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Olympics

Red faced Europeans bottom out

By Pritha Sarkar

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Even before the Olympic flame is extinguished in downtown Vancouver, the inquisition had started into what went wrong for European figure skating at the 2010 Winter Games.

The continent, largely thanks to Russia and the Soviet Union, had dominated Olympic ice rinks from Innsbruck to Calgary and Albertville to Salt Lake City to bag 37 of 46 golds handed out since 1964.

In 2006 Russia came tantalizing close to becoming the first nation to sweep the board but had to settle for taking three golds after a slip-up by Irina Slutskaya allowed Shizuka Arakawa of Japan to nab the top prize in the women's competition.

Four years on and the tables have completely turned as the score now reads Europe 0 - Rest of the World 4. The last time this happened was half a century ago in 1960.

"A change of guard is always a good thing. It takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you work harder. The Europeans have not delivered very well in this Games. We've got great skaters, they just haven't delivered," 1980 British Olympic men's champion Robin Cousins told Reuters.

"The Europeans have to rethink (their strategy) a little bit, more power to the North Americans and the Asians."

China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo started the victory parade for the teams that fall under the Four Continents umbrella by snapping Russia's 46-year stranglehold in the pairs competition.

American Evan Lysacek then put a petulant Yevgeny Plushenko firmly in his place -- at least on the judges' scorecards -- by trumping the Russian in the men's.

Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir ended Europe's 34-year reign in the ice dance before South Korea's Kim Yuna hammered in the final nail in the coffin with a seminal performance that earned her record scores in the women's event.

IMMENSE COURAGE

In the midst of it all, Canadian Joannie Rochette provided one of the feel good stories of the Games when she showed immense courage to win the women's bronze four days after her mother's death.

Luckless Italian Carolina Kostner perhaps best summed up the amount of work facing those across the Atlantic if they are to stage a comeback in Sochi 2014.

Just five weeks after being crowned European women's champion, the Italian was left with a sore bottom not once, not twice, not even thrice but four times after repeatedly falling over during her long program.

Her comical display would no doubt have become a You Tube hit if Olympic footage had been allowed to be posted on the video sharing website. Her display earned her 88.88 points -- ranking her 19th among the 24 competitors in the free skate.

She finished 16th overall.

"I had actually tipped Carolina to be the dark horse. I thought she was coming without much pressure with everyone talking about the Asians (Kim and Japanese silver medalist Mao Asada) and I thought she could slip in under the radar. Slip did she did but not in the right direction," Cousins said.

Europe were left to pick up the crumbs in Vancouver, with 2006 champion Plushenko claiming silver after failing to deliver his jumps cleanly, and two bronzes.

"I can't believe in my heart that Plushenko would look back at that performance and think it was still worthy of a gold medal," said Cousins.

"Had he done it perfectly, there would have been no question but Evan delivered the performance of his life. It was the right result on the night."

(Editing by Jon Bramley)