Russians could sweep events

Updated: January 25, 2005, 9:42 AM ET news services

LONDON -- Irina Slutskaya and Yevgeny Plushenko will be aiming to restore Russian dominance when the European figure skating championships begin in Turin on Tuesday.

While Russians look set for a clean sweep of the medals, the International Skating Union (ISU) will be rolling out its revamped scoring system for the first time at a major championship.

Russians relinquished their stranglehold on the European competition a year ago when they won just two of the four titles in Budapest.

Illness and injuries meant five-time champion Slutskaya was unable to defend her crown while Plushenko was upstaged by France's Brian Joubert.

Less than 12 months on, Russia appear to be back on top form after Slutskaya and Plushenko won gold at last month's Grand Prix final in Beijing.

"The win here gives me confidence for the Europeans," Slutskaya said. "There are still lots of things to do, and I will work hard to show my very best performance."

Slutskaya will equal the record of six European titles held by Germany's Katarina Witt and Norway's Sonja Henie if she wins.

Slutskaya is unbeaten this season and defeated Michelle Kwan, who won her ninth U.S. title last week, at an invitational in December.

The 25-year-old Muscovite will also want to erase memories of a disappointing 2004. Her gamble to take part in the world championships in Dortmund while still recovering from injury backfired with a disappointing ninth, her lowest placing at a major event.

While last year's surprise champion Julia Sebestyen, who won Hungary's first European figure skating gold medal, will be back to challenge Slutskaya, her main opposition is likely to come from compatriot Elena Sokolova.

The emergence of Joubert last year should have set the stage for an enthralling rivalry with three-times champion Plushenko.

However, the Frenchman has yet to reproduce his dazzling array of skills this season and could find himself in the chasing pack.

Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin remain on course to glide towards their fourth consecutive pairs title.

With fellow Russians Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov remaining their main threat, the country is likely to extend its winning streak, which began in 1996, in the discipline.

Ice dance favorites Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov are expected to complete the Russian quartet of titles. A sweep of the titles would give them a timely boost ahead of the world championships in Moscow in March.

The adjudication will also come under scrutiny in Turin as the ISU has adopted a new system to avert a replay of the 2002 Olympic pairs judging scandal.

Following French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne's admission she deliberately underscored Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier to favor Russian rivals Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the arcane 6.0 scale was consigned to the scrapheap after last year's world championships.

Judges gave two scores under the old system: one for technical merit and one for artistry. The new system forces them to tally separate scores for each element, such as jumps, spins and footwork.

In place for two years on the Grand Prix circuit, the new system is an attempt to make the scoring more detailed and objective.

Scott Davis, the 1993-94 U.S. national men's champion, said that under the old system a skater was left with a question after receiving a score.

"What really did it mean?" he said. "I think it is going to push the sport. You watch the skating now. Everyone is trying to do difficult footwork."

A new computer-based system secretly selects nine of the 12 judges whose scores will count, then discards the highest and lowest marks. The remaining points are averaged.

The championships also provide a dress rehearsal for Turin's Palavela rink, which will host the 2006 Winter Olympics figure skating competition.

The championships begin Tuesday with the ice dance compulsory and pairs short program. The first final is the pairs Wednesday night. The women's final Saturday concludes the championships.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.