The Québecois have a song, Gens du Pays, that they reserve for special occasions, and last Thursday night that patriotic tune resounded through Sarajevo's posh Restoran Ma≈æestik, startling black-tied waiters as they scurried about filling fluted glasses with Yugoslav bubbly:
Mon cher Gaétan,
C'est √† ton tour
de te laisser
The recipient of this serenade was Gaétan Boucher, 25, a soft-spoken speed skater from Charlesbourg, Quebec, who last week had become an instant provincial—not to mention national—hero by winning gold medals in the 1,000-and 1,500-meter races to go with the bronze he'd gotten on Feb. 10 in the 500. Boucher's victories provided Canada with its first Olympic golds, Winter or Summer, since 1976 in Innsbruck and the first individual-event Winter Games gold medals ever won by a Canadian male. Boucher's father, Cyranus, spoke for all Canada when he tearfully told his son by telephone, "Mon bonhomme, tu l'as fait!" My man, you've done it!
Heretofore, speed skating had been a nowhere sport in Canada, where there are fewer than 2,000 registered speed skaters, about 25 of whom train seriously. Boucher didn't speed skate competitively until he was 10. At 17 he participated in the Innsbruck Olympics, finishing sixth in the 1,000. Four years later he won the silver medal at that distance in Lake Placid, an achievement overshadowed by Eric Heiden's five golds.
Boucher has to make up for his lack of size—he's only 5'7" and 152 pounds—with nearly flawless technique. "He's an extremely efficient skater," says Jack Walters, the Canadian skating coach. "And his technique is almost as good when he's tired as when he's fresh." But before Sarajevo, Boucher had never won in major international competition; the best he'd done was finish second three times in the world sprint championships. "He used to choke in the big races," says Heiden, who-was on hand last week as an ABC commentator. "It was like his legs had forgotten what to do."
Ten days before Sarajevo, Boucher remembered what to do and began skating his fastest times of the year. His showing in the 500 was a tipoff of things to come. Boucher edged out Dan Jansen and Nick Thometz of the U.S. team, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, to win the bronze in the 500, his weakest event.
Boucher's chief rival in the 1,000 was expected to be Sergei Khlebnikov of the Soviet Union, who, skating in the fourth pair, took the early lead with, a 1:16.63 over slow ice. Next up was Thometz, who was matched with Norway's Kai Arne Engelstad. Thometz started spectacularly, and after 600 meters he was ahead of Khlebnikov's time by .36 second. Then he ran out of gas. "I hit the wall," he said later, after being edged out of the bronze by Engelstad. Thometz' fourth-place finish was the closest the U.S. speed skaters came to a medal; they went empty-handed for the first time since 1956.
Boucher, competing in the 10th pair, knew exactly the time he had to beat. At 600 meters he had the second-fastest clocking to Thometz', but was able to hold form, driving through the finish to beat Khlebnikov by .83. Asked afterward if the win took him out of Heiden's shadow, Boucher said, "It takes me out of my own shadow. Instead of being always second, I proved I could be first."
A light snow was falling on Thursday when Khlebnikov, skating in the second pairing of the 1,500, once again had the time to beat, 1:58.83. After a break for snow removal, Boucher was up. After 700 meters he was a full second ahead of Khlebnikov and the rest of the field. After 1,100 meters, .98 of a second faster. Then, in the final lap, he tired visibly and labored. Crossing the finish line, he waited for a roar from the crowd. Hearing none, he thought he'd failed. Though it seemed like an eternity, only a few seconds later the scoreboard flashed 1:58.36, and Boucher raised both arms in victory as Canadian flags were waved vigorously.