| ||LONDON--With a charge of excessive drinking hanging over him and a young pretender snapping at his heels, Alexei Yagudin's two-year reign over men's figure skating could end next week.
To add to his problems ahead of the European championships in Vienna, the 19-year-old from St Petersburg has to cope with the aftermath of a practice accident last month when he broke a skate and slightly damaged an achilles tendon, forcing him out of the Grand Prix Finals in France.
All the champions from last year could find themselves replaced on the top of the podium and a Russian sweep of European titles which has spanned three seasons is almost certain to be ended by two French ice dancers.
Yagudin is under threat from former training partner Evgeny Plushenko as he struggles to overcome his recent setbacks, the biggest being his suspension from the Tom Collins Champions on Ice Tour in the United States last June for alleged excessive drinking.
Though he admitted drinking, Yagudin denied reports he was drunk on the ice. Nevertheless, he received a one-year suspended sentence from the Russian Figure Skating Federation, who said further misdemeanors could earn him a permanent suspension.
Though he has stayed out of trouble since, Yagudin was decisively beaten by 17-year-old Plushenko in the Russian National Championships in December.
| ||Alexei Yagudin's European Championship is threated by rival Evgeny Plushenko.|
When Yagudin's training injury put him out of the Grand Prix finals, Plushenko skated to another impressive victory as he earned five perfect scores of 6.0.
Yagudin has built a reputation on his ability to produce his best when the stakes are highest.
Marina Anissina, ironically Russian-born, and Gwendal Peizerat look sure to capture the title won last year by Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov, who are not defending because Krylova has a back injury.
Krylova's back injury, a slipped disc, has ended her season with Ovsiannikov, though they intend to return for the 2000 Olympic season.
Yet even if they were fit for Vienna, they might have found the French too strong. Krylova and Ovsiannikov retained their world title over their French rivals in Helsinki last year only on a narrow and controversial 5-4 judges' decision in the free dance.
The verdict was hotly disputed by French officials on the grounds that one judge apparently changed his vote from the French to the Russians after the time alloted to change scores.
The protest was rejected yet many observers felt the French deserved to win.
There was no doubt about their superiority in Lyon where Krylova and Ovsiannikov did not compete. They also earned five scores of 6.0 and they look ready to take over at the top no matter whom they face.
In 1996, Irina Slutskaya became the first Russian or Soviet Union woman to lift a European title, and she retained it a year later before weight and motivational problems saw her drop away to be succeeded by Maria Butyrskaya, who won in 1998 and 1999.
However, Slutskaya has bounced back, becoming the first woman to do two triple jump combinations in one programme as she won the Grand Prix title from American Michelle Kwan and Butyrskaya.
Russian domination of the pairs event should continue, with Elena Berezhnaia and Anton Sikharulidze looking to regain the title from Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, though Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis of France are capable of springing an upset.
Evgeny captures Grand Prix Final
Evgeny Plushenko spotlight