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September 23, 2000
When Popov spelt perfectionDerek Parr
Alexander Popov has been toppled from his Olympic pedestal but he will always rank among the greatest swimmers in history.
Pieter van den Hoogenband and Gary Hall, who clinched the Olympic titles the supreme stylist Popov won at the 1992 and 1996 Games, paid tribute to the fallen king after his defeat in the 50m freestyle final on Friday.
That result denied him a historic treble of three consecutive Olympic titles in a single men's swimming event.
"I have great respect for what Popov has achieved. He's a legend," said Van den Hoogenband, who consigned the 28-year-old Russian to the silver medal in Wednesday's 100m freestyle.
"What he does for swimming and his country is amazing. If you beat him, it's a little bit more special than beating someone else."
Hall, runner-up to Popov in the 50m and 100m freestyle at the 1994 world championships and 1996 Olympics, shared victory with fellow American Anthony Ervin in Friday's 50m freestyle as Popov trailed sixth.
"He's been the guy to beat for a long time. We had a legitimate rivalry. I don't know if that's where it ends," Hall said.
"It was very satisfying to beat him -- not because of the rivalry but because he's a great swimmer."
Popov has won everything since he first unfolded his talents on the senior international stage as a 19-year-old at the European championships in Athens in 1991, when he claimed the first of five European 100m freestyle titles.
A year later, he proved himself the best in the world when he took the Olympic 50m and 100m freestyle crowns from American Matt Biondi, winner of five golds at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Popov remained invincible for six years, completing 50m and 100m freestyle doubles at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, the 1994 world championships and the 1993, 1995 and 1997 European championships.
The 100 freestyle world mark of 48.21 which he set in Monaco in June 1994 stood right up to the Sydney Games when Michael Klim chipped 0.03 seconds off it as Australian relay lead-off swimmer and then Van den Hoogenband went an astonishing 47.84 in Tuesday's semi-finals.
Popov was the first man since Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller to win the Olympic 100m freestyle title twice in succession and he showed the toughness of a Tarzan himself soon afterwards.
A melon-seller stabbed him in the abdomen on a Moscow street a month after his Atlanta Olympic triumphs but that did not stop Popov for long. "There's no need to worry. We're going to be walking soon -- and swimming," the patient said from his bed in the hospital intensive care unit.
Popov was back and winning at the European championships in Seville a year later, although unaccustomed defeats lurked around the corner.
American Bill Pilczuk took his 50m freestyle world title in 1998 -- though the Russian retained his 100m crown -- and Van den Hoogenband handed him heavy beatings in both the 50m and the 100m at the 1999 European championships in Istanbul.
Popov, however, was still swimming fast in Istanbul -- his 100 time in defeat was quicker than all but one of eight preceding major championship victories -- and he bounced back faster than ever this year, confounding all those who had written him off.
In June he broke the 50m freestyle world mark of American Tom Jager which had stood for more than 10 years and in July he reclaimed his European 50 and 100 freestyle titles from Van den Hoogenband.
Even when defeated by the Dutchman in Wednesday's 100m freestyle final, Popov's 48.69 was the second-fastest of his 11 major championship 100s, bettered only by his 48.61 in July's Europeans in Helsinki.
Popov followed his coach, Gennadi Touretski, to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra in 1993, where he lives with his wife, former swimmer Daria Shmeleva, and their son Vladimir.
Popov, who turns 29 in November, must be nearing the end of his illustrious career but what will stay in the memory when he decides to depart, more than the titles and records, will be the immaculate excellence of his style, his calmness under pressure and his control in a race.
While his rivals flail the water in the usually forlorn hope of beating him, the long-limbed Popov sweeps through with a stroke of smooth elegance as close to freestyle perfection as anyone could hope to see.
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