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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Will Russian Skaters Win to Soviet Tune?

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The national anthem may be different but the results are expected to be the same, with Russian skaters once again dominating the European figure skating championships, which begin Monday.

Weary from a half decade of listening to almost nothing but the Russian anthem, figure skating fans will get a change this year when the popular music of the Soviet anthem is reintroduced and used in medal ceremonies for the first time since 1991.

Such has been the domination of Russian skaters that only twice in the last five years has another country's anthem been heard at the European championships.

After Ukraine's Viacheslav Zagorodniuk won the men's title in 1996, it was not until last year's championships in Vienna, Austria, when Gwendal Peizerat and Marina Anissina of France took ice dance gold, that a non-Russian anthem had been played.

Apart from the change of tune, little else will be different in Bratislava, Slovakia, where Russians are tipped to fight for the top spot in three of the four events — men's and women's singles and the pairs competitions.

The most entertaining and heated battle will come in the men's competition, where former training partners, now bitter rivals, three-time reigning world champion Alexei Yagudin and defending European champion Yevgeny Plushenko will renew hostilities.

"If he is around, it creates problems for me, and I think the same can be said about him," said Yagudin, who Plushenko beat into second place at last month's national championships in Moscow. "Simply put, life would have been much easier for both of us if one of us didn't exist."

Yagudin, who led Russian sweeps of the podium in 1998 and 1999, played down his chances of a third European title in four years, conceding the advantage to Plushenko.

His 18-year-old rival has been in superb form, winning all three of the Grand Prix competitions he entered this year, with his long program earning several perfect marks of 6.0.

"I was only about 50 percent ready when I competed in Moscow last month," said Yagudin. "I think I'll be about 75 percent in Bratislava, but I hope to be at my best in time for the Grand Prix finals and the world championship."

After five consecutive wins by France's Surya Bonaly, Russians have assumed ownership of the women's title, with Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya taking turns holding the crown for the last five years. It appears almost certain that one of them will skate away with the title again.

At the last two Europeans, the two skaters have taken turns leading Russian sweeps, Butyrskaya in 1999 and Slutskaya last year in Vienna, when she captured her third crown.

Slutskaya, the world silver medalist, comes from a successful defense of her Russian title and will arrive in Slovakia the slight favorite ahead of Butyrskaya.

Butyrskaya, the 1999 world gold medalist and a six-time national champion, was far from her best in Moscow, falling three times and settling for third behind Victoria Volchkova.

Both Julia Soldatova, who grabbed silver at the 1999 Europeans for Russia but now skates for Belarus, and French veteran Vanessa Gusmeroli possess the ability to break up Russia's podium monopoly.

Nowhere is Russian domination of European ice more evident than in the pairs, where only once in 16 years have Russian or Soviet skaters failed to occupy the top spot.

Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov arrive in Bratislava as the defending champions, but retained their title last year only when compatriots Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were stripped of gold after she tested positive for a banned substance.

Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze are back to their best with a crowd-pleasing Charlie Chaplin routine mixing comical poses with lifts and throws.

Polish pair Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek, silver medalists the last two years, and three-time bronze medalists Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis of France believe they can move up, but will be hard pressed to keep their podium spots.