FIGURE skating is to the Winter Olympics what gymnastics is to the Summer Games: an esthetic showcase that blends Broadway and the Bolshoi with all the rigor of an athletic event.

Its combination of skill and beauty is one of the reasons for figure skating's popularity, plus the fact that the top skaters of the country and world have become familiar figures to many Americans through television.

Figure skating has another attraction: it is one of the few Olympic sports in which the United States is almost certain to win a gold medal.

Linda Fratianne of Northridge, Calif., the women's world champion, is favored to continue along the golden path set by four Americans in winning previous Olympics: Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.

Fratianne can expect tough competition at Lake Placid, N.Y., from East Germany's Anett Poetzsch, who unseated her as women's world champion in 1978 and who is considered Fratianne's strongest international rival.

Charlie Tickner of Littleton, Colo., who lost the men's world title in March, can be counted on to rebound as a strong contender against the Soviet Union's Vladimir Kovalev (the current world champion), Robin Cousins of England and Jan Hoffmann of East Germany.

Britain's John Curry, who took home the gold in 1976, has turned pro, taking his act to Broadway.

Although the United States always has been strong in the individual events, it never has won the pairs figure skating since it was introduced to the Olympics in 1924.

That, however, may change at Lake Placid.

For the first time in 29 years, an American team won the world pairs championship in Vienna in March and there is optimism that Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner can repeat their first-place finish in the Olympics.

Gardner and Babilonia, residents of different Los Angeles suburbs, finished fifth in the 1976 Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, and won the bronze in the world competitions in the next two years. They have won four U.S. titles in their nine years together.

Babilonia and Gardner will face a formidable battle to wrest the pairs gold in the Olympics from the Soviets, who have won the last four.

Irina Rodnina and husband Aleksandr Zaitsev, skating's longest-reigning pairs champions and the gold medalists in 1976, have won successive European and world titles since their first championship in 1973.

Rodnina, with a different partner, Alexei Ulanov, won the gold medal in 1972. Rodnina and partners have won the world championship 10 times, tying her with Norway's Sonja Henie, who collected 10 individual world championships.

Rodnina and Zaitsev might have broken that record in March were it not for the arrival of baby Zaitsev, who forced his parents into temporary retirement.

The Soviet couple's absence from the world championships may be the reason for the Babilonia-Gardner victory, some contend.

Others argue that the Soviets would not have had an automatic lock on the championship since the judges appear to be giving more weight to style and finesse recently than they did in the past.

The pairs competition in ice dancing premiered in 1976 at Innsbruck, where Ludmilla Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov of the Soviet Union took home the first gold.

Because the event is so new, it is diffcult to calculate U.S. chances, but two outstanding American teams compete at the world championships - Stacey Smith of Claymont, Del., with John Summers of Vienna, Va., and Carol Fox of Westland, Mich., with Richard Dalley of Lathrup Village, Mich.

Other potential U.S. champions to watch in the scramble for an Olympic team berth are:

In women's figure skating, Lisa Marie Allen of Garden Grove Calif., who finished sixth in the world championships, and Carrie Rugh of El Segundo, Calif., who was 11th.

In men's figure skating, Scott Cramer of Colorado Springs, who finished fifth at the world competition, and David Santee of Parkridge, Ill.

In pairs, Vicki Heasley of West Covina, Calif., and Robert Wagenhoffer of Fontana, Calif., ranked second nationally, and Sheryl Franks of Lexington, Mass., and Michael Botticelli of Weston, Mass., ranked third.

Roy Winder, executive director of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, said he believes the Americans' chances are "pretty solid."

"Linda Fratianne is not going downhill, she's coming up and should have a very good chance to win the Olympic medal," Winder said.

"The men's competition is going to be more difficult. It's been mixed in the last couple of years. There is hope in Charlie Tickner. In that past, he's been fairly inconsistent, but in the last couple of years, he's been pretty consistent.

"There may be a standoff in the pairs between Tai and Randy and the Russians. But Tai and Randy have been looking better and approaching (the Russians') ability. In the dancing pairs, I don't know because it's so new and seems to be dominated by the East Europeans."