Q & A with Brian Boitano, the Hall of Famer

Olympic champ dishes on Calgary and the state of the sport now

Brian Boitano gets a little goofy when he talks about figure skating.
Brian Boitano gets a little goofy when he talks about figure skating. (Katie Weigel)


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By Katie Weigel, special to
(06/23/2008) - The best figure skaters in the world tried to chase down Brian Boitano throughout the 1980's and '90's. Now, it's's turn.

After several distractions and a few detours, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist finally sat down to talk in Chicago during a break in the rehearsal for the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, at which Boitano was one of the guests of honor.

ICE: How does it feel to be inducted with these great athletes?
BB: It is really the icing on the cake.

ICE: It is like the medal that keeps on giving.
BB: Yes, true. It is very true! You get into this little special group of Olympians, and you see each other throughout your whole life. There is something that you share. Everybody always yearns to be accepted into a group. It is all these different sports coming together -- like Bart Connor -- I don't see him very often, but when we do get together, we [have a great time catching up]. Everyone knows how lucky we are. There are people that work just as hard who aren't able to be in this group. I think everybody respects the fact that they are able to have this [honor].

ICE: At the Calgary Olympics, when did you know during your program that you had locked up the gold?
BB: Even though I was a co-favorite, I was really not the favorite. It was in Canada, [and in the Opening Ceremony] Brian Orser was carrying the flag. He was second in the Olympics before [in 1984], and I thought I had to take my turn behind him. So I knew I had to be flawless all week, and the chances of doing that were going to be hard. Fortunately, I didn't make any mistakes and was able to slide by and do it. While I was skating the long program, the thing that was important was that I knew I was good. I knew I was on and doing really well. I knew I could deserve to win, but I didn't know if I was going to do it. Technically, I had planned way more than Brian had in his program, so I knew I had to do all of that and more. I knew that technically I had to do everything, because there was all of the politics involved.

ICE: Who came and told you that you had won?
BB: It was Christopher Bowman. He and I were close at the time. I thought he was playing a practical joke. I said, "Christopher, this is not funny." He said, "I'm not kidding. Your name is on top!" Then, our team doctor came in and said, "Wait, Viktor Petrenko is still left to skate. If he skates out of his mind then he could steal one of the ordinals, and then it could switch everything around." So I went back into the bathroom. And after Viktor skated, Christopher came back in and confirmed that I had won.

ICE: Was it bittersweet? The media made it seem like you and Brian Orser were close.
BB: No, Brian and I were not close. They made us out to be friends, but we weren't really friends. We were friendly competitors.

ICE: When you are vying for the same thing, it must be tough to be friends.
BB: Yes, totally. The "close" was me, Paul Wylie and Christopher Bowman.

ICE: What was it like to have that closeness and support?
BB: It was awesome, just awesome. I've never experienced that ever again. That was our team. I think we all had a clear picture of where we all fit in that year. I was vying to get a gold or silver or bronze. Then the next step was Christopher to be fourth-seventh. And Paul wanted to be in the top 10. They knew that their time was after, so it wasn't competitive; it was supportive. It was amazing.

ICE: I've never heard anyone talk about that.
BB: Because it never exists. Everyone is always so competitive. We just really got along well, and we were three distinctive personalities. Chris was the bad boy, Paul was the good boy, and I was the in between, so we all just got along so well. We loved being with each other.

ICE: Looking at the skaters around today, a lot of the guys are doing the same elements as you all did in the mid-'80s.
BB: Jeffrey Buttle did exactly the technical content this year that I did in the long program at Calgary. Isn't that funny? I got so many phone calls after worlds. People telling me "you could have won!" Give me a 20-year-old body, and I'll do it!

ICE: Your last professional competition was Ice Wars. Do you think they'll bring back any competitions for pro skaters?
BB: I don't think so. I think most of [us] who did those competitions are either retired or don't want to compete anymore. I didn't want to compete anymore, but they weren't going to have Ice Wars if I wouldn't do it. And I really thought we needed to have pro competitions, so I would do it. But I felt like I had my fill of doing Ice Wars -- I did about 10 or 11, and I was tired. And as you get older, it is harder. You get nervous, especially if you are that person who leads the team. Those years when Kristi [Yamaguchi] and I did them, we really relied on each other. When she left, it was harder. Before, we would be backstage saying, "Come on, we can do it." We knew we had to pull our team through.

