CALGARY -- Brian Boitano turned figure skating into a contact sport tonight. America's first gold medalist of these Winter Olympics sent a message of thunderous cheers through the concrete walls into Brian Orser's dressing room minutes before that world champion took the ice. Those roars, from a crowd dominated by Orser's Canadian countrymen, served as well as a blow to the solar plexus.

America's Brian has always loved the moment of athletic challenge for itself and lived for the exhilaration of the edge. Canada's Brian has feared it so much that he has hired a psychologist, a nutritionist, a masseuse, a costume designer, a choreographer, a manager and a private coach to help him through his constricting fears of failure.

Orser seemed to have every edge this evening. Home crowd. The knowledge that he had beaten Boitano head-to-head twice in '87. And the prestige of being world champion in a sport that feels its emperors must disrobe themselves to be dethroned. But Boitano knew he had one hidden advantage. He would skate first.

The book on Orser has always been, at least until the last year, that he hated pressure and knew how to find second place. Especially to Boitano. Once, Orser even told his coach to turn on the showers so he could not hear the cheers of the crowd for his foe's fabulous performance. "I didn't know how to deal with going out to skate knowing I could win," Orser explained. "It was a psychological problem, a mental block."

For a fortnight, Orser has been talking here about his improved self-confidence, his unshakeable resolve to retain the world championship that he took from Boitano in 1987.

Boitano has not been convinced by Orser's talk and has counterattacked after the fashion of figure skaters. By talking. Boitano has stayed on Orser's heels, always letting the Canadian know which of them was the more spectacularly athletic skater. This week, at a mass news conference, Boitano said, "It's useless to try to avoid learning the other guy's marks. You can turn on the showers or lock yourself in a room. You'll hear the crowd. Or, as soon as you come out, the first skater you see will run up to you and say, 'Oh, God, he was awesome. He just did everything.' "

Saturday night, Brian Boitano was awesome. He just did everything.

And with a huge smile on his face -- the kind that such a purist and technician isn't supposed to possess. While Orser has worked on psychology, Boitano has spent the last year trying to outgrow his shyness and learn how to project the charismatic corners of his gentle personality.

Boitano's eight perfect triple jumps were a kind of body blow. "After I hit the first three perfectly, I thought, 'Jeez, I'm skating so well, I just want to nail it.' " Carried away by his joy at his clutch performance, Boitano matched Orser's theatrics for once. But Boitano did it from the inside out. "Truthfully, I just wanted to skate my best . . . do a great all-around performance," said Boitano. "That's all you can want from yourself in such a high-pressure situation . . . I didn't watch him {Orser}. I just packed my bag . . . I had done all I could . . .

"I'm really proud that under such extreme pressures, I could hold it together . . . This week was the best all-around performance of my life."

Orser could practice his dance moves all he wanted in a back room but he could hear that crowd, especially the roar as Boitano racked up five 5.9s and four 5.8s for technical excellence -- his trademark.

Perhaps Orser was drained by expectations from his country. Whatever the cause, he was beaten before his interpretation of Dmitri Shostakovich's "The Bolt" was finished.

On Friday, Orser said, "I'm in the driver's seat and I wouldn't want it any other way." But he wasn't for long. First, he almost fell on a triple flip jump, his hand reaching to within inches of the ice in anticipation of catching himself. Then, he took a triple jump out of his program, replacing it with a double -- always a bad sign. Finally, he wobbled slightly twice in the closing seconds.

"I'm disappointed. What can I say?" said Orser to hundreds of millions on TV just seconds after learning that, by a tiny margin, he had finished second to an American skater for the second straight Olympics. "I knew I had to stay on my feet . . . I was feeling a little tired. So I did the double {not the triple}. Better to stay up than {fall and} lose for sure. Maybe I should have tried it."

Boitano began Saturday night in first place after the compulsory figures and short program. Yet he was universally referred to as being behind Orser. Why? Because on Thursday both Boitano and Orser skated technically flawless programs, yet almost every judge gave Orser a higher score by exactly .1 of a point -- the smallest margin possible.

In other words, the champion's perfection is better than a challenger's perfection.

However, Boitano had a hidden edge. If he could establish his perfection first, perhaps Orser would crack. All week, Boitano has left his little hints. Figure skating has always been the head sport. "Being in Canada, the pressure will be on Brian as opposed to me."

For weeks, experts have nudged Boitano to try the first quadruple toe loop in Olympic competition. Boitano needs a quad, folks said. But Boitano disagreed.

Some felt that Boitano skated with restraint on Thursday in the men's short program. Almost as though he were letting Orser shorten the Boitano lead built in Tuesday's compulsory figures.

Afterward, Boitano served his own sort of sly notice. "I didn't want the best performance of my life," he said, "yet."

Boitano saved that for the perfect psychological moment. Saturday night. When it mattered most. 0