The European Championships, the last major competition before the Olympic Games for most of Europe’s premier skaters, was held in Lausanne, Switzerland from January 14-21. Many European countries use the results of competition, rather than their national championships, to determine their representatives to the Olympic Games and World Championships. Furthermore, several countries also have various Olympic qualification standards that require athletes to achieve a certain placement in order to prove themselves worthy of competing in the Olympics. With that on the line, Europe’s skaters took to the ice for one final tune-up prior to the big show.
Thanks to a change in factored placements to adjust for the qualifying round, twenty-nine-year old Maria Butyrskaya walked away with a third European title, her first since 1998, despite skating poorly in the free skate. A controversial first in her qualifying round, Butyrskaya earned 0.4 factored placements, the same as rival Irina Slutskaya did in her qualifying skate. In the short program, Butyrskaya earned 0.6 factored placements for finishing first, while Slutskaya earned 1.8 for a third-place finish. Under the pre-2000 system, any skater in the top three after the short program controlled her own destiny, so to speak. Not so in the new system. Despite Butyrskaya and Slutskaya being on even ground after their respective qualifying placements, Slutskaya’s third-place finish in the short program (the result of a fall on the triple flip) took her out of contention for the overall title.
Slutskaya won the free skate by eight judges to one, landing six triple jumps and erring only on her planned triple salchow-triple loop combination. Although she was uneven throughout both the qualifying round and short program, Slutskaya remains a co-favorite for the Olympics along with American Michelle Kwan based on the type of performances she has delivered in the free skate all season. But, as she learned here, a clean short program will be imperative in Salt Lake City if she has any hope of contending for the overall gold medal.
Taking third and completing the Russians sweep for the fourth consecutive year was nineteen-year old Viktoria Volchkova, who has yet to seriously challenge her countrywomen for the top spot despite occasional flashes of brilliance.
With main rival Evgeny Plushenko out with injury, Alexei Yagudin was supposed to breeze his way through Europeans. After a strong qualifying round and short program, it looked as if exactly that would happen. The free skate told a different story, as Yagudin fell on his opening quadruple toe loop and twice made errors on triple loop attempts. While he ended up repeating the quadruple toe and completing six other triple jumps, his performance to “Man the Iron Mask” was enough to leave some doubt.
Teammate Alexander Abt, perennial also-ran who has greatly upped his level of fitness since moving to Lake Arrowhead, Calif. last year, very nearly walked through the door that Yagudin left open. With eight triple jumps and a quadruple toe-double toe combination, Abt beat Yagudin on all but one of the judges’ scorecards. Six of the nine, however, gave the overall nod to Yagudin based on the presentation marks. Though some say the result was a cop-out, the performances Abt turned in nevertheless make him a heavy favorite for the bronze medal and an all-Russian sweep of the podium at the Olympics next month. His clean quadruple jumps give him a substantial advantage over U.S. Champion Todd Eldredge, and U.S. silver medalist Timothy Goebel will likely need all three of his planned quadruple jumps if he is to do enough to overcome Abt’s advantages in style.
Newcomer Brian Joubert was a surprising third in his European Championship debut. Only third at his own national championships and ninth at his lone Grand Prix appearance at Skate America, Joubert has made himself the frontrunner for France’s single spot at the Olympic Games.
In the absence of defending champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, second-ranked Russians Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin easily won the pairs title, earning marks up to 5.9. Totmianina and Marinin did not skate a perfect program, stepping out of their opening side-by-side triple salchows, but they turned in a respectable set of performances that will make them outside contenders for a bronze medal at the Olympics next month.
France’s Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis rebounded from an uneven short program to win the silver medal with a free skate marred only by Abitbol’s singling of a planned solo double Axel. Their crowd-pleasing Addams Family free skate thrilled the Swiss crowd.
Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, 2000 World Champions, were a disappointing third despite skating two relatively strong programs. With losses to Totmianina and Marinin both here and at Russian Nationals, Petrova and Tikhonov have moved from being one of Russia’s best hopes to merely struggling to hang on. The former world champions will have to fight for even a top-five finish in Salt Lake City.
The team who many feel was lost in the shuffle was Poland’s Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek. Rightfully fourth after an error on the throw triple salchow in the short program, Zagorska and Siudek skated a clean free skate but did not move up.
The ice dance judging proved predictable as ever, with the blocs of Italy/Israel/Russia and France/Lithuania/Germany showing no signs of collapsing. Though most agree that the final results were correct, the obviously political ordinals do little good for the sport’s image. In order to give ice dance results any sort of legitimacy, the ISU will need to take more disciplinary action against judges who are marking politically.
France’s Marina and Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won three of the four phases of competition, losing only the second compulsory dance, where there was non-coincidentally a pro-Eastern European panel. Earning 6.0s from the Lithuanian judge in the original dance and the Azerbaijani judge in the free dance, the former World Champions seem poised to take the Olympic gold medal despite a panel that initially seemed more favorable to their Italian rivals.
Not exactly gracious in defeat, reigning World Champions Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio nevertheless fared better at Europeans than they did at the Grand Prix Final, earning almost entirely first and second-place ordinals throughout the competition except from the France/Lithuania/Germany bloc. Although they could conceivably contend for gold at the Olympics, their programs are weaker and less balanced than the French team, and even silver is not a guarantee with Grand Prix Final champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Viktor Kraatz of Canada in the mix.
Making their international debut after being out with injury all season, Russia’s Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh failed to challenge either of the world’s top two teams and even came dangerously close to slipping behind fifth-ranked Lithuanians Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas in the compulsory dances. With only three spots on the Olympic podium, Lobacheva and Averbukh will face an uphill battle to defeat either the Canadians or Italians, but as we have seen here and throughout the season, it will not stop certain judges from trying to produce the desired result through any means possible.