Russian swimmer Aleksandr Popov had made an explosive Olympic debut at Barcelona 1992, winning two individual gold medals in the 50m and 100m freestyle, along with two relay silvers. Four years on, by the time he arrived in Atlanta, he was firmly established as a superstar of the pool, known the world over and was regarded by many as being almost unbeatable in his favoured events.
Remarkably, Popov had been scared of the water as a child, and only took up swimming at the age of eight. It quickly became clear that he had a stunning affinity for the water. In the four years following Barcelona the Russian remained unbeaten in the 50m and 100m freestyle at all major championships, and ahead of the Atlanta Games, he himself claimed nobody could beat him.
His greatest threat looked set to come from the USA’s Gary Hall. Their head-to-head in the 100m proved to be a thriller, with Popov surging into the lead, only for Hall to catch him and move ahead at the turn. The Russian then responded himself and the two men stayed level until the final 10 metres, when the reigning champion pushed slightly ahead. He won by a margin of just 0.07 seconds, making him the first swimmer to retain the 100m freestyle title since Johnny Weissmuller in 1928.Getty
Three days later the two rivals met again in the 50m final. Once again they produced a close contest, but again it was Popov who edged it, this time clinching the gold by a margin of 0.13 seconds.
Popov added another couple of silver medals in the relays to complete another hugely successful Games. Later that year, his career was nearly ended in dramatic circumstances when he was stabbed by a street vendor. After emergency surgery he made an incredible recovery, and quite remarkably was able to defend his 50m and 100m titles at the 1997 European Championships. He went on to win silver in the 100m freestyle at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and also competed at the Athens Games four years later before retiring at the