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Boitano's back, but he's just another champion LILLEHAMMER 94


LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Brian Boitano has seen the bright lights of the ice show circuit from New York to Paris.

He has skated with Katarina Witt, performed in prime-time television specials, earned millions for turning triple jumps on a dime, night after night, year after year.

But on the whole, this is where he would rather be, in another Winter Olympics, testing his skills and his courage against another generation of would-be figure skating kings.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could win," Boitano said.

This is his week.

And this is his Olympics to try and dominate.

The men take the stage at the Olympic figure skating hall in Hamar on Thursday night, beginning what is simply the greatest competition in the sport's history.

Forget for a moment the duel of the American women, which is as much about glitter as it is about talent.

This is the real thing -- triples at 20 paces.

On the bill are four reigning champions, Kurt Browning (world), Elvis Stojko (Canada), Scott Davis (United States) and Viktor Petrenko (Olympics).

And then there is Boitano.

He was the jumping machine who grew up to become the emotive star of men's skating. And one night in Calgary, Canada, he caught perfection for four minutes and 30 seconds, winning the 1988 Olympic gold with a performance that was so captivating he said, "It was like the angels lifted me off the ice."

Now, he is 30, with a bum right knee, a sore back, sore shoulders, and unsettled confidence that comes from going years between big-time competitive wins.

He has finished second twice this year, to Petrenko at Skate America and to Davis at the U.S. Championships.

"It's not as difficult to accept as I thought it would be," he said. "Finishing second makes winning much more powerful when you finally do win."

He wants to do this one thing, skate in the Olympics.

Two years ago in Albertville, France, Boitano was a spectator as Petrenko bobbled his way to a gold medal and Browning spun out of contention.

"I felt like I could fit in with them," Boitano said.

He then led the fight with the International Skating Union that enabled the professionals to regain their amateur status.

But unlike the Dream Team collection of NBA stars that crushed all rivals in the 1992 Summer Olympics, the skating pros faced younger, tougher competitors.

So here at the Olympics there are compelling stories of old pros such as Witt struggling to break the top 10, the ice team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean trying to recapture youth, and pairs' Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov returning with the strength and fire of teen-agers.

Boitano has the toughest challenge of all.

He tore a right knee tendon in August 1992, while skating in Maine, and has not been the same performer since.

He was forced to cut his practices to an hour and 15 minutes a day.

Now, Boitano walks around the practice rink with a knee brace packed with ice. He monitors the kinks of his body like any man sliding toward middle age.

Even his once-thick brown hair is thinning.

"I feel like an old man around here among a bunch of kids," he said.

But skating's old man can still perform. He remains the sport's best jumper, and what he has lost in speed he more than makes up for in style.

Yet he is being forced to take the biggest gamble of his career on the eve of the Olympics. After his second-place finish last month at the U.S. Championships, Boitano, coach Linda Leaver and choreographer Sandra Bezic retreated to Toronto to refashion his long program.

Picture the Dallas Cowboys changing their playbook on the eve of the Super Bowl, and you have some idea of the nerve it took for Boitano to tear apart 60 percent of his program.

In two days, the trio punched-up the program, rearranging the array of triple jumps that include not one, but two Axels, the 3 1/2 -revolution leap that ultimately will decide the Olympic gold medal.

"I needed that second Axel," Boitano said.

He has that and more. At the nationals in Detroit he was admittedly nervous, fearing that he would "have egg" on his face if he failed to make the U.S. team.

But he made it, keeping his Olympic bid alive.

"I don't feel nervous anymore," he said.

So he is ready for his last Olympics. There is no telling what he can accomplish on the ice. The programs are set. The competition is fierce.

There are five men who can win the gold. Five men capable of achieving perfection on one night.

Boitano achieved a state of skating grace once, a long, long time ago in Calgary.

"Such an amazing feeling," he said. "I'm happy to do it once.

Once in a lifetime is enough."

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