Europeans face North American challenge at skating summit

In a sport whose champions tend to retire undefeated, two crowns are resting uneasily on the heads of the reigning ice king and queen. All four titles (men's and women's singles, pairs, and dancing) will be defended by East Europeans at the world figure skating championships at the Vernets Stadium in Geneva, Switzerland, March 17-22. But both the singles holders -- Katarina Witt and Alexander Fadeev -- appear more vulnerable than usual in the expectation of powerful North American challenges.

The Vernets Stadium is not new to international skating. World championships were decided there in 1968, when American Peggy Fleming won her third straight title. It also was the site of the European championships of 1976, when Britain's John Curry began his triple crown year of European, Olympic, and world titles.

This time a particularly high standard is anticipated from the men, with the Canadian, Brian Orser, and the American, Brian Boitano, each threatening to outjump defending champion Fadeev of the Soviet Union, who must again face Czechoslovakia's Jozef Sabovcic, the man who beat him at the Europeans in late January. Any one of these four has the ability to triumph, but Orser will become the favorite if he can hold one of the top two positions in the figures, hitherto his weaker department. The daring Toronto jumper has greatly improved his compulsories under specialized coaching.

Sabovcic obviously will be in the thick of this four-man confrontation and may well become the first skater to land a quadruple jump in an international champion-ship. This, the quadruple toe-loop, he narrowly failed to accomplish when retaining his European title in Copenhagen. The landing was two-footed, enough to prevent acceptance by the Guinness Book of Records.

In prospect this will be the closest and most exciting men's finale since the pulsating series of three-way battles ending six years ago between Robin Cousins (Great Britain), Jan Hoffmann (East Germany), and Charlie Tickner (US).

Witt, the East German women's Olympic gold medalist who is seeking a third consecutive world title, will do well this time to resist pressure from no fewer than three well fancied US contenders.

In sharp contrast to the men, the general standard in the recent women's European event was disappointing -- and that included an inconsistent Witt.

Second to the Soviet contender, Kira Ivanova, in both figures and short free-skating program, the plucky East German rose to the occasion, not for the first time, to retrieve a seemingly lost cause with a long free-skating Houdini act that her menacing Moscow challenger could not match. Ivanova fell attempting a triple salchow, a miscue that may have cost her the championship.

The Geneva stage may seem set for American champion Debi Thomas to become the first black skater to take a senior world title, yet either of her compatriots, Caryn Kadavy and Tiffany Chin, have the talent to outscore her.

Chin, third in Tokyo last season when Thomas finished fifth, has since been hampered by a muscular complaint, but if she can recapture her best form, it could prove good enough. Historically, however, judges have favored the established champion and Witt is certainly that.

Kadavy, 17, was a close runner-up in the US nationals after missing a triple. Of the three Americans, she is probably the best long-term prospect and her chances of victory in her world debut cannot be discounted.

The outcome is not easy to predict when considering also that Ivanova has the incentive to become her nation's first victor of the only title the USSR has never won. It would be no surprise, either, if the young Japanese, Midori Ito, proved the best free skater, though her figures hitherto have let her down.

The Soviet pairs defenders, Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, appear the safest pick of these championships, though either the Canadians, Katherina Matousek and Lloyd Eisler, or the Americans, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, third and fourth respectively in Tokyo, could provide an upset in this most hazardous event.

Soviet ice dancers Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, who virtually inherited the dance crown vacated last season after Britain's incomparable Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean turned pro, can expect no easy passage from their Moscow compatriots, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko. These challengers have fast narrowed the gap, their style and technique preferred by many pundits.

In this contest, too, a strong North American medals challenge can be expected from the Canadians, Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, and the Americans, Renee Roca and Don Adair.

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