By Daniel McLaughlin
In 1992 and 1996 he swept the gold medals in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle. In 2000 he faltered. Can Alexander Popov make an amazing Olympic comeback this year in athers at the age of 32?
Alexander Popov is not a man who gives his time, or his secrets, away easily. One of the finest sprinters in swimming history, he goes into the Athens Games with his sights set firmly on the medals and records that could win him the mantle of "greatest ever" and, at his training camp in Switzerland, all distractions are dismissed.
"I only give interviews over the phone to two journalists," he told PASSPORT, in fluent English honed during a decade living in swimming-mad Australia. "And you are not one of them."
He wasn’t rude or rushed, but his brush-off brooked no dispute. It carried a hint of the steel that has infuriated and inspired Popov’s competitors for more than a decade. They have spent most of that time – since Popov abandoned backstroke to try freestyle in 1990 – in the wake of the two-meter-tall champion from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. Under the guidance of Gennady Turetsky, the controversial coach who persuaded Popov to switch strokes, successive waves of young challengers have fallen before his unparalleled grace through the water, and poolside aura of brooding invincibility.
Popov took gold medals in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics, becoming the first man since Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller in 1928 to defend the 100-meter crown, and the only man to triumph twice in the 50-meter. Between late 1990 and January 1998, Popov triumphed in every major international event in which he competed – a winning streak that included 15 European, four Olympic and three world championship races. But at the Sydney Games in 2000, Popov could only manage sixth in the 50-meter freestyle and silver behind Dutch prodigy Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 100-meter, performances that, for him, represented abject failure. Rivals like van den Hoogenband, Australian Ian Thorpe and American Gary Hall Jr., thought their time had come. They prepared to exploit the champion’s fading powers, just as he had in putting a sudden and brutal end to the reign of U.S. star Matt Biondi at the 1992 Olympics.
But Popov had other plans and, after taking a year away from the pool in 2001, he began rebuilding his form, and relocated to Switzerland from Australia. And he kept his faith in Turetsky to help orchestrate the second unlikely comeback of his career – the first being his recovery from potentially fatal stab wounds after a row with a watermelon vendor in Moscow in 1996.
At last year’s World Championships, he stunned the field with a series of extraordinary sprint performances, taking gold medals in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, and beating van den Hoogenband and Thorpe in the process. His victory, at the age of 31, made him the oldest world champion in history, and the first swimmer to regain a world title and the second to win the same title three times. After those wins, Popov suggested he might finally call it quits after Athens, and focus on his work with the Russian Swimming Federation and International Olympic Committee, of which he has been a member for five years. "I started my career in Athens in 1991 and it will be a complete circle to finish it there," he said. Few are betting against him bowing out with at least the two medals he needs to take his total Olympic haul to 11, and tie with the mark set by Biondi and U.S. legend Mark Spitz.