Gold Medal Swimmer Stabbed in Argument

Olympic gold-medal swimmer Alexander Popov, who just over a month ago said he feared for his life in Atlanta after a bomb exploded during the Games, was recovering Monday after being stabbed in Moscow following a street argument with a watermelon dealer.


According to Gennady Alyoshin, president of the Russian Swimming Federation, Popov was attacked at about 11 p.m. Saturday night on Michurinsky Prospekt, in the Yugo-Zapadnaya region, after he and a friend came to the defense of two female friends who had become embroiled in an argument with the watermelon dealers.


Alyoshin, who spoke to Popov at length in the hospital, said the swimmer was fortunate to have been picked up by an ambulance just minutes after the stabbing occurred.


"Alexander lost a lot of blood and was critically wounded, and if it wasn't for a quick and excellent job by the doctors who performed surgery, his life would have been in real danger," he said.


Interfax reported Monday that one man had been arrested in connection with the attack, but police spokeswoman Lydia Lankina said that the Interfax report was "premature."


"We don't know where the report came from, but we have no information about any arrest," she said.


Although Popov's athletic career initially appeared to be in doubt, close acquaintances were optimistic Monday about his chances to return to the pool despite a punctured lung and kidney and serious head injuries.


"I think most will depend on his will power, and we know Alexander as a very determined person," said Alyoshin, who visited Popov on Sunday. "His first words to me were: 'I will swim again.'"


Popov came to Moscow a week ago from San Francisco, where he had been visiting friends after the Olympics. In Moscow, Popov was staying with a friend, Leonid, in a the bombing, when the entire Australian Olympic swimming team had been in the park only minutes before the blast," said Popov, who maintains close relationships with several Australian swimmers. "I was in real shock, and didn't feel comfortable going anywhere outside the Olympic village."


At the time, Popov dismissed rumors that he may move permanently to Australia and would represent that country in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.


"Everyone knows me as Russian, not Australian, and I intend to represent my native country for the rest of my athletic career," he said. "I chose to live in Australia strictly because of my coach and not for any other reason."


Several Russian hockey superstars, including Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny, requested bodyguards at all times during their stay in Moscow last week while they trained for the ice hockey World Cup.


Another top Russian athlete, diver Yelena Miroshina, 21, was found dead in December at the foot of her apartment building, and the investigators believe she had been pushed from her window by an unidentified assailant. The case remains unsolved.


Despite the fact that the latest incident appeared to be a case of random violence, Alyoshin said it was time to pay closer attention to the safety of Russia's top athletes.


"We don't have such an abundance of Olympic champions that we can ignore an attack on one of our best athletes," he said. "We need the public's help to rid our city of such criminal elements."


Popov won two gold and two silver medals in swimming events at this summer's recent Atlanta Olympic Games.