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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Popov Returns for Moscow Meet

Alexander Popov, defying the years, has returned to his native Russia for one more challenge as he takes on seasoned title-holder Mark Foster in the shortest freestyle sprint at the world short-course swimming championships this week.

Popov joins an array of fellow world record-holders at the five-day meeting at the Olympiisky Sports Complex, beginning Wednesday, but a shadow has been cast by doubts over the participation of Australian distance freestyle king Grant Hackett, who is suffering from a virus.

"He has a bad virus. He was up all night last night, coughing and bringing up phlegm. It's a tough one because he had tapered for this meet," said Ian Hanson, the Australian team's media spokesman.

"The first signs were on the last day in Malmo [the team's Swedish pre-championship training camp]. He got off the plane [in Moscow] and felt like death warmed up. He had a light swim yesterday afternoon. He had a really bad night."

Hanson said Hackett was very, very doubtful for the 200 freestyle heats, which open the championships Wednesday. The situation will be reviewed day by day.

Popov, who turned 30 last November, secured a unique second Olympic golden double in sprint freestyle at the 1996 Atlanta Games and less than a month later sustained serious knife wounds when he was stabbed in the abdomen by a melon-seller in a Moscow street.

Invincible for most of the 1990s, he lost his Olympic 50 and 100 meters freestyle titles at the 2000 Sydney Games and pulled out of last July's world long-course championships in Japan because of illness.

Now back in Moscow for these championships with coach Gennady Touretski, the man who persuaded the swimmer to join him in Canberra in early 1993, he plans to compete only in the 50 freestyle and relays but should still relish another moment in the limelight in the city in which he set his last world record.

The Russian, who broke the 50 freestyle long-course record here in June 2000, faces a riveting clash with veteran defending champion Foster, winner of the 50 freestyle in three of the five previous editions of these short-course championships.

The Briton, at 31 even older than Popov, excels in the 25-meter pool and has declared his intention of beating his own world marks in both the 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly, events in which he sped to gold at the last world short-course championships in Athens in 2000.

"I really feel in fantastic shape and I'm going to Moscow expecting to break world records in the 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly while also winning both events," Foster said last week.

"I've set my sights high and have put a bit of pressure on myself but time's getting short. I've set myself realistic targets."

This could prove a spur to Popov. "Initially we didn't plan any records but Alexander doesn't like to lose, so it's quite possible that in order to win he would have to set a world record," Touretski told journalists after the pair's arrival at the weekend.

Hackett was expected to lead the Australian challenge in the absence of Ian Thorpe, winner of an unprecedented six gold medals at last year's Fukuoka long-course world championships but concentrating this year on the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, and Pan-Pacific championships in Yokohama, Japan.

"With Thorpe and [Michael] Klim out of the team, Hackett's the mainstay. He could well have won maybe four gold medals -- the 200, 400 and 1500 and the 4x200 freestyle relay," Hanson said. The relay is Thursday, the 400 Friday and the 1500 Sunday.

Ukraine's Yana Klochkova, double individual medley gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, will be out to prove herself No. 1 after suffering two rare defeats in the past year, losing the 200 medley to American Maggie Bowen at the world long-course championships and the 400 medley to Germany's Nicole Hetzer at the European short-course championships in Antwerp last December.

China, which dominated women's swimming in the 1990s before becoming embroiled in a protracted series of doping scandals, is on the march again, having reached rock bottom with no swimming medals at the 2000 Olympics.

Yang Yu and Chen Hua defend respective titles in the women's 200 and 800 meters freestyle, while Luo Xuejuan, 50 and 100 breaststroke long-course world champion, and Qi Hui, 200 breaststroke short-course world record-holder, give the women's line-up in a 21-strong squad an even more formidable look.