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Juicy Olympic story lines abound in Budapest

Full slate of compelling battles headline 2014 European Championships
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Spain's Javier Fernández, Russia's Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov and Italy's Carolina Kostner are all defending their European titles. -Getty Images

Just a few hours after the U.S. and Canadian championships ended, figure skating and ice dancing are now taking center stage in Europe, in Budapest, Hungary.

The European championships prior to the Olympic Winter Games have always been particularly spectacular. Skaters are at their very best, and their programs have been carved down to their slightest details. In less than four weeks, the Games will open, and most competitors are about to reach their peak.

For years, the Europeans have even acted like a "pre-Olympic final." One can only remember the fierce battle between John Curry of Great Britain, back in 1976, and Vladimir Kovalev, of the Soviet Union. Curry would have been defeated, had not a Czech judge taken it upon his shoulders to put him in first place, even though he was belonging to the Eastern Bloc. This allowed Curry to present himself as the European champion at the subsequent Games in Innsbruck, Austria, which he won in a decisive way.

This is to say how important these 2014 European Figure Skating Championships are, in terms of status for each skater or team. Very seldom has one seen a change of rankings between the Europeans and the Olympics, at least for the main favorites. A skater or team ranked No. 2 in Europe does not easily win at the Olympics. This may explain also the high tension already palpable around the ice rink in Budapest.

These European championships bear a special flavor, as some of the main favorites to win in Sochi are present in Hungary. Europe has candidates to the Olympic podiums in all four categories, if not for the gold medal.

Italy's Carolina Kostner in the ladies, Spain's Javier Fernández in the men's, and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia are all returning after achieving 2013 European victories. The only 2013 European gold medalist missing is the Russian dance team of Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who won the 2013 world bronze medal in London, Ontario.

The ladies field should end up in a fierce competition between Carolina Kostner, who seeks her sixth European title, and the "Three Musketeers" of Russian ladies skating: Alena Leonova, who won the silver medal at worlds in Nice in 2012; Julia Lipnitskaia and Adelina Sotnikova. Both Lipnitskaia and Sotnikova participated in the Grand Prix Final last month.

The men's field has even greater depth in Budapest, although no clear favorite to win emerges. The number of world and European medalists present in Budapest is simply incredible. The younger generation is led by Fernández, who made history by becoming the first Spaniard to ever medal at a world championship and Grand Prix Final. He won the 2013 European Championships after a phenomenal free program, packed with three quads! The start of his season was, however, slightly less stellar.

Florent Amodio of France is following him -- at least on paper, as Amodio's season has been a near disaster so far after he split from his former coach, Nikoli Morozov. Add to that two veterans of previous European and world campaigns, namely Brian Joubert of France and Tomáš Verner of Czech Republic, and you see that these Championships will look like a résumé of European skating over the last eight years.

The master of their generation, Evgeni Plushenko, did not opt for the Europeans, as he continues his preparations for Sochi. Maxim Kovtun will bear the hopes of his country. He was the only skater from Europe to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Japan one month ago.

The pairs event may be a repetition for the Olympic final, as was the case some decades ago. 2013 world and European gold medalists Volosozhar and Trankov will meet again with their counterparts, four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. Many doubted whether those two teams would come to compete against each another just three weeks before the Olympics. They are poised for an intense battle, however, especially after Szolkowy and Savchenko defeated Volosozhar and Trankov at the last Grand Prix Final. The pairs competition should hence be a thrill, both on the technical and the artistic sides, as both pairs are daredevils and artists.

Behind them, the competition should also be fierce, as Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov of Russia now have to battle against strong rising pairs Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek of Italy -- who took the 2013 European bronze medal -- and Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who finished eighth at worlds.

The ice dance competition may be most interesting as well, but for other reasons: None of the teams present in Budapest has ever won a major championship. Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia were second in their country to Bobrova and Soloviev after two major mistakes in their free dance, but they must also be remembered as the Trophée Eric Bompard silver medalists and reigning European silver medalists.

"If they skate well, they should win," suggested Olivier Schoenfelder, the 2008 world gold medalist. "They are skating so fast, and their elements are superlative. They take huge risks, and those risks should be rewarded."

In a completely different style, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, the Italian dancers, will also be aiming for their first European gold medal. Both teams have scored around 170 points this season.

"Capellini and Lanotte have the best flow of the field, and they manage to hide the high technical difficulty of their elements," Schoenfelder added.

An Olympic season is also -- and this should never be forgotten -- a splendid opportunity to watch the up-and-coming generation of skaters, some of whom may take the world by storm as soon as next year. Kovtun is one of them in the men's category, just like Lipnitskaia and Sotnikova are in the ladies. 2012 world junior champions Victoria Sinitsina and Ruslan Zhiganshin of Russia and 2013 world junior silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France should be watched carefully in that respect.

There should be a lot to watch in Budapest!

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