DENVER, JAN. 9 -- Brian Boitano won his fourth straight U.S. Figure Skating Championships men's title in the small hours of this morning, despite experiencing mishaps and a judging controversy before a sleepy, dubious crowd at McNichols Arena.

The scattered boos from a gathering of 15,869 were not personally for Boitano, who was efficient if slightly unsteady during his four-minute closing program. Rather, they were for the judges who awarded him extravagant marks for a routine marred by slips of hand and foot on two triple jumps. He received a solid block of 5.9s out of a possible 6.0 from all nine judges on technical merit, and one perfect score for artistic presentation.

"I knew I was off today," Boitano admitted.

The marks were barely good enough to defeat unexpected silver medalist Paul Wylie, 23, of Denver and Harvard, who skated a graceful but dynamic program to a standing ovation and 5.8s and 5.9s, although he had a minor slip, too. Wylie in turn relegated Christopher Bowman, 20, of Los Angeles, who finished fifth at the last world championships but skated a limited program here on a sprained left ankle, to the bronze.

In one respect, the order of their finish was immaterial, because all will represent the United States at the Winter Olympics in Calgary by virtue of their medals here. But it did not prevent observers from questioning the integrity of the marks, of which even Boitano's coach Linda Leaver said, "They were high."

While it was hard to say whether the generous scores were entirely deserved or undeserved, they provoked considerable discussion on the politics of this sport. Many hold that a skater will have more prestige going into an Olympics with a national championship, and that Boitano, 24, now will have more confidence whn he meets world champion Brian Orser of Canada in Calgary. With Boitano the acknowledged best U.S. hope for Olympic gold, there seemed little way he could lose here short of sprawling.

It also called into question a judging system that clearly favors the favorites. Lesser known competitors invariably skate first, and judges are notoriously reluctant to award high marks before the more famed competitors have performed. The problem arose when Boitano was severely pushed by Wylie, the hometown but little known favorite who skated prior to him.

Wylie skated beautifully to a mixture of jazz, classical and Olympic anthem music. It was a routine that demanded high marks, and he was rewarded with them. "It was glorious," he said, exhilarated.

His success left little margin for a Boitano victory, raising the possibility of inflated marks. Boitano defended his scores on the basis that his two errors were minor technical ones in the context of a long program by far the most difficult in the field of 20 skaters. "Artistically it's the best in the world," he said of his routine.

Striking a military pose to Carmine Coppola's score from "Napoleon," he briefly put a hand on the ice when he stumbled out of a triple axel. Later, he put another hand on the ice when he landed unsteadily on a triple toe loop.

Another cause of disgruntlement was foolhardy scheduling, Boitano did not take the ice until 12:36 a.m. Central time.

"I just wanted to get it over with," he said after joining Scott Hamilton (1981-84) and Charlie Tickner (1977-80) as four-time winners. "I didn't even want to know what time it was."