CALGARY, FEB. 17 -- For three years, a threesome of figure skaters has traded world championships. Today at the Winter Olympics Alexander Fadeev of the Soviet Union, Brian Boitano of the United States and Brian Orser of Canada were in predictable order after the compulsory figures that began the men's event.

Fadeev, the 1985 champion not known for his free skating, won all three of the meticulous figure eights he traced on the ice at Bauer Arena to stand in first place. Boitano, the 1986 champion who is also known for his consistency, was in second place while reigning champion Orser was in third.

That was not a surprise, for Fadeev has led the school figures in every world championship since 1984. But Orser and Boitano have overtaken him in the free skating on each occasion but 1985, when he won his title. His school figures are acknowledged as the strongest in the world, however, and he is a constant threat because of it.

"He's an absolute master," Boitano said. "I don't know how he does it."

Compulsory figures may resemble something Dutch children do on a frozen river, but they are vital in determining a gold medal, counting for 30 percent of the overall score. Thursday night's short program, the two-minute routine of required elements, counts for 20 percent. The decisive long program, worth 50 percent, is Saturday, when Orser or Boitano probably will relegate Fadeev to a lesser medal.

Boitano, 24, from Sunnyvale, Calif., said he skated one of the best figures of his life on the third figure, a change-loop, and received marks from 3.2 to 4.2 to remain ahead of Orser. Overall, he called his performance among the top five of his career.

Boitano was by far the most nervous of the three, but Orser, 28, was remarkably relaxed considering the enormous pressure he is under to win a gold medal on his home ice. The Ontario resident was fluid and content to take his usual third place, from which he came to win the world title over Boitano and Fadeev in Cincinnati last spring.

"I'm happy," he said. "The top four was my goal . . . "