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Russian legend

Popov looking to add to his swimming legacy

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Latest: Wednesday August 16, 2000 12:16 AM

  Alexander Popov Alexander Popov earned a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at last month's European Swimming Championships. Ross Kinnaird/Allsport

MOSCOW (Ticker) -- Very few swimmers in the world can boast the same records as Alexander Popov. And Russia rarely has had a bigger legend in the pool.

While the last few years have taken Popov further from his homeland and closer to death, he'll be aiming for a third Olympic gold medal for Russia next month in Sydney, Australia.

Among Russian swimmers, perhaps only Vladimir Salnikov was of the same caliber as Popov. Salnikov had no equals in the world in the 1,500 meters in the late 1970s-1980s, and he captured gold at Seoul in 1988. But Salnikov was a long-distance swimmer, whereas Popov is the king of the sprint -- a discipline marked by many years of American supremacy.

Popov won seven gold, one silver and one bronze medal in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events at five European championships from 1991-99. At the world championships in 1994 and 1998, he won three golds at the same distances.

Having broken many world records and won Olympic gold at Barcelona and Atlanta, Popov sees only one motivation to keep competing in the swimming pool -- to become the first swimmer in the world to win three Olympic golds in the most prestigious 100-meter event.

Popov has two Olympic golds in the 100 freestyle. He won his latest in Atlanta the hard way, beating American Gary Hall in his "home water" under the eyes of president Bill Clinton, who saw the gold swim away from the American team.

Only the famous Tarzan -- Johnny Weismuller -- has two golds of this caliber in his collection (1924 and 1928). But that was long ago, before Popov's parents were born.

Now, the Russian wants to become the first swimmer in history to win three Olympic golds in the 100 freestyle.

It is typical of Popov to strive and stand out. While most contemporary swimmers wear the new tight bodysuit to steal precious fractions of a second from the treacherous clock, Popov deliberately continues to swim in the traditional bikini-like suit. And his old-fashioned preferences didn't stop him from beating the rising star of world swimming, 21-year-old Peter van den Hugenband, earlier this year at the European Championships.

Hugenband stole the European gold from Popov a year ago in Istanbul. That was a hard blow for Popov's self-esteem because the young Dutchman won all five events in which he participated and was faster than Popov in two individual events and two relays. This year, Popov took his title back from van den Hugenband, leaving little doubt as to who remains the world's top male sprinter.

Even though many observers rushed to write him off the list of contenders for the Olympic gold in Sydney, Popov confessed that if he felt he wouldn't be able to compete with Hugenband, Australian Michael Kim and company, he would "find some pretext not to participate, not to cover himself with shame."

In fact, some sports observers believe it is his practice partner -- Kim, like Popov a pupil of Gennady Turetsky, who is the only potential obstacle between Popov and his third Olympic gold.

And to think that Popov's career -- and life -- could have ended years earlier.

Shortly after the 1996 Olympics, Popov was walking by a fruit market in Moscow with friends when an argument broke out. Vendors threw a stone that slightly touched Popov's head. A dagger then was placed in Popov's back and went as deep as 15 centimeters and hit both a kidney and one lung. It was surgeon Avtandil Manvelidze, who saved Popov's life and sporting career.

Popov made a swift recovery, but keeps a scar on his back and a lesson in his head about how precious and fragile human life is.

As a result of the episode, Popov rarely spends more than a few days in Moscow.

Since 1993, he has lived in Canberra, Australia, where he practices with Turetsky. After the collapse of the Soviet system of elite sports, training conditions were lacking in Russia, and Australia proved to be a better option. Though he spends more time in Australia, Popov's loyalty to his homeland remains intact.

At one point in the past few years, Popov reportedly was approached by the organizers of the Sydney Olympics, who offered him an Australian passport in exchange for lucrative financial compensation. Popov responded with a soft diplomatic refusal.

Had he accepted Australian citizenship, Popov would be a national hero of the "green continent," earning millions of dollars in endorsement contracts. Now, if Popov wins his third Olympic gold, he will be eligible for a $50,000 cash bonus promised by the Russian government and personally by president Vladimir Putin -- if these are not delayed again as was the case with the money for Russian Olympic medal winners at the 1998 Winter Games.

And yet, Popov categorically refuses to switch national colors. In a recent interview with the Russia daily Izvestia, Popov said he would stay on the Olympic podium only under the Russian tricolor flag "because his homeland is Russia."

"I am not selling out, even for one million Australian dollars," Popov said.

This should quiet those domestic critics, who gave Popov a hard time for looking for a better life in Australia -- to which the doyen of Russian Olympic athletes, wrestler Alexander Karelin, replied, "What difference does it make where the man lives, if he is still loyal to his country?"

Such loyalty is indeed worthy of another record Popov can register in his name. Yet, there is irony. Whereas Popov has a street in Sydney's Olympic village named after him, a walk down a street in Moscow nearly cost him his life.


 
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