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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Champ Shifts Home, Not Loyalties




THREDBO VILLAGE, Australia -- Alexander Popov was talking about his wife and young son, and about struggling to find the motivation to keep pulling his long, lean, extraordinarily supple body out of bed and through the water well before dawn. And as he talked about the changes in his life and his attitude on the terrace of a hotel in this mountain resort, he calmlybrushed away fly after fly.


"The Australian salute,'' he joked, as his big hand moved languidly left and right in the midst of a southern hemisphere summer.


Popov, the most successful Olympic swimmer of the 1990s, has been living in Australia since 1992, long enough to pepper his English with colloquialisms, long enough to begin building a house in the Australian capital of Canberra, but not long enough to change his mind about the nation he represents.


A number of other coaches and athletes from the former Soviet Union have switched allegiances, including pole vaulters Tatyana Grigoryeva and Dmitry Markov, who both compete for Australia, or Lenny Krayzelburg, the backstroker who is now breaking world records for the United States.


But Popov has remained loyal to Russia in name if not address. He reads as much Tolstoy as his weary body will allow; he watches the Russian language news, which is aired each morning on an Australian cultural channel. His wife is the former Russian Olympic swimmer Dary3a Shmeleva, and their 2-year-old son, who not surprisingly has already begun to swim, is named Vladimir.


"I made my reputation as a Russian swimmer, and I plan to remain a Russian swimmer,'' he said.


And Popov's decision is costing him, particularly with the Summer Olympics in Sydney coming into full view and his sport about to be showcased as it has rarely been in this country, where swimmers are icons and their races often televised in prime time.


If Popov, the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, were Australian, he would be on billboards and television screens and feathering his nest for the retirement that is expected in the wake of his third Games.


"If he were Australian, he'd probably be making close to 1 million Australian dollars a year in endorsement deals,'' said Rob Woodhouse, an agent, who won a bronze medal in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles in the 400-meter individual medley.


That would mean more than $600,000 U.S. a year for the world's greatest freestyler. Instead, he must settle for considerably less than that and considerably less than the annual amount earned by his training partner Michael Klim - or by the world's latest freestyle sensation, a 17-year-old swimmer from Sydney, Ian Thorpe.


Popov may find the Olympics even drier than the sponsorship situation. Sydney will be different from Atlanta, where Popov held off the young American Gary Hall Jr. to become the first man to defend the 50 and 100 freestyle Olympic titles. In 1996, Popov was still a cut above the opposition, but his aura of invincibility is no longer intact.


In 1998 he was beaten in the final of the 50 freestyle in the world championships in Perth by the American Bill Pilczuk, and last August in Istanbul, he was beaten in both the 50 and the 100 freestyle at the European championships by the new Dutch star, Pieter Van den Hoogenband. Popov is still the record-holder in the 100 freestyle, but his record of 48.21 seconds is six years old. While young men like Van den Hoogenband, Klim and Thorpe are improving in the 100 freestyle, the 28-year-old Popov must now find a way to improve once more, as well.


"They seem to be going in progression: Atlanta was harder than Barcelona, and Sydney will be harder than Atlanta,'' Popov said. "I'm not 21 or 24 anymore. Maybe you're a bit more experienced, but there are some other guys in the field who are pretty fast at the moment, and they are young and sort of hungry, and you are sort of the lazy cat who sits in the chair and asks, 'What am I here for?'"