Figure skating is always one of the most popular sports to watch in the Winter Olympics because it has provided viewers with some of the most dramatic moments in sports history. From the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding showdown at the 1994 Olympics to the “Battle of the Brians” in 1988, figure skating delivers the suspense that viewers crave.
At this year’s games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, all eyes will be on the men’s figure skating events as U.S. Olympian Nathan Chen stands a solid chance of earning a gold medal. In the ladies’ division, it would be an amazing feat if any of the U.S. women earns a medal at these games, but we are still rooting them on.
The first figure skating event kicks off on Thursday, the first day of the games, and concludes with an exhibition gala on Saturday, Feb. 24. In the meantime, here are some of the most memorable moments in figure skating history at the Olympics.
Battle of the Brians
For figure skating fanatics, this will forever be remembered as peak sports history. In 1988 in Calgary, Canadian Brian Orser was the reigning world champion and a 1984 Olympic silver medalist. American Brian Boitano knew he would have to have the skate of his life in order to beat Orser.
Boitano won the compulsory figures round and Orser won the short program, so the battle took them straight to the long program, where they both had military-themed programs. Boitano skated cleanly while Orser doubled his triple axel. That one moment on the ice allowed Boitano to sneak in and win the gold.
Battle of the Carmens
The same year as the “Battle of the Brians,” the women had the “Battle of the Carmens.” This Cold War-era rivalry was between Katarina Witt, an East German skater and reigning gold medalist from the 1984 Olympics, and American Debi Thomas. Coincidentally, both chose music from Bizet’s opera Carmen for their long program.
Thomas came out ahead after the compulsory figures and the short program, while Witt was in second place. The battle didn’t have as much heat as the men’s programs because the ladies didn’t have the skates of their lives. However, Witt’s scores were enough to move her up to first place, while Thomas dropped to third place to earn a bronze medal. More importantly, Thomas became the first African-American to medal at the Winter Olympics.
Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan showdown
The “whack heard ’round the world” had already happened at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January 1994. Nancy Kerrigan was able to rehab her knee injury, and Tonya Harding was allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The media frenzy that ensued was bigger than the showdown during competition.
Kerrigan came away with a silver medal after battling for first place with Ukranian skater Oksana Baiul. Harding fought with a broken lace on her skate and finished a disappointing eighth. Their rivalry continues to draw attention with this year’s Oscar-nominated feature film, I, Tonya.
Michelle Kwan goes for gold
After she had a near-perfect skate at the Nationals in Philadelphia in 1998, skating fans thought Michelle Kwan was a shoo-in for gold at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Her rival was a fellow U.S. skater by the name of Tara Lipinski, who had a terrific year in 1997 but faltered in the Olympic year.
While Lipinski enjoyed every possible media event at the Olympics, Kwan stayed sequestered at a hotel with her parents at the games. When the ladies stepped onto the ice for their long program, Kwan seemed hesitant while Lipinski skated with joy and freedom. That slight difference is what captured gold for Lipinski and earned Kwan a silver medal.
Lipinski was 15 when she won. She is still the youngest ladies’ Olympic figure skating champion and the youngest individual gold medalist.
Michelle Kwan goes for gold again
With Lipinski retired from competition, Kwan returned to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a gold medal was almost guaranteed. She was the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, so the expectation was that the judges were going to hand her that gold medal as long as she stayed upright.
With Kwan in first place after the short program, the pressure was on for the long program in front of her home country crowd — everyone wanted her to win. Unfortunately, Kwan had an uncharacteristic fall on a triple flip and two-footed another jump. Her gold medal chances were over.
To add to the drama, U.S. underdog Sarah Hughes came from fourth place to win gold. It was a shocking and almost mathematically impossible end to the competition, but Hughes headlined one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.
The fix seemed to be in during the pairs figure skating competition in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia won the short program but had a less-than-clean long program and still won gold. Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada, who were second after the short program, had a picture-perfect skate. Why did they get the silver medal?
The media went nuts over allegations of cheating by the judges. French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted that she was coerced by the head of the French skating organization, Didier Gailhaguet, to give the Russians the gold. The deal would allow French ice dancers Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat to medal in their competition.
The aftermath of the judging scandal resulted in Salé and Pelletier being upgraded to a gold medal alongside Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. Le Gougne and Gailhaguet were suspended for three years and banned from the 2006 Winter Olympics. The International Skating Union subsequently overhauled the judging system to prevent future cheating issues.
The Winter Olympics run Feb. 8-25 on NBC with figure skating beginning on Day 1 and concluding on Feb. 24.