Four years ago, U.S. figure skater Brian Boitano gave a stunning performance—the best of his career—and won the gold medal at the Calgary Olympics. Today, Boitano is out of the Olympic picture. A rule passed in May 1990 by the International Skating Union allowed "pro" figure skaters, such as ice-show stars, to compete in ISU competitions—and, therefore, in the Olympics. But there was a catch. These professionals must never have participated in non-ISU pro competitions, such as the NutraSweet World Professional Figure Skating Championships, an event Boitano won in 1988, '89, '90 and again in '91. Boitano is somewhat bitter about this banishment, but his pique is assuaged by the successful ice-show projects he has developed with fellow star Katarina Witt, the German skater who won the women's gold medals in Sarajevo and Calgary. Their enterprises include this winter's "Skating '92" tour. Boitano, at 28, looks at his own illustrious past, the darker side of his sport and the potentials of his Olympic successors.
Sports Illustrated: Why, exactly, aren't you skating at Albertville?
Brian Boitano: I petitioned the ISU and said I felt that for the good of all skating, including myself, it should allow [me] to be in the Olympics. The ISU turned me down because of the NutraSweet. Just about everything else I've done since winning the gold medal—the TV specials and movies and tours—the new "amateurs" can do. Amateur skaters are now teaching for money. They're making guest appearances in professional tours. They're getting money for amateur competitions, just like the track and field people do.
SI: Did the U.S. Figure Skating Association go to bat for you?
February 10, 1992
BB: From what I hear, no. That disturbed me. I wanted to compete, and it maybe would have given the U.S. a chance of winning another medal.
SI: How do you assess the way you're skating now compared with the way you were skating in '88?
BB: I'm way better now. And the reason is I did the professional competitions. I stayed in shape. I thought that if this sport opens up, if I am able to skate in the Olympics, I've got to keep competing.
SI: You can still do the jumps?
BB: Oh, yeah. I do more. More triple combinations. Whenever I go out for an exhibition or a show, I insist that I do everything that I did as an amateur—the triple Axels and triple flips—everything.
SI: Let's talk about those amateur days. How bad is the politics in judging? For instance, in Calgary, weren't there judges who were "Orser's judges"?
BB: Someone from the USFSA told my coach, Linda Leaver, that it was really too bad, but unless [Canada's] Brian Orser fell five times, I would never win the gold. So how does that make me feel? I probably won't win even if I deserve to.
SI: But that didn't turn out to be accurate.
BB: Right, right. It didn't. But in the past what was sad for me was I couldn't even count on some of the American judges. Some of them dumped me. Linda and I would sit down and look at the panels [at international competitions] and think, We can't count on the American judge. Count out Canada.
SI: How would you know which ones to count out?
BB: You've lived with these judges for five world championships. Usually there's an order to the way they go—this one always puts Orser ahead of me. You just know. All you can do is go out and do the job. Schmooze them as well as you can.
SI: Schmooze them?
BB: Well, you try to make a judge feel that he's really involved with your skating. You ask his opinion a lot. Then you go back and say, "I did what you told me to. Do you like it now?" It makes it difficult for the judge to criticize it. That's the way life works.
Now, I mean, if someone's going to tell you to pick your nose in the middle of the [performance], you're not going to do it.
SI: Did you ever have a judge tell you to do things like change your hairstyle?
BB: I had a woman judge come up to me and say, "Your hair is too long now." I remember sitting down to eat a meal after I had won my first nationals, in '85. I was 5'11" and weighed 150 pounds. I looked wimpy, basically. This judge comes up in front of my whole family and says, "You still have to lose 10 pounds."
SI: I've heard that some of the women's coaches tell the skaters to have breast reductions and other cosmetic surgery.
BB: Definitely. Oh, definitely. And the women do it. It's like modeling. You hear talk behind the scenes: She skates like a dream, but she's not attractive. They want to mold you into something. I don't understand that, because in my mind it's a sport, and to worry about being five pounds overweight or having a big nose never made any sense.
