In 1994, Kurt Browning gave his final Olympic performance in Lillehammer. Today, the four-time world champ is offering his expertise as CBC’s figure skating correspondent. We met with Browning before his journey to Sochi to talk Nancy Kerrigan, ridiculous skating costumes, and why never winning an Olympic medal still stings.
Twenty years ago right now, you were getting ready to compete in your final Olympics. With the advantage of hindsight, how would you describe your state of mind?
I had actually retired from figure skating in 1992, the night that I won the world title. Then, in the summer of ’93, my agent convinced me to go to Lillehammer. Looking back, I can see that I never really went to the Olympics, in the sense that I didn’t have that “Eye of the Tiger” attitude that you need. [But] that same spontaneity has allowed me to have such a long and rewarding career.
And you’ve made peace with the fact that, despite all the world titles, you were never able to place in the Olympics?
Almost always. There are moments when you just think, “Are you serious?” I probably would have placed third in Lillehammer if I had landed the double axel. I can do that jump in my hockey skates! There are moments when I’ll do a double axel at 6:15 in the morning on an outdoor rink for a local TV station and there’s always a bit of frustration. There are moments when it still stings.
Speaking of Lillehammer: That year looms pretty large in the world of figure skating.
Oh, the knee.
Right. Is that like the JFK moment of the figure skating world? Where were you when Nancy Kerrigan got her knee whacked by Tonya Harding’s husband’s crony?
It was a pretty surreal thing. All of a sudden there were news cameras everywhere. We were being stared at and it was very hard to deal with. I think Nancy won that Olympics [even though she actually placed second].
I recently read an article about that painted Tonya Harding as a somewhat sympathetic victim.
I don’t know enough about her life to have a real opinion, but I can certainly see how she was being manipulated by other forces. And then, after the incident, they just preyed on her vulnerabilities.
Nancy is going to be covering figure skating for NBC. So I guess that makes her sort of your rival.
I guess so.
But no plans to…
…to knee her down? No.
Can you speak to the amount of pressure that these athletes are under?
There aren’t many sports that are as mental as figure skating. There is just so much pressure and the challenge is to push that out of your brain. That’s why Patrick Chan is doing so well. He has dedicated himself, body and soul, and he has told himself he deserves it. It’s like if you see a ball sitting on a shelf and you tell yourself, “That’s my ball.” That’s how he sees his quad toe loop—just a ball that he can walk over to and take. That’s why he’s going to do well. Fingers crossed.
Do you feel the social and political weight of these particular games? Does it change your job?
It changes my job when it becomes an issue. When and if that happens, I’ll try to deal with whatever’s presented before me. I’ll use my heart. But I don’t think I have to come in and make a statement. My on-camera time will be about the sport until anything happens to change that.
What are your thoughts on Brian Boitano’s decision to come out right before heading over to Sochi?
I thought, “Good on you, man.” Not that he was ever really trying to hide his lifestyle. He just never felt the need to come out. I don’t think he ever would have, but then he saw an opportunity to make a statement and he did.
Is there a connection between figure skating and the gay community that could make it a potential political lightning rod?
Part of it is because of all the pageantry involved in figure skating. If you’re gay and you’re a sprinter, you’re just a sprinter. Or a hockey player, or whatever. But when you’re putting on a crown of roses and a pink bustier [as gay American figure skater Johnny Weir did at the 2010 Olympics], that’s a little bit different. Our sport is about selling a product through costume and music as well as the skating. So, yeah, we might be a focal point.
You have two young sons. Do they spend much time on the ice?
Both of my kids figure skate. The youngest one has asked for hockey skates, but his mom doesn’t want him to play hockey, because, let’s face it, it’s kind of stupid. Meanwhile, I grew up playing hockey and I love hockey. My son’s going to be tiny, so I think if he does play hockey, it will be pretty casual.
Last question: What is the most embarrassing costume that you’ve ever sported in the name of skating?
Oh, god. It was the Rocketeer. I didn’t give the guy who was making it enough time. I told him that I needed to be a superhero, but, like, a 1940s superhero. I was thinking of that cool art deco look…. It wasn’t. It was more like space ninja ranger. It was super tight and left nothing to the imagination. Needless to say, the costume got nixed. Then somebody made a clay statue of me wearing the outfit and mailed it to me. So it endures.
Favourite summer sport?
Swimming in a warm lake.
Preferred pizza topping?
Late nights or early mornings?
Both, back to back.
Road Apples, by The Tragically Hip.
Best subject in school?
English or gym.
Favourite Toronto restaurant?
Ferraro on Eglinton West.