Figure skating: Pairs' sweep gives Russia Olympic boost with weeks to go

BUDAPEST (AFP) - World champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov found it hard to stay on their feet but gave Olympic hosts' Russia a podium sweep and a second gold on the final day of the European figure skating championships in Budapest on Sunday.

It was a third straight European title for the pair, who both fell during their free skate to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, but took the crown by a 12.40-point margin on national champions Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, with Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov taking bronze.

All the top three pairs train together in Moscow.

Volosozhar and Trankov's success came after 2010 Olympic bronze medallists Aliona Savchenko and Robin Stolkowy of Germany, who had been second after the short programme, withdrew before the free skating final, with Savchenko, 30, suffering from an acute viral infection.

The winners had build up a lead of over 13 points on the silver medallists from the short programme and were virtually assured success after the German team's withdrawal. "For sure we had so many points after the short programme, but we really wanted to do a clean free skate for the audience and the Russian fans," said Trankov.

"We couldn't cope with the programme today," he said. "All the mistakes were mine, we'll have to draw our conclusions and work harder so it won't happen at the Olympic Games."

Their success and 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia's women's title put Russia top of the medals table with eight of a possible 12 medals just two weeks before the Sochi Games.

The baby-faced skater from the far-flung city of Ekaterinburg became the youngest European winner, taking gold ahead of compatriot Adelina Sotnikova, 17, but Spaniard Javier Fernandez outshone two Russian veterans to successfully defend his men's crown.

Ice dancers Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov took silver behind Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, who won their first major title, with Britain finding themselves back on the podium with Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland taking bronze.

Fernandez showed that he has put his struggles early in the season behind him, as he lead all the way before sealing gold ahead of Sergei Voronov, 26, and Konstantin Menshov, 30, who found themselves on the podium for the first time.

"At the beginning of the season I think he got a bit spooked about the Olympics looming and the expectations being European champion and a world medallist," said his coach Brian Orser. "When he started to digest this and train accordingly things have started to fall into place. It's all about peaking and timing."

But Russia face a dilemma over who to pick for their men's team with 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko, who did not compete in Budapest this week, gunning for a ticket to his fourth Games at the age of 31.

His case was boosted as 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun, who stunned the veteran to take the national title last month, failed to live up to expectations in both the short and long programmes, slumping to fifth.

Plushenko, the Olympic gold medallist in 2006 and two-time silver medallist, is due to have a test skate in front of federation officials, with Russian Sports Minister Vitalij Mutko confirming on Sunday that a decision will be made on Jan 23.

The Olympic team event starts in Sochi on Feb 6.

"Voronov's performance on the ice here was absolutely amazing, it might be decisive in the composition of the Olympic squad. Menshov showed something stunning as well," said Mr Mutko.

"The very young Kovtun, considered to be one of the most talented skaters of ours, was a bit overwhelmed during his performance, but you have to learn how to address chances, and make use of them."

France, meanwhile, finished without a European medal for the first time in 25 years with three-time men's winner Brian Joubert placing eighth in his final Europeans as he retires after Sochi.

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