Figure skating: Li, 16, leads Chinese medal hopes at Sochi

BEIJING (AFP) - Diminutive teenager Li Zijun will be one of the hosts' top medal hopes at the Cup of China figure skating, as they seek Olympic momentum just months away from Sochi 2014.

The 16-year-old three-time Chinese champion showed her prowess on the big stage when she placed a creditable seventh at this year's world championships.

This week Li, just 1.63m tall, is one of a group of young hopefuls taking on Italy's Carolina Kostner in the women's competition.

Japan's former Four Continents winner Kanako Murakami, 18, and European silver medallist Adelina Sotnikova, 17, will also be hoping to upset former world champion Kostner.

In the pairs, China's Olympic silver medallists Pang Qing and Tong Jian will take on four-time world champions and Sochi favourites Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy.

Pang and Tong take to the ice a week after Sui Wenjing and Han Cong's exploits at Skate Canada, where they pulled off a rare quadruple twist lift but ultimately finished second.

Fifty-one of the world's best figure skaters from nine countries have gathered in Beijing for what is the third leg of the six-stop Grand Prix series.

Skaters are looking to gather points and medals to reach the circuit's finale in Fukuoka, Japan, in December, the last major audition before the Winter Games in February.

In a blow to her Olympic hopes, South Korea's reigning champion Kim Yu Na is expected to miss the series with a foot problem, while men's title holder Evan Lysacek is also struggling with injury.

Kazakhstan's world silver medallist Denis Ten returns from illness to lead the men's competitors in Beijing, with China's former world junior champion Han Yan, 17, also in contention.

Japan's Takahiko Kozuka, entering his second Grand Prix event of the year, will be looking to improve on his sixth place at Skate America two weeks ago.

In the ice dance, Russia's reigning European champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev will hope to lay down a marker ahead of the Sochi Games.

Their biggest competition looks to be two-time European gold medallists Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France, although America's Madison Chock and Evan Bates could also figure.

The event starts at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium on Friday. It is returning to the Chinese capital after being held for the past two years in Shanghai.

China has so far won seven Olympic medals in figure skating, placing the world's most populous nation 13th in the all-time medals table.