JANE O’HARA February 29 1988


JANE O’HARA February 29 1988



It was a virtuoso performance by an outstanding master of his craft. With all the verve at his command, American figure skater Brian Boitano claimed the Olympic gold medal last Saturday night in a showdown with the king of Canadian skating, world champion Brian Orser. A wildly partisan crowd in Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome clearly wanted a Canadian victor. But Boitano, 24, appeared to summon all his inner resolve—and he skated majestically. When his marks lit the scoreboard, the tension in the 19,000-seat arena was electric. Eleven minutes later, Orser began what he knew would have to be the performance of his life. On a routine triple jump, the king stumbled, and the crown went to the American. Said a downcast but dignified Orser after coming a close second: “I am disappointed, what can I say?” Now world attention turns to an equally intense competition between two women skaters, Katarina Witt of East Germany and Debi Thomas of the United States.

Dramatic: Going into their Olympic finale, Orser and Boitano clearly realized what was expected of them: to skate flawlessly. Boitano, to music from the movie Napoleon, did just that—marching, waltzing and leaping with the authority of a champion. Said the U.S. champion after landing nine triple jumps: “I nailed it.” Orser, perhaps the finest male skater in Canadian history, could not overcome the one critical problem that has dogged him throughout his 21-year career: nervousness. Just after the Games began on Feb. 13 he told Maclean’s, “It’s okay to have butterflies, but you have to make them fly in formation.”

This week’s women’s competition promised another dramatic confrontation. Witt is best known as a fierce competitor. Indeed, within 12 hours of touching down and striking her first pose in a cowboy hat for photographers, she had started training at one of the practice rinks. While many athletes would have complained about jet lag, Witt performed a flawless version of her short program.

Still, Thomas is the only person to have beaten the 22-year-old Witt since 1984. In 1986 Witt was the reigning world champion, but Thomas-then 18—took the crown from her at the world championship in Geneva, only to lose the title back to her in Cincinnati last year. Thomas has come to Calgary seeking a repeat victory,

and she was the only competitor given a serious chance of dethroning Witt, although Ottawa’s Elizabeth Manley, 22, has a good chance of winning a bronze.

Thomas matches Witt in determination: last year she gave up her medical studies at Stanford University to train full time in Colorado. Part of her intensive training for this week’s showdown with Witt included sessions with ballet

star Mikhail Baryshnikov. While her schooling is on hold, she maintains that her future is as an orthopedic surgeon, not as a figure skater.

The matchup will be a study in contrasts: East versus West, white versus black and Witt’s graceful dancing versus Thomas’s soaring athleticism. Witt, a three-time world champion and gold medallist at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, entered the Games with a decided edge. But Thomas appeared confident. “I think we’ll be okay,” she said, “as long as I keep my head screwed on.”

In Saturday’s men’s showdown, Orser appeared to lose his fight against the anxiety that has bothered him for years, despite the virtually constant assistance of Toronto sports psychologist Peter Jensen. Orser’s team also included a physiotherapist, a public relations woman, a coach and a choreographer, all of whom accompanied him to the Games. In the warm-up session before the championship group skated, Orser looked unnerved and tense, still heavily dependent on the members of his support team at rink-side. And there were more problems: some observers

said that Orser’s brassy red and gold-braided costume gave him the look of a bellhop and that his music was inaccessible to an audience eager to be transported. Said Toller Cranston, Canada’s 1976 bronze medallist: “It was good music, but not the right music.”

Pressure: The drama began on Wednesday when Alexandr Fadeev of the Soviet Union won the figures event, worth 30 per cent of the final y mark. Boitano placed 1 second, and Orser, third, | six-tenths of a point be2 hind his rival. Then on Brians’ Thursday night Orser

moved into second place, within striking distance, by skating a flawless short program to the up-tempo music Sing, Sing, Sing. But there were tense moments for both skaters as they tried difficult triple-Axel/double-loop combination jumps. When Orser completed his combination—literally without a sound—his face lit up. “It gave me a rush,” he said. Boitano also skated cleanly through his short program. After the two-minute performance was

over, he looked up and said aloud, “Thank you,


With the stage set for the final showdown, worth 50 per cent of the mark, Orser tried to deflect the mounting pressure. He stuck to his daily routine of making himself protein milkshakes, jogging and having massage treatments.

And driving from the practice rink to the Olympic Village, Orser looked at his watch and said: “Oh, oh. Just 24 hours to go.” It was not a nervous remark, but one that illustrated Orser’s meticulous nature. At practice sessions last week, Uschi Keszler used a precision stopwatch to time Orser’s music to the 100th of a second. Said Keszler: “With Brian, his timing is so precise, we had to have it perfect.”

For months it had been billed as “the battle of the Brians.” It was a rivalry that began 10 years ago when the two fresh-faced teenagers competed at the world junior championships.

Boitano has won the U.S. championship four times; Orser has been Canadian champion since 1981. At the international level, both have been world champions:

Boitano in 1986, Orser in 1987. And both are capable of performing a quadruple jump—revolutions in the air—a feat not yet accomplished in an international competition. Yet they shied away from trying the quad last week. The major challenge was to skate a clean, mistake-free program. The quad could wait.

Similar: Orser and Boitano are similar in other ways as well. In a discipline in which some skaters change coaches as often as their costumes, both Brians have stayed with theirs throughout their careers. Their loyalty is reciprocated. Doug Leigh of Orillia, Ont., has been with Orser for 17 years,

and Linda Leaver is so committed to Boitano that she plans to retire when he turns professional after the Games. And as the two men prepared for the Olympics stage, each made remarkably

similar choices. Both Orser and Boitano selected martial music for their 4.5-minute programs. Even their costumes were alike: Boitano’s blue outfit with military-style braiding was similar to Orser’s.

Friends: In the past, Boitano was criticized for showing too little expression or artistic ability, letting his phenomenal jumps do the talking. As a result, he found a choreographer—Sandra Bezie of Toronto. Bezie, 31, and her brother, Val, were Canadian pairs champions from 1970 to 1974. Of Boitano, she declared, “He was so bionic, so hunky; he’s got a great face and body and buns.” For SV2 months last year Boitano quietly visited Toronto to work with Bezie. There was one condition: Boitano’s coach, Leaver, was not allowed to attend the daily four-hour sessions. “He might have been afraid to let things happen if [the coach] came,” said Bezie diplomatically, s During his time in To§ ronto Boitano stayed i with Bezie and her hus§ band, Dino Ricci, a 47| year-old businessman. 9 While his wife concentrated on a skating program, Ricci taught Boitano how to cook Italian food. “He makes a great fettuccine with pesto sauce now,” pronounced Bezie.

The skater left Toronto armed with new recipes—and a mature new look. Said Donald Jackson, Canadian and world champion skater in 1962: “Last year Boitano’s program was corny, not in world championship class. Now he does some very striking things.” That was evident on Saturday night.

The two Brians have remained friends throughout their competitive careers. Fourteen months ago, when Orser turned 25, Boitano sent him a card, kidding him about his advanced age. Wrote Boitano: “You’re old.” Beauty: Although the men’s on-ice rivalry dominated the figure skating venues last week, heads turned all around Calgary when Witt, the East German seductress, arrived on Tuesday after a 14-hour flight from Berlin via Amsterdam. She came early to accli-

matize herself to the time zone and altitude changes in preparation for her battle with Thomas, who chose to practise in the U.S. last week. A three-time world champion, Witt quickly put her English to use, dispelling any doubts that she might lose. “I am not afraid about anything,” she said. “Who has the strongest nerves has the best chance to win.”

One day last week, under the watch-

ful eye of her ever-present coach, Jutta Müller, Witt went outdoors to warm up for a practice and gleefully slid across ice patches in the parking lot. As she basked in the chinook-warmed air, her every move was catalogued by a small army of scurrying photographers. “I like to be famous and have all the people all around watching me,” she acknowledged. At her on-ice training session, the dark-haired beauty got her wish. At first she skated out dressed in

a frumpy black tracksuit. As cameras clicked, Witt skated to the centre of the ice and began languorously lowering the side zippers of her track pants in a Olympian striptease. The pants seemed to melt away, revealing a formfitting pair of fuchsia tights and legs that would make a Vegas show girl envious.

Catfight: A measure of Witt’s charisma was taken later that day when she appeared at a news conference, which

drew an overflow crowd of reporters. As Witt entered the room and saw the massive turnout, she blushed deeply and shook her head in disbelief. But she patiently answered questions that ranged from politics to her promising future as an actress.

While Witt obviously enjoys being a star, the attraction clearly has limits. Last Wednesday she tried to slip away to a local shopping mall, accompanied by Müller, a couple of teammates and a

burly East German security guard. But she was followed by two photographers, and Witt was upset. She said that she did not want to be photographed eating ice cream, but consented to having her picture taken in a cowboy hat, again. Then she went on to shop for makeup and new fashions.

But this week it was time for the real Witt show. Unlike the men’s competition, the women’s is about as amicable

as a catfight. When asked about her relationship with Thomas last week, Witt simply said, “There is no personal relationship.” Independently, Witt and Thomas chose to interpret music from Bizet’s Carmen in their long programs. On Feb. 27, when the two Carmens take the stage vacated by the two Brians, once again figure skating will be the hottest ticket in town.

JANE O’HARA in Calgary