CALGARY, FEB. 18 -- The duel of the Brians began in men's figure skating at the Winter Olympics tonight. Brian Orser of Canada won the men's short program, but Brian Boitano of the United States remained in first place overall, and never mind which was which, they skated to a confrontation as promised.

Orser, the reigning world champion and home favorite, performed to a frantic big-band number, receiving the largest ovation yet at the Stampede Corral. His required jumps and spins were without error as he received the best marks of the night from seven of nine judges to win the event, which counts for 20 percent of the overall score.

For technical merit, Orser received seven marks of 5.8 and two of 5.7. He then got seven scores of 5.9 and two of 5.8 out of a possible 6.0 for artistic presentation. His performance sets the stage for the two longtime rivals to meet Saturday night to determine the gold medal in the decisive long program, which counts for 50 percent.

"This is something we've been looking forward to for a number of years," Orser said. "It's been building, and building, and building."

Coming after Orser's unnerving performance, Boitano skated to a French turn-of-the-century number called "The Skaters," a lively, amusing piece. He mouthed a much-relieved "Thank you, God," as he finished, and received marks from 5.7 to 5.9 for technique. But his artistic marks were lower than Orser's, seven 5.8s, with a 5.7 and a 5.9.

"I skated clean and that's all I wanted," he said. "I didn't want the best performance of my life yet."

Boitano and Orser had trailed Alexander Fadeev of the Soviet Union after Wednesday's compulsory figures, which count for 30 percent of the final score. But Fadeev dropped to third after falling on his required double-triple combination jump to receive scores from 5.1 to 5.5 on technique.

Two other American entrants skated to wild applause and good scores. Christopher Bowman, 20, of Los Angeles, rose from eight place to fifth with a tango routine, and Paul Wylie, a 23-year-old Harvard undergraduate, skated to pieces of "A Chorus Line" to move from 12th to seventh.

Between them, Orser, Boitano and Fadeev represent three world champions, each with a different manner of skating and all with something to prove. Orser is the most artistic and dancer-like of the three. The athletic Boitano, the 1986 champion from Sunnyvale, Calif., is regarded as the finest technical skater ever with his unprecedented arching jumps. Fadeev is a disciplined performer whose championship came in 1985, but he tends to be inconsistent, like tonight.

For that reason, this has been called more of a two-man competition. Boitano and Orser have been competing against each other for 10 years and are close friends, even if this event has been titled "The Battle of the Brians." Off the ice they never discuss skating, and their meeting here has made them uncomfortable.

"It's a wall," Boitano said. "We're close, yet there's this title we both want."

Orser is attempting to disprove the notion that he is an also-ran skater. His world championship in Cincinnati last spring was his first after finishing second three times consecutively, and also in the 1984 Olympics. The deciding moment of his career will come in his long program to a piece called "The Bolt," and he is under the onus of skating at home.