Alex Popov on Olympic Double Defense: ‘It’s Probably Twice as Hard’

Alex Popov

Alex Popov on Olympic Double Defense: ‘It’s Probably Twice as Hard’

No matter what unfolds in the sprint events at next summer’s delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo, another Olympiad will pass with Alex Popov standing alone, his career celebrated in our 20th anniversary feature this month. The Russian sensation, a 2009 inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, is the only man to capture the sprint double at back-to-back Games. And because Anthony Ervin and Kyle Chalmers are the reigning titlists, respectively, in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle, there will be no double in Japan.

After sweeping the 50 and 100 freestyles at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Popov repeated in Atlanta in 1996. How impressive is Popov’s feat? Consider that American Matt Biondi is the only other man to complete the sprint double, doing so at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the first year the 50 freestyle was contested at the Games.

Because the sprint double was not achievable until late into the 20th Century, some might scoff at the fact that we are lauding Popov’s achievement. The questions and arguments can be heard as the keys are pressed. What if Johnny Weissmuller had a chance? Surely, Duke Kahanamoku could have done it. Yes, they might have, but history says otherwise, and it will not change.

During an hour-long interview with Brett Hawke on his podcast, Inside with Brett Hawke, Popov discussed his repeat double. That segment was one of several intriguing discussions Popov had with Hawke, the two-time Olympian for Australia who has made his podcast a must-listen show.

“The first time is easy because you’re a newcomer and you don’t have anything to lose,” said Popov, who was coached by Gennadi Touretski. “So you just go. If you come to defend, it’s probably twice as hard to win the Games. And every other time, it becomes twice as hard. So, there’s a mathematical progression.”

In search of a double repeat, Popov recognized the importance of viewing each event in compartmentalized fashion, and not looking at the big picture. In Atlanta, Popov first took care of business in the 100 freestyle, then retained his 50 free crown three days later.

“The big relief was after the 100 because it was very difficult to start, and start well,” he said. “Once you start, it just starts to roll down the hill and you just have to steer it, steer it in your head emotionally and psychologically, and the body does what it does the best. It does the job and whatever you trained for.”

Popov found the chase for a trifecta unmanageable at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where he earned silver behind Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 100 freestyle and placed sixth in the 50 freestyle. Gold in the shorter distance was won by Americans Gary Hall Jr. and Ervin, who tied in 21.98. Four years earlier, Hall was the silver medalist behind Popov in both sprints.

There is no mistaking the animosity that existed between Popov and Hall, who exchanged barbs on several occasions during their careers. Hawke asked Popov about the rivalry, and the Russian was matter of fact in his response.

“You know, (bleep) happens,” Popov said. “We were all pretending. There is only one first place. For instance, if I beat you or beat someone else, if you are pretending to take their place, I wouldn’t like it. Nobody would like it. It’s just normal in sport. On the other hand, I think it made it a bit more interesting.”


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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Bruce

    Your articles/video re Popov are exceptional.

    A positive contribution to my knowledge “bank” – such constructive articles are welcome. Love to hear Alex discussing his pool and dry land training in more detail.

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