SI: Let's talk about some of the skaters who'll be competing in Albertville. Canada's Kurt Browning is the three-time world champion.
BB: Kurt's strength is he's such a great competitor. He's gutsy. He'll look like he's off-balance going into a jump, and he'll be crooked in the air, but he'll still pull it off. So it's exciting in that way.
SI: What about his weaknesses?
BB: Triple Lutz. It's an important triple, too. He has a lot of trouble with it. The triple Lutz is considered the second most difficult triple, after the triple Axel. It's a big gun. It's pretty amazing he's won three world titles without it.
SI: His chief competition is Viktor Petrenko of the Unified Team.
BB: Who I like. He was third in the Olympics in '88, so he was groomed before Browning. I don't know why he doesn't perform better. He's a beautiful skater, a beautiful spinner, a beautiful jumper—he's got everything. But he must feel the pressure more than Kurt.
SI: What about the U.S. men? Todd Eldredge is a two-time national champion, and the new champ, Christopher Bowman, you've competed against.
BB: If you believe all the things they say about Bowman not training, then I would say he's an amazing competitor. I keep thinking to myself, If he did train, he would be just awesome.
SI: I've heard that the judges actually count Christopher's personal life—his undisciplined life-style—against him.
BB: Definitely. They like Eldredge, and in this sport, if the judges like you, that helps. Todd is young, and he has assumed the role of the leading man. He's got a very mature sense of himself as a competitor for someone who's only 20.
SI: What about the women?
BB: I don't think some people expect Midori Ito of Japan to make the comeback I expect her to make. She's notorious for liking the underdog role. What makes Midori exciting is she jumps with such wild abandon. She throws herself into these jumps, and people are thinking, god, is she going to hit this? Then she lands it, and she's just as excited as everybody else is.
SI: Of the U.S. women, who finished one-two-three in the worlds last year, the only jumper who compares with Ito is Tonya Harding.
BB: There's remarkable strength and control in Tonya's jumping. She jumps like a male skater; she doesn't just fling herself in the air. There's an assurance that she's going to land it when she takes off. She knows exactly what she's doing. She's in the air, and...boom! It's sensational in its own right, but not like Midori, who throws herself into the air and...whoa!
SI: Is not having the triple Axel enough of a factor to keep Kristi Yamaguchi from winning the gold medal?
BB: My first inclination is to say yes. The judges don't seem to care that much about the way the skaters perform the in-between stuff—the spins and stroking and things like that. Kristi has a youthful elegance, [but] the judges are not concentrating on the artistic side of women's skating at all.
SI: Can any of these women hold a candle to Katarina Witt in her prime?
BB: Technically they do more jumps than Katarina did. But it's relative. She was technically a good skater when she was competing, [and] Katarina was a great actress on the ice. That's why the judges really loved her. Nobody acted like she did. Katarina knew how to flirt even when she was nervous. Not to mention, she's beautiful. She's gorgeous. And she knew she could get away with anything. People do what works.
SI: What's Katarina like off the ice? Is she as flirtatious?
BB: Oh, yeah, but it's all good-natured. She's changed a lot, I think, since the [Berlin] Wall came down. I think she went through a lot of hardship that she never shared with anyone. The East Germans hated her because they thought she was a capitalist, and the West Germans hated her because they thought she was a Communist. You win an Olympic gold medal for a country and then they turn around and don't like you anymore. It's a real slap in the face. She got through it like she got through her skating. She's very tough. She's a fighter.
SI: Is there any chance you'll compete in the '94 Olympics in Norway, if the rules change again?
BB: I don't know. By '94, I'll probably think, What the hell, I've done everything that I really want to do in skating, it's time to move on.
What gets me is there are other professionals competing at the 1992 Olympic Games when I'm ineligible. I mean, what's the difference between my competing in skating and Michael Jordan's competing in basketball? There are hockey players being taken off NHL teams. And tennis. Do you remember in Seoul, who won the gold medal in women's tennis? Steffi Graf. I looked at that and I thought, My god, figure skating's going to open up too.
They should open it up. I'd like to participate.