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Alexei Nemov had taken up gymnastics when he was five years old. Such was his progress through the packed ranks of Russian talent factory, that he made is senior international debut just 11 years later, finishing fifth at the 1993 World Championships.
There was no doubt that he was supremely gifted, but he was also, by general consensus, very inconsistent. Brilliant at one moment, he would underwhelm the next. And he seemed to be developing a bad habit of underperforming at crucial moments.
So going into Atlanta 1996, the question was whether he would rise to the occasion or wilt in the Olympic limelight.
His Games debut got off to the ideal start as the Russian team took gold in the team combined event. It was a huge relief after Russia’s woeful showing at the previous year’s World Championships, where they had finished outside the medals. But now, inspired by Nemov and Alexei Voropayev, they beat their main rivals China by more than a point.
Would Nemov be able to use the team success as a platform for individual glory? The individual all-around title soon developed into an absorbing contest between him and China's Li Xiaoshuang. After five rotations, Nemov led by 0.48 points. The final rotation saw the Russian tackle the floor routine while Li moved onto the high bar.
The Chinese gymnast performed well, earning an impressive score of 9.787. Meanwhile, Nemov appeared to be faltering; a momentary loss of concentration during his routine meant that he missed out a full twist. The judges noticed and marked him down to a 9.7 – an outstanding score, but ultimately it was only good enough to give him the all-around silver.
He was not to be denied a gold medal on the vault, however, and there were also bronze medals on the floor, pommel horse and horizontal bar. With six medals in total, Nemov was the most decorated athlete of the 1996 Games. Four years later in Sydney he racked up an identical haul of two golds, a silver and three bronze medals.