WINTER OLYMPICS : THE BATTLE OF THE BRIANS BEGUILES : But to Boitano and Orser, This Is Just Another Duel Between Friends

Times Staff Writer

In the red corner, wearing a crimson military-style costume with a gold sash and skating to music from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Bolt,” is Canada’s Brian Orser, silver medalist in the 1984 Winter Olympics and 1987 world champion.

In the red, white and blue corner, wearing a royal blue military-style costume with gold epaulets and skating to music from Carmine Coppola’s “Napoleon,” is the United States’ Brian Boitano, the 1986 world champion and runner-up to Orser in the 1987 world championships.

It has been called the “Battle of the Brians,” the men’s figure skating competition at the Winter Olympics. But Don King no doubt could think of something more lyrical, perhaps “The Showdown in Cowtown” or “The Burner in Alberta.”

A capacity crowd is expected at rinkside tonight in the Olympic Saddledome for the long program. Through the first two phases of the competition--the compulsory figures and the short program--Boitano, 24, has a slight edge over Orser, 26. But either can win the gold medal with a victory in the long program, which counts toward 50% of the final score.

There has been considerable hype surrounding their confrontation, accelerated by the notion that Orser and Boitano represent the best chances their countries have for gold medals in these Games. But Orser and Boitano have remained above it, speaking frequently of their close friendship.


Boitano: “The media have created this thing, ‘The Battle of the Brians.’ But we haven’t fallen into that trap. We’ve been able to block all of it out and talk just like always. We just laugh about it.”

Orser: “This big rivalry has been pushed on us. A lot of people are trying to pull us apart and make us enemies. We really are not. On the ice, we have our own jobs to do, and we both want to win, but we’re very good friends off the ice.”

They have a number of common interests other than skating. For instance, Orser owns two restaurants, both named “Cultures,” in Toronto, where he plans to live when he retires from competition after the world championships in March. He lives now about 80 miles north of Toronto in Orillia, Ont., the home of folk singer Gordon Lightfoot. Boitano, who is from Sunnyvale, Calif., would like to open his own restaurant in San Francisco when he retires, either later this year or after next year’s world championships.

Their long programs are remarkably alike, both revolving around military themes.

Orser said he chose “The Bolt” because it sounded like music that would be played during the lighting of the Olympic torch. He first heard it when a Soviet skater performed his long program to it in 1984 but could not remember the title. His choreographer, Uschi Keszler, said she played hundreds of pieces of music over the telephone from her home in Philadelphia to Orser in Ontario until he recognized the right composition.

“It starts off with a fanfare,” Orser said. “It’s dramatic, slow and powerful. It’s about going to battle and returning.”

The other Brian’s song was written for Abel Gance’s epic movie, “Napoleon.” Boitano is not Napoleon but a courier in his army. He is a fighter, a lover and ultimately a victor.

He said he had difficulty with the program initially because it requires him to appear arrogant. He has never been comfortable revealing his emotions on the ice or off, but his choreographer, Sandra Bezic, convinced him that it is just a role.

“It shows a side of myself that might be cocky, but I can leave it on the ice,” he said. “Usually, I don’t feel that way because I’m insecure. If I go out there and slip up, I know I’m going to look stupid. So it was hard. I had to practice it every day. I don’t think I’ll ever be arrogant.”

Yet, he is considerably more confident than Orser, who had to overcome his own self-doubts before he could become the world champion. After finishing second in the 1984 Winter Olympics and the next two world championships, he was expected to win in 1986.

But he was so nervous before he performed the long program that he hid in a corner of the dressing room and turned on the showers so that would not hear the applause or the scores for the other skaters. When it was his turn, he stumbled on two triple axels, his trademark jump, and again finished second.

“I was beginning to think that people in Canada had given up on me,” he told Maclean’s magazine. “I knew I was the best skater, but I had the wrong color medal.”

That is when he called Dr. Peter Jensen, a psychologist at York University in Toronto who had been retained by the Canadian Figure Skating Assn.

“I just called him up and said, ‘Help,’ ” Orser said.

Orser credits Jensen for enabling him to ignore his past failures and win the world championship last year in Cincinnati. “Butterflies (in your stomach) are OK, as long as they fly in formation,” Jensen told him. A year later, Orser still repeats it.

“I can go up to him anytime and get his advice on something or unload everything on him,” Orser said. “As long as I’m happy, that’s the main thing.”

Jensen is only one-eighth of Orser’s entourage. He also has his coach of the last 18 years, Doug Leigh, a masseuse, a choreographer, a costume designer, a nutritionist, a financial manager and a public relations agent. A Canadian figure skating official estimated the association spends about $40,000 a year on Orser.

“That’s where skating is going now,” Orser said. “It’s very, very technical. Skating has progressed a lot even in the last five years. Every little bit helps.”

But Boitano has made it here with only a two-person team, his coach, Linda Leaver, and Bezic. Leaver has been with him for 16 years. In a sport that keeps furriers in business, Leaver, 41, stands out because she wears a cloth coat. Bezic, a former Canadian national champion in pairs, joined him last year after he lost his world title to Orser.

Boitano long has been considered one of the world’s most athletic skaters, but he did not emphasize his presentation. He said he realized after the world championships that he would have to start if he expected to regain his advantage over Orser.

“I was like a technical robot,” he once told Sports Illustrated. “I never missed. And the reason I never missed was I never put any energy into my presentation. That’s what people picked on me for: No presentation.”

Boitano’s presentation has improved significantly, but he still finished second to Orser in that phase of the competition in Thursday night’s short program. Boitano’s scores were higher for technical merit, but Orser also is adept in that area, so much so that the rink where he trains in Orillia, Ont., has a sign that reads: “You’re Now in Triple Axel Country.”

The name of the rink is “The Brian Orser Arena.” Raised in Midland, Ont., his father, a former truck driver, owns three bottling plants. His mother, president of the local skating club, introduced him to the sport when he was 5.

While his two older brothers played hockey, he chose to join his two sisters in figure skating classes. He began working with Leigh when he was 9. By the time he was 17, he was one of the few men who could consistently perform triple axels, the most demanding of the triple jumps.

Boitano, who, as a child, frightened his neighbors with the tricks he did on roller skates, was attracted to figure skating when he saw an ice show with his parents. His father, a banker, played semipro baseball in San Jose, but Brian soon gave up that sport to concentrate on skating. He has been working with Leaver since he was 8.

After his first day with her, Leaver went home and told her husband she had a future Olympic champion. But so that no one will think she is boasting about her eye for talent when she tells the story, she adds that she had told her husband that before about other pupils. In this case, she will find out tonight whether she was right.

BOITANO VS. ORSER: Tale of the Tape

BRIAN BOITANO BRIAN ORSER 24 Age 26 5-11 Height 5-7 158 Weight 142 Sunnyvale, Calif. Hometown Penetanguishene, Canada U.S. champion (1985-88); Results Canadian champion world champion (1986); in major (1981-88); second in 1987 world competition world champion (1987); championships; third in second in world 1985 world championships; championship (1984-86) fifth in 1984 Olympics second in 1984 Olympics “Napoleon” Long program “The Bolt” Carmine Coppola music Dmitri Shostakovich