Brian Boitano owns the singular distinction of having his first name attached to one of the greatest Olympic rivalries, his last name to a type of figure skating jump and both his names immortalized in song.
It’s been 30 years since “The Battle of the Brians,” when Boitano defeated Canadian archrival Brian Orser for the gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games Calgary 1988 by the smallest of margins.
Boitano’s influence is still seen today whenever figure skaters raise an arm overhead before rotating. That’s called a ‘Tano position because Boitano popularized it with his signature triple lutz.
And in 1999 he became a pop culture icon when the song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” appeared in the “South Park” movie accompanied by a cartoon version of the skater as a super hero.
Boitano parlayed that recognition into a cooking show called “What Would Brian Boitano Make?” and a book within his new career as host for lifestyle television programs.
But it’s “The Battle of the Brians” that made Boitano a household name and sent his costume and skates to the Smithsonian Institution to be exhibited alongside the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“It’s still pretty vivid,” Boitano, now 54 years old, said of the Calgary Games.
Boitano recently read an article on a Canadian website in which the journalist who co-wrote Orser’s autobiography said, “Boitano had a few little mistakes.”
“I’m like, ‘I did not make any mistakes, you goofball.’” said Boitano.
What made “The Battle of the Brians” so memorable was that both skaters delivered brilliant performances.
The stage was set four years earlier at the Sarajevo Games, when Team USA’s Scott Hamilton captured the gold, Orser won the silver and Boitano placed fifth.
Boitano claimed the world title in 1986 with Orser second, then their placements flipped in 1987. As 1988 began, Boitano won his fourth U.S. title. Orser was not only the Canadian champion, but his country’s only hope for a gold medal at home. He even carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony.
“The Battle of the Brians” was one of two eagerly anticipated figure skating rivalries in Calgary: The other was the Dueling Carmens in which defending Olympic and world champion Katarina Witt of East Germany faced 1986 world champ Debi Thomas of Team USA as both skated to the Bizet opera “Carmen.”
“We were getting equal billing with the women and that was unusual for the men,” Boitano said. “We really lucked out.”
That’s one way of looking at it. The attention also brought immense pressure on both Brians.
Boitano asked his three roommates at the Olympic Village if they would mind turning off the TV or setting the volume so low he couldn’t hear the constant hype. “I stayed away from newspapers, magazines, anything that had my name,” he said.
In those days, there were three components to the Olympic competition: compulsory figures, short program and free skate.
“I knew getting on the flight from San Francisco to Calgary that I couldn’t make a mistake all week,” Boitano said. “I knew that I’m going to have to be clean in not only the competition, but in every practice. I don’t have a chance of winning unless I’m perfect, because I have to create a talk within the judges and the community of skaters watching the practices, like, ‘Oh my gosh, Boitano’s on fire!’”
In compulsory figures, he placed second behind Aleksandr Fadeyev of the Soviet Union while Orser was third.
“It was the best figures competition I had in my life,” Boitano said.
He sometimes watches his last figure, the loop, on YouTube, “and I’m like, ‘Wow that was really a good loop,’ and I remember what I was thinking. I always got really nervous for figures. I really felt like this competition finally I performed to my best ability.”
Orser then won the short program, but Boitano was second to retain the lead. “I was the most relieved after that program,” Boitano said.
That left the free skate, which counted 50 percent of the score.
The night before the competition, Boitano said one of the American judges told his coach, Linda Leaver, that there was no way Boitano would win.
“He said that Brian Orser is going to have to fall apart for me to win,” Boitano said. “I knew I was up against that mentality and I knew that I had to literally knock their socks off. I knew if I made any mistake I had no hope.”
Boitano was known for his technical ability while Orser was the more artistic skater. But Boitano had worked on his artistry the previous summer with renowned choreographer Sandra Bezic.
“Sandra pretty much reinvented me,” he said. “I came back and people were like ‘Who are you?’ It felt really natural and it was almost like she uncovered the person that I should have been the whole time.”
And Boitano still had his technical wizardry. He was the first American to land a triple axel in competition as well as the first skater in the world to land every triple jump in competition at the 1983 worlds.
“I stacked the technical aspect of my program two-fold to what everybody else was planning,” Boitano said. “Brian did one triple flip, so I did two triple flips and one was in a combination with a triple toe. He did one triple axel, I did two triple axels.”
Although Boitano had tried a quadruple jump in the 1987 world championships and in the fall leading up to the Games, he decided to leave it out.
“It turns out that nobody else was doing quads in the Olympics, so I didn’t need it to win,” he said.
On Feb. 20, 1988, Boitano was the first skater to take the ice after the final group’s warmup.
As he was retying his skates, a negative voice he’d named “Murphy” came into his head.
“Everybody’s got that little voice,” Boitano said. “Murphy’s the biggest challenge in an athlete’s career to get rid of.
“He said, ‘You’re going to blow it,’ and it jarred me and I started talking back to it in my head. ‘No, I don’t blow it. I’m a consistent skater. I’ve practiced. I’ve done this program clean for months now and I know I can do this.’”
As Boitano’s name was announced and he took his position, he said, “I told this negative voice inside of my head to go away and he went away and I was able to regroup and focus and have the skate that I did.”
Wearing a blue uniform with gold epaulets and skating to music from the film, “Napoleon,” Boitano was in command from the start.
On his triple/triple combination, Boitano said that he felt like “angels were lifting and spinning me.” He landed his second triple axel with such a look of joy on his face that it became the cover photo for Sports Illustrated with the caption “Bravo, Brian.”
“I knew if I landed that one, it was going to be hard to beat,” he said.
Boitano had one more triple to go.
When Boitano later watched the U.S. television coverage, he noticed commentator Dick Button saying he had a slight bobble on one of his landings.
“There was not a bobble,” Boitano said. “He never pointed out which jump it was.”
Boitano didn’t watch Orser skate. He sat in a bathroom stall wearing headphones so he couldn’t hear “the thunderous ovation that he’s going to get and then the marks.”
Figuring eight minutes was long enough, Boitano took his headphones off and heard Orser’s last mark, a perfect 6.0 from the Czech judge.
“So I was like, ‘Wow, OK, I didn’t win,’” he said. “I’m convincing myself that it’s OK how I skated and I’m proud of myself.”
Then teammate Christopher Bowman burst in, saying, “You won, you won!” Boitano didn’t believe him, but Bowman assured him that Orser got only one 6.0.
The Canadian had two mistakes: two-footing a triple flip and turning his planned triple axel into a double. Four judges voted for Orser to take first, three for Boitano and two scored it a tie. Those last two judges decided to use the technical mark as the tiebreaker, giving Boitano the victory.
When Orser came into the dressing room, they just looked at each other. “He said, ‘There’s nothing to say,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know,” Boitano said.
“I knew that he was hurting.”
On the podium, Boitano stepped down to Orser’s level to give him a hug. “I didn’t want to gloat,” Boitano said. “I didn’t want to pump my fists in the air to celebrate too much because I would hope that someone wouldn’t do that if I was in second place.”
And yet inside Boitano was ecstatic. “It was what I dreamed about for so many years that I had trouble convincing myself that it was really happening,” he said. ‘There’s this feeling when you skate your brains out and it’s so important to do it at that time – and you actually do it and you meet the challenge.
“That’s such a good feeling just alone by itself that when they’re playing the national anthem you’re like, ‘Life can’t be this good. This moment can’t possibly be as fulfilling and complete as I feel it is right now.’”
Except perhaps for cartoon Brian Boitano. As the song goes, “When Brian Boitano was in the Alps, Fighting grizzly bears, He used his magical fire breath, And saved the maidens fair.”
Boitano said he has no idea why the South Park creators chose him. He’s heard a story that they were in a meeting and someone threw out the phrase, “Well, what would Brian Boitano do?” and everyone laughed.
“That’s what makes it so funny – that it’s completely random,” Boitano said. “I’m just lucky that they were nice to me.”
After Calgary, Boitano won the 1988 world title, again defeating Orser. He then turned pro, but subsequently helped lead the charge to allow pro skaters into the Lillehammer Games in 1994.
Hampered by a knee injury that limited his repetitions in practice, Boitano still was the top American male, finishing sixth.
“I’m glad that I challenged myself,” he said, “and it didn’t turn out the way that I thought it would, but ultimately I would have been disappointed if I didn’t at least test that out on myself.”
Boitano calls the current judging system, which replaced the 6.0 system, “really confusing,” for both spectators and skaters, but said officials are tweaking it and heading in the right direction.
He still skates three times a week despite dealing with a knee injury and is developing another lifestyle show for television.
During the PyeongChang Games, Boitano has been hosting Olympic viewing parties featuring Korean-focused appetizers and cocktails in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Detroit. All proceeds will go to U.S. Figure Skating.
Boitano said that when the Smithsonian asked him to donate his skates and uniform to the National Museum of American History, “I was super flattered and I was like, ‘I gotta try this thing on one more time before I give it to them.’”
He laughed. “It looked pretty good.”