ICE: At one point, there was world pros, U.S. pros, Ice Wars, Battle of the Sexes.
BB: Yeah, in 1995, there were 13 competitions on TV. Paul Wylie did ALL of them. 13 out of 13! I did five, and I was overwhelmed! It was unbelievable that Paul did all those. I don't think he did that well because he had such a hard schedule. He was like, "I'm not skating my best, but I'm just trying to make the most of it."

ICE: Do you think we'll ever be back to that kind of situation?
BB: No, never. I think we had a cast of people -- a large cast of people -- who were well known and liked. We had four-to-five well-known women -- Kristi, Katarina [Witt], Nancy [Kerrigan]. We had Kurt, Paul, Scott [Hamilton]. Then we had the pair teams. All different generations of the Olympics.

ICE: And then they opened it up to the Pro-Am format.
BB: Yeah, they ruined it. The USFS tried to ruin pro skating. They were jealous, because we got better ratings. They wanted to make everyone watch their programs. So then they offered people money to stay in -- the young ones -- so they wouldn't go pro. But then, in turn, they ruined themselves too.

ICE: Is there anything that can be done to improve pro skating? Do we need a new crop of skaters like we had in the mid-'90s?
BB: We definitely need to do better in competitions, and we need to have it not be little girls. We need women. Our demographic is women who like watching other women -- the Jill Trenarys, the Debbie Thomases the Katarina Witts, the Nancy Kerrigans. They relate to women competing, not little girls, and as long as we have little girls winning the national championships, I don't think the popularity is ever going to come back.

ICE: This year, multiple national champions couldn't go because of the age restrictions.
BB: Yeah, there are so many problems in the sport right now. The whole judging system. It is just a mess right now. And we don't have any stars.

ICE: What do you think we need to do to get a man to win in Vancouver?
BB: I don't know. Honestly, it seems like the guys are well-rounded. I think we can get a medal, but we really need to have someone that can win.

ICE: What is the reason for the decline in viewership? Does it have to do with the Salt Lake City Olympics judging scandal?
BB: Maybe. I think it has more to do with the attention span of the American public. Their attention span is so short. I lived in the day and age when you won the Olympics, and it stayed in the news for a while. Now you are replaced by the next topic of the week. It is hard now to get publicity. For the ladies, you did World News Tonight, you did all the shows, and you stayed there for months and months and even years. When Katarina and I did our own tour, it was big news two years after we won the Olympics. But, at that time there was also the big "East-West" thing, and the Berlin Wall hadn't come down yet. But now, people lose interest so quickly. They can't remember anybody.

ICE: It is really funny that when I mention your name, everybody knows you, but they don't know the current crop of skaters. Does it have to do with the boom of TV coverage of skating in the '90s?
BB: Maybe. The other thing was when we were skating, we got huge ratings. We were doing prime-time stuff, and people were watching. So that right there is what you need. You can't get famous getting ratings of 1.5. It just doesn't happen.

ICE: Do you see anyone now who is competing in the U.S. who has the potential to be that next big star?
BB: That's hard. I think that it might be someone who sneaks up. Honestly, I haven't been paying too much attention to the women. It isn't as interesting to me anymore. I think we have some really talented skaters. But what happens when they grow? Not everyone is going to be able to grow into what Michelle Kwan did. Women change when they get bigger. We saw Kimmie [Meissner] struggle with that. But we want to see women compete. So how do we make it fair for someone like Kimmie, who is getting a woman's body, [vs.] a little girl who can rotate a triple flip really easily? If someone like Jill Trenary were to come back, how would she do? She couldn't do triple Lutzes, but yet we wanted to see her skate. The public relates to it more. These women are beautiful. They have another dimension to their skating. It comes out more in the presentation. It helps that our men are older. They are at the right age. But there again, we need someone to break through and do really well.

ICE: Are there any changes that need to be made in the judging system that can help those issues? Or do you not even want to go there?
BB: Wow. It is just really screwed up. We should just go back to the old 6.0.

ICE: I was talking with Carol Heiss Jenkins also about how, with the scoring system now, you don't see a classic layback, camel-change-camel or smooth death spiral anymore without all these position changes.
BB: Yeah, and now we have all those crotch shot spins.

ICE: And the hydrant spiral!
BB: [My least favorite] is this spin that the guys do [Brian goes on to demonstrate the one that Emanuel Sandhu made famous -- bending over and grabbing right leg and making a V with the legs]. I can't stand that one! There should be a rule -- if you can't do it as well as the inventor, don't do it at all!

ICE: We had about 80,000 Biellmanns a few years ago.
BB: Oh, I know. Skaters trying to yank their foot over their head. How painful.

ICE: Do you think skaters can have a trademark move today?
BB: It is hard for them to come up with their little signature move, because it is just not in the scoring system.

ICE: So what would you say has changed the most since you won in Calgary?
BB: There isn't as much individuality. That was what was represented in the composition/style mark. That measured who this skater was as a person and performer. There just isn't a mark now that represents those qualities.

ICE: But they do break it down into all those little components now, to try and look at those individual aspects of the old presentation mark.
BB: Yeah, I understand that, and it is a good thing. That is why I put my arm over my head on the triple Lutz -- to get an extra point. The equivalent of a +3 today. But that didn't work for me; they didn't give me the extra credit. So, I like the breaking down of the program components. But there still needs to be a mark for individuality, for pushing the boundaries, for doing creative things.

ICE: How did you come up with the 'Tano Lutz? Were you just playing around one day, and it happened?
BB: Well, I used to do doubles with that variation. I did the arm above the head on the double flip for the short program in Calgary. Early on in my career, I did the double loop with my arm over my head as well. I wanted a variation to make it more difficult, so I could get more credit. I have young skaters that come to me and want to learn the 'Tano Lutz and then, BAM! -- they crash. So I've received some respect from skaters over the years for that.

I tried the 'Tano Lutz in Skate Canada one year, and I almost missed it, so I took it out for two years. Then, I was back in Boston for a summer taking some lessons with Mary and Evy Scotvold, and they asked me to try it again. And it really stuck that time.

ICE: So now can you do Lutzes without the arm variation?
BB: [Laughs] No! The rotation is easy, but I'm tilted! It isn't worth it to maintain the two. It is like two separate jumps!

ICE: You stayed with Linda Leaver your whole career. Carol Heiss Jenkins was with Pierre Brunet for almost her entire career. What do you think was your reason for staying with Linda?
BB: Well, I went to other coaches. Linda would send me away for the summers. I learned from them, but was it anything monumental? No. Other coaches gave me great tools. But I was skating well and didn't have a reason to leave [Linda]. I think skaters sometimes blame their coaches for things they [the skaters] do wrong, like not performing well under pressure. I didn't have any of those reasons. There was a time when I wasn't doing as well in competitions as I thought I should be, but I was still skating well. So I was comparing myself to other guys, and I was doing twice as much as other guys, but they were ahead of me. But I stuck with Linda because I felt in my heart that she knew what she was doing, and I was happy with the skater I was.

ICE: Do you have any regrets regarding skating?
BB: No, none. But I will say that the ages of 15-22 were the hardest. I felt like I was a better skater than what I was being awarded for at the time.

ICE: What was different about your Olympic experience in Lillehammer compared to Calgary?
BB: My knee injury I suffered leading up to Lillehammer was pretty bad, so I just wasn't able to be at my best. I felt that I did well for how I was feeling. I was motivated to do well, but I wasn't hungry to win like I was in Calgary. The whole experience of Lillehammer was just weird. It was a weird competition, given all that was going on with the Tonya [Harding] and Nancy story. You know something is weird when tabloids are covering figure skating!

ICE: What was the toughest decision you ever made regarding skating?
BB: To turn professional.

ICE: Final question: how would you like to be remembered?
BB: As a person who contributed to the sport and as someone who had great passion.