went with Orser, the Canadian would have won.
(The following year, the rules changed to give precedence to the artistic mark in the event of a tie. That would have changed the split to 6-3 in Orser’s favour.)
“I feel like I was one step ahead of everything,” Orser says. “I missed the boat by a year.”
Meanwhile, in the bowels of the Saddledome, Boitano took his headphones off and heard Orser’s last mark: the 6.0.
“The very first thing that I thought of was ‘Man, he must have skated his brains out,’ Boitano says. "Because I know how well I skated. And if he got 6.0s, then my God, he must have been phenomenal. So then my next thought was, ‘So I lost, I’m second. It’s not a big deal.’”
Known as a practical joker, American skater Christopher Bowman burst into the dressing room and started nodding his head.
“Yes,” Bowman said. “Yes. You won.”
“No, no, no,” Boitano replied. “Brian got 6.0s.”
“He got one 6.0, but he didn’t get any others,” Bowman said. “You just heard his last score and you won.”
Informed of Bowman’s conversation with her skater, Leaver sent the team manager into the dressing room to inform Boitano that Russia’s Victor Petrenko had yet to perform.
“Go in and tell Brian it’s not over,” Leaver said. “It’s not over until after Petrenko skates.”
Petrenko skated, and it was over. Boitano won gold, Orser took silver and Petrenko bronze.
“I remember standing on the rails and tears just poured out of my eyes,” Leaver says. “It was wonderful. It was joyous.
“It was hard to see Brian Orser. That was one thing that took joy away. I have so much respect for Brian Orser as a skater, as a champion and as a human being. Both Brian Boitano and I were very conscious of his great, great disappointment.”
The sight of Orser trudging into the dressing room is forever seared in Boitano’s memory. The Canadian stared straight ahead, with roses in his arms and his soldier outfit undone at the neck.
“What can we say?” Boitano finally said.
“Nothing,” Orser replied. “There’s nothing to say.”
Jensen walked in to check on Orser.
“Brian and Brian were sitting about five feet apart on a bench,” Jensen says. “There wasn’t anyone else around. They both had their heads down, sweat dripping off their foreheads. They just sat there in silence, the two of them. You never forget those things.”
In a subtle display of sportsmanship, Boitano restrained himself from wildly celebrating during the medal ceremony. Orser fought back the urge to cry so as not to ruin the moment for his American counterpart.
“I knew that he was in pain,” Boitano says. “It was super hard for him. I didn’t want to be the guy to gloat and rub it in his face. So I tried to hold it back.”
That night, a stunned Orser returned home to the athletes’ village where he was rooming with Canadian ice dancer Rob McCall, who was to compete the next day. Not wanting to disturb him, Orser fell asleep in the medical room.
“I was by myself, and it was a very sterile environment,” Orser says. “I had me and my silver medal. Ooof. It was a horrible place to wake up. But you have to think about who you’re rooming with. You have to be considerate. So I kept my distance from Rob and let him focus on his event. And I had to move on.”
For many years afterwards, Orser and Boitano continued to cross paths on tour. One night in Las Vegas, they went out for drinks after a show on the tennis courts at Caesar’s Palace and talked privately about the Battle of the Brians.
One of only two Americans to win gold in Calgary, Boitano became an overnight celebrity in his homeland.
“It wasn’t like now, when you have so many different sources of entertainment like Hulu and Amazon and Netflix and cable,” Leaver says. “There were just networks, pretty much. Networks were the big thing. Everyone watched the Olympics. It was something everybody had in common.”
The creators of the cartoon South Park apparently watched the Olympics, writing a song called What Would Brian Boitano Do? for their 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which renewed his cult-hero status.
Boitano went with the flow, eventually starring in a Food Network show called What Would Brian Boitano Make? and selling T-shirts online with the slogan “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”
The one place where he hasn’t always been well-received: Canada.
“It was hard for me,” he says. "Kurt Browning had invited me to do his show… it was in Hamilton. I was like, 'Kurt, I want to go but Canadians don’t like me.’
“I flew into Hamilton [Ontario]. And I was sitting in the bar with a cast of people but Kurt wasn’t there. And two guys sitting at the bar came over to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re that Brian. You’re the Brian who beat our Brian, aren’t you?’
“I’m like, ‘Guys, that was years ago.... See, Kurt? I’m telling you, they hate me.’”
These days, Boitano is a sought-after public speaker and is currently shooting a home renovation show based in Italy.
Orser, meanwhile, transitioned into coaching after 17 years on tour and has enjoyed success of his own.
In 2007, 16-year-old Yuna Kim left South Korea for Canada to train at the Toronto Cricket Club under the two-time Olympic silver medallist. In 2010, Orser’s prized pupil won gold on Canadian soil at the Vancouver Games.
“I remember going to the Olympics and there was a bit of a buzz that `Brian Orser will finally get his gold,'” Orser says. “But no. That was Yuna Kim’s gold. I said that from the beginning. That was so not about me.”
Soon after Kim’s marks flashed on the board, Orser received a text from the 415 area code.
“I was like, what the hell, I’m going to text Brian and tell him congratulations and that I’m so proud he did that,” Boitano says. “He wrote me back right away and said, 'That means so much coming from you. Thank you so much.’ I also did that when Yuzuru Hanyu [won gold] in Sochi, and Brian got back to me right away. But Olympic gold medals, by that time, were old hat to him.”
Orser’s stable of athletes includes the reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.
“Now that I’m a coach and I’ve had a couple of Olympic champions, I kind of marvel at what we did back then,” Orser says. “I kind of marvel at the spectacle of it all.
“When you’re immersed in it, you don’t realize it so much. But now I’ve had some time, and I’m a coach and I’m coming at it from a different angle. I’m kind of amazed by it. It puts it into a perspective for me that’s so much more palatable.”
For 10 years, Orser refused to watch his performance in Calgary. Then he showed up at a fundraiser one night and was all but forced to view it on on the big screen.
“I went through quite a long period of disappointment and wanting to be Canada’s first men’s Olympic gold medallist,” says Canada’s most famous silver medallist. “I had every intention of that happening. When it didn’t happen, of course I was disappointed.
“But as time goes on, I’ve had time to reflect and look back at it. I see that it was really a great night of skating.”
Large images courtesy Getty Images and The Canadian Press