Vincent Zhou is well-versed in the rivalry between American Brian Boitano and Canadian Brian Orser – the “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
That’s because Boitano was an “inspiration” to Zhou, who fell in love with figure skating by watching footage of the two-time world champion on YouTube. And these days, Boitano is a sounding board for Zhou, a fellow Bay Area native helping him navigate the Olympic experience.
So, yes, Zhou has heard all about Boitano’s showdown with Orser at the Calgary Games, when his hero won a back-and-forth battle by the narrowest of margins to win gold.
It remains one of the best and most beloved rivalries in figure skating. Especially now, when rivalries are hard to find.
As the sport’s elite prepares for the Pyeongchang Games next week, there are about half a dozen medal hopefuls in each discipline, which should create exciting and unpredictable competition. But it also means there is no head-to-head rivalry – no Harding vs. Kerrigan, Kwan vs. Lipinski, Yagudin vs. Plushenko – that fans can seize on when they tune in to coverage from South Korea.
“There’s so many great skaters capable of being on the top of the podium, I wouldn’t say there’s a great rivalry that stands out,” Zhou said. “But all the variables and unpredictability makes for just as much excitement and anticipation as a great rivalry would.”
You can bet the networks are banking on it.
In truth, there hasn’t been a memorable rivalry in figure skating in years. With the quick turnover of top talent, the rise of Russian skaters and the sport’s diminished profile in non-Olympic years, it becomes difficult to cultivate a head-to-head rivalry.
The closest thing in recent years happened at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when South Korean star Yuna Kim edged Japan’s Mao Asada for the gold medal. The fact that South Korea and Japan have an intense rivalry in many sports elevated the tension, but it also limited the rivalry’s global appeal.
There were few American and European fans, for example, that latched onto the matchup of Asian icons.
It certainly wasn’t like another rivalry made famous in Calgary, one between Debi Thomas of the U.S. and Katarina Witt of East Germany. Each picked music set to the French opera Carmen, adding a little zest to Witt’s eventual gold medal-performance. (Thomas settled for bronze.)
“You know, it’s interesting. I think those times are missed, and I think rivalries are needed to propel the sport to a different level,” said Boitano, now a TV personality. “People love cheering for a skater from their own country and they love the rivalries, and back in our day, before the (Berlin) wall came down, Katerina Witt was an enigma. It wasn’t just a battle of people but countries as well.
“I think that was an aspect of it,” Boitano continued, “but the main reason we’re not able to produce rivalries is no one wins consistently.”
In most sports, that kind of parity is a good thing.
There hasn’t been a repeat World Series champion since the Yankees in 1999 and 2000, and the NFL has become the popular sport in the U.S. in part because of the belief it has cultivated that every team has a chance – even though the Patriots seemingly always end up in the Super Bowl.
In figure skating, every discipline is wide open. And while that’s good for the competition itself, it makes it difficult for the casual fan – the every-four-years fan – to find a rooting interest.
“Going into an Olympic year, it’s not the five-time or six-time national champion like Michelle Kwan competing against a rival. The public hasn’t had a chance to grow to love them, follow them, think they know them and root for them,” Boitano said. “I really think it’s an issue of not being able to follow someone up the ranks for their entire career.”
Those inside the sport beg to differ, of course. There is a constant battle for resources, support and sponsorship, and that can make rivalries between compatriots some of the fiercest.
“We’re all friends,” American ice dancer Madison Hubbell said, “but we want what they have. That kind of competitiveness is more intense with your own national competitors, whereas world competitors, we see each other a couple times a year. We all want to win. But there’s a little more focus on how each of us skates individually. It seems more personal.”
As intense as those rivalries might be, they don’t generally resonate with fans – not like a rivalry between nations, or individuals that have gone head-to-head over years.
That raises the question: Does figure skating need a good rivalry to ramp up the interest?
Good luck finding a consensus.
“We have real depth with our skaters,” Boitano said. “It’s really choosing apples and oranges, and it really depends on that week for them. That creates for a very interesting competition. It just doesn’t create a lot of rivalries.”