Skip to main content

It's late at night in the nearly deserted Pengrowth Saddledome and Brian Orser is watching himself prepare for his free skate at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.

Orser, now a figure skating coach, looks at the 26-year-old version of himself on the scoreboard's video screen with an appraising eye.

"I see how trained I was and how intense, focused and totally ready I was, and not freaked out one little bit," Orser says.

Story continues below advertisement

Orser never dreamed then that he would be a 46-year-old without an Olympic gold medal in men's figure skating.

It took him years to become reconciled to that night almost two decades ago, when he lost to American Brian Boitano in a 5-4 split of the judges' marks in the free skate.

His head-to-head duel with Boitano at the 1988 Calgary Olympics was dubbed the "The Battle of the Brians."

It was voted the most anticipated sports event in a CBC online poll posted in 2004, ahead of Ben Johnson versus Carl Lewis in the 100 metres in the 1988 Summer Olympics, and even ahead of Canada versus the U.S. in the men's hockey final of the 2002 Olympics.

As arena staff finish cleaning up from a hockey game earlier in the day, Orser awaits Boitano.

They're about to be reunited on the Saddledome ice for the first time since 1988 for the TSN documentary "Olympic Journey: Calgary to Vancouver," airing at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, which is the 20th anniversary of the opening ceremonies in Calgary.

"Speak of the devil," Orser says as Boitano arrives.

Story continues below advertisement

Orser gives the devil a heartfelt hug and the two chat for several minutes, heedless of TV producers' schedules and the fact that it is almost midnight.

"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 says. "I consider Brian a friend."

Orser says he and Boitano talk about The Battle of the Brians more now than in the years immediately after the Games, when they toured and competed in professional competitions together.

"We've had a few Olympics since then, five or six, to realize how incredible it was here that night," says Orser. "We played it out perfectly for the fans of the sport. Not just figure skating, but Olympic sport. We lived up to the billing."

No American male has won an Olympic figure skating gold in singles since Boitano, which has given his half of the Battle of the Brians story a long, strong shelf life in the U.S.

The 44-year-old from San Francisco, Calif., still skates in shows and made cameo appearances in the Will Ferrell movie "Blades of Glory" released last year.

Story continues below advertisement

The creators of the animated television show South Park even wrote a raucous song entitled "What would Brian Boitano do?"

Orser, a native of Orillia, Ont., coaches South Korean Yu Na Kim, a bronze medallist in women's singles at last year's world championship, and runs a skating school at Toronto's Cricket Club with Tracy Wilson, a bronze medallist in ice dance in 1988.

As Canada's only world champion in any winter sport heading into the 1988 Olympics, Orser was under immense pressure as the host country's best hope for gold.

He was Canada's flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies. National headlines shrieked "defeat" the day after the free skate.

Ironically, Elizabeth Manley became Canada's darling of the Games for her silver medal performance in women's singles.

Continually tripped up by nerves in international competition, expectations for her were lower and, therefore, her silver seemed more golden.

Story continues below advertisement

But time has been kinder to Orser's role in the Battle of the Brians, throwing it into perspective for both Orser and his country.

"Canadians are tough," says Boitano. "They really build them up high and really tear them down hard and I think they tore Brian down hard.

"I think they're sort of realizing now what his accomplishments were."

Orser's successors in Canadian men's figure skating - Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko - were multi world champions who also didn't win Olympic gold.

Browning never made it to the Olympic podium, while Stojko ended his career, as Orser did, with two Olympic silver medals, to prove yet again how elusive the gold is.

Jeffrey Buttle, a bronze medallist at the 2006 Olympics, is currently Canada's best hope for gold in men's figure skating in 2010, while a strong candidate has yet to emerge from the U.S. to follow Boitano.

Story continues below advertisement

Boitano, a world champion in '86, was a jumper who'd incorporated artistry into his performances in 1988, while Orser had been bringing both elements to the table for some time.

Orser felt that if he skated clean in the free skate, the judges were inclined to give him the gold.

Boitano was first and Orser second after compulsory figures, which are no longer part of world or Olympic competition.

Then Orser won the short program and Boitano was second two days prior to the free skate, putting the two men in a virtual dead heat heading into the finale.

Boitano skated before Orser in the final group.

What remains vivid in their memories was the tension and anticipation in the Saddledome during the warmup for the final group of skaters.

Story continues below advertisement

"People just couldn't wait for that last group," Orser says. "Lots of Canadian flags and that sound. It was about 22,000 people cheering."

"I remember feeling that energy, the crackle in the air," says Boitano. "And thinking 'Man, I've got to make sure that bubble around me is really solid."'

When Boitano took his position on the Saddledome ice, he turned his head towards the Olympics rings hanging at one end of the ice.

He blinked three times - slowly the third time as if he was going into a trance.

"I felt like the ice was magical for me," Boitano says. "I imagined golden gates on the ice . . . one was in the triple Lutz corner, one was where the triple Axel was, one was where the triple flip was, and they were to remind me after each jump I could close that gate. That reminded me to take one thing at a time."

Boitano, skating to music from "Napoleon," laid down the performance of his life, landing eight beautiful triples, including two triple Axels.

Orser, performing to music from the ballet "The Bolt," started well. He landed his triple Axel-double loop combination, but then came the mistake that cost him the gold.

On the landing of a triple flip, he didn't fall, but instead of landing the jump cleanly on one foot he had to put the other down behind him to keep his balance.

He skated defensively after that, turning another planned triple Axel into a double.

"My theory was, to be an Olympic champion, you could not fall down and so with the step out of that, going into the Axel, I thought 'Just be clean,"' Orser says.

When Orser finished his free skate, he and Boitano experienced emotions they would soon swap.

Orser hadn't seen Boitano's skate, but felt he'd done enough to win the gold.

"I totally felt I'd won," says Orser. "I didn't know how great he'd skated."

Boitano, sitting in a bathroom stall in the dressing room and listening to music on his headphones, took them off just in time to hear Orser's final mark for artistic impression, which was a perfect 6.0.

He began reconciling himself to the silver medal.

"I went to the mirror in the bathroom and realized 'OK, he must have skated great' and I'll just skate four more years and I'll be proud of myself," Boitano says.

But after the marks were announced and Orser realized he fell one first-place mark short of the gold, his hand came up to his mouth to cover a quiet curse.

Boitano's American teammate Chris Bowman came bounding into the dressing room to tell Boitano that his marks were better than Orser's.

Victor Petrenko of Russia was the last skater in the group to perform and after Petrenko's marks were posted, Boitano knew he was the gold medallist.

When Orser entered the dressing room, he ran his hand slowly down the side of his face in disbelief.

"I felt so deflated," says Orser. "I'd felt I paid my dues. I'd seen Olympics other years where the person who is supposed to win, wins, and they (the judges) are a little bit forgiving. Especially when it's that close."

He and Boitano were alone in the dressing room at that point and Boitano says Orser went into the shower area of the washroom and laid down on the floor.

Orser denies it, but he admits his memory of those minutes in the dressing room is hazy.

"I probably congratulated him. I hope I did," Orser says. "But then I had to go into the washroom part of it and I cried like a baby."

When Orser emerged from the bathroom, Boitano asked "What can I say?" Orser replied "There's nothing to say."

Orser and Boitano have known each other since they were 16 and 14 respectively when they were competing at the world junior championship.

As rivals and competitors, they weren't friends in 1988, but each was respectful of the other.

That produced a moment of sportsmanship that stands out even more now, when contrasted with American figure skater Tonya Harding's scheme to kneecap countrywoman Nancy Kerrigan just a few weeks prior to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer.

On the podium, Orser put on a brave face because he didn't want to rain on Boitano's parade.

"I wanted to keep it together, also for him," Orser says. "It's a moment for him too and I didn't want to be blubbering on the podium."

Boitano's happiness was subdued and he says that's because he didn't want Orser to feel worse.

"I was reserved because I wouldn't want someone to gloat in front of me if I was second," he says.

A decade went by before Orser watched his Olympic free skate for the first time and it wasn't by his own choosing.

"It took me 10 years to watch it. I just didn't go there," he says. "I was at some banquet or fundraising event and I had to speak. They were about to introduce me and then they played that.

"After that much time, that's when I realized I was a pretty good skater. Rather than making myself crazy over stepping out of the flip, I was watching all the other things, the connections, transitions and spins. I thought, 'Wow, it was good."'

Now, Orser feels proud of fighting the good fight and staying on his feet.

"It would have been devastating to go out there and clean up the ice," says Orser. "That would have been a disaster and then I wouldn't have been able to live with myself."

When asked how his life would have changed if he had won the gold, Orser says he probably would have made more money in endorsements "but actually I did very well.

"It didn't happen, but I have a great life, wonderful friends and I'm involved in skating, which I love," he says. "I never saw myself as a skating coach, but here I am."

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter