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Euro figure skating championship begins in Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — For many years, the European championships held ahead of the Winter Olympics were seen as a kind of dress rehearsal for Olympic gold medalists.

Between the games of 1992 in Albertville, France, and 2006 in Turin, Italy, European skaters — boosted by Russia's domination of the pairs and ice dance events — won 16 of the 21 gold medals awarded during those five Winter Olympics.

At the 2010 Vancouver Games, however, the spotlight shifted to North America and Asia, with golds won by the United States, Canada, South Korea and China. Russian Evgeny Plushenko's silver medal was the best European result and it was the first time since 1960 that a Russian or Soviet figure skater failed to win a gold medal.

So the European championships being held in Budapest for the seventh time on Wednesday may still be a dress rehearsal, but at least in the singles events, instead of tryouts for gold medals they may only be for silver trimmings and bronze brooches.

The real competition, however, may be for the precious few Russian spots in the singles competitions at Sochi and includes a skater — Plushenko — who won't even be in Budapest. Maxim Kovtun leads the Russian trio competing in men's singles at the Europeans, but his place in Sochi seems far from certain.

In an interview with the ITAR-Tass news agency last week, Plushenko suggested that the 18-year-old Kovtun was too green to be Russia's entry at Sochi, pointing especially to his poor performance in the World Figure Skating Championships last year in London, Ontario.

"After Maxim's 17th place in London, there remained only one slot for Russia in the 2014 Games," Plushenko said. "Yes, Kovtun performed superbly at the national championships, but in order to compete for Olympic medals you have to have serious international experience."

Kovtun defeated Plushenko at the Russian nationals in December, but a commission from the Russian skating federation is planning to observe a test skate by Plushenko on Jan. 21, compare it to Kovtun's performances and make the final decision.

Still, Kovtun is considered a contender for a medal in Budapest, along with defending champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and Frenchmen Brian Joubert, who won his first of three European golds in Budapest in 2004, and Florent Amodia.

Competition will be tough among the Russian women, too, with Julia Lipnitskaia, Adelina Sotnikova and Alena Leonova vying for the two spots in Sochi and challenging two-time defending champion Carolina Kostner of Italy.

A firmer chance for a preview of Sochi gold medalists may come in the pairs event, with the performances of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia and Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. The Germans have won four of the last six world championships, while the Russian pair is defending world and European champions.

As for ice dancing, the shine of the event has been dimmed by the absence of two of the world's top pairs. Both the defending European champions, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of Russia, and the 2011 and 2012 European champions, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France, are skipping Budapest to better prepare for Sochi.

The first figure skating event at the Sochi Games will be on Feb. 6 with the team competition.

Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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