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I think it's fair to say that the prohibitive favorite in the Olympic pairs field is the Chinese veteran pair and two-time reigning Olympic bronze medalists, Shen and Zhao.  But they aren't the only gold medal possibility.  They're up against two-time reigning world champions from Germany, Savchenko and Szolkowy, as well as the late-surging Russian pair Kavaguti and Smirnov, among others.  

The Contenders

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov (Russia):  Kavaguti and Smirnov have all the makings of a great pair team, including a bit of fearlessness (they're one of the few pairs that attempts the throw quadruple salchow).  They had a fairly disappointing start to the season, losing all of their Grand Prix competitions, but it looks like they are a pair that peaks at the right time. They were able to snag a bronze medal at last season's world championships and recently won their first European championships, beating three-time reigning European champs and two-time reigning world champs Savchenko and Szolkowy.  Although they aren't often perfectly clean, the judges really like them and I expect to see them score high here.  They are coached by Tamara Moskvina, who has several Olympic champion pairs teams to her credit.  And they're a Russian pair at the Olympics - Russians have quite a track record in this event.  A Russian or Soviet team has won at each games since 1960.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong (China):  Vancouver marks the third Olympics for this pair, who won the world championships in 2006, following the last Olympic games.  They haven't been back in the top spot since, although they've been very successful and had several strong performances.  Sometimes it's hard for them to stand out among more exciting pairs, but they have a great free skate this season.  If they skate clean, they should be right up there in the medal mix.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy (Germany):   These two were poised to head into this competition the gold medal favorites. Then they finished a distant third at the Grand Prix Final, lost training time due to Savchenko's mono (what unfortunate timing!), and lost the European championships to Kavaguti and Smirnov. Things just have not fallen into place for them this season, with the exception of Skate Canada, where they skated so beautifully.  Their short program and free skate are both among the best programs of the season, in my opinion.  They've been waiting for their chance for four years and I think we'll definitely see some fight from them.  I believe that this pair and Shen and Zhao are truly the two best pairs teams in the world - but will they be able to deliver when it counts the most?

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo (China):  This is Shen and Zhao's fourth Olympics.  They are two-time Olympic medalists and three-time world champions.  They recently came back from retirement to try one last time for Olympic gold.  They are formidable.  They are not only technically strong, but they've also developed into some of the most beautiful artists in the sport.  They're married and their connection is evident when they skate.  They're a sentimental favorite here, as a team that was so good for so long but could not get the biggest prize.  Despite their dominance this season, winning the gold will not be easy for them.  I believe they may be able to win with a minor error or two, but if the other teams are on their games, anything could happen.

The Dark Horses

Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison (Canada):  The home team, these two are smooth and have a romantic sense and will definitely have the crowd behind them.  Though they won bronze at the world championships two years ago, they haven't quite skated up to that level internationally in the time since.  I'm not sure if I see them getting on the podium here unless they are perfect...and the other top teams make a few mistakes.

Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov (Russia):  Mukhortova and Trankov have been in the world medal mix for a few years but have not yet broken through.  They looked promising at the season's start with an upset win at Trophee Eric Bompard over Savchenko and Szolkowy, but have not lived up to that performance all season.  They have a great style and a lot of power, and they have two beautiful programs this season.  If they're clean, then they could very well be on that podium.

Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang (China):  Zhang and Zhang are the reigning Olympic silver medalists and reigning world silver medalists.  I actually think they have a chance at a medal, but I don't think they're contenders for gold here.  They are another late-peaking team; they recently won their first competition of the season at a watered down Four Continents - they skated very well there.  They had some troubles in their first competitions of the season with their short program, which they've ditched in order to skate to an older program they are more comfortable with.  The weak link in this pair is Dan.  She can often appear uncomfortable and lose focus.  However, they seem back on track at the right time, and they obviously know how what it's like to medal at the Olympics, so they should not be counted out.

Others to watch out for:  Ukraine's Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov (for the outfits if nothing else).

American Chances?  I don't think there is much of a chance for either U.S. team to get on the podium.  However, they are definitely worth watching.  I'm especially interested in seeing if Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett can skate lights out as they did at Nationals.  I just don't think they quite measure up presentation wise, and even technically in certain areas like lifts, to the major contenders here.  But hopefully a few more years of experience will allow them to develop and become true contenders.  Read more about the U.S. teams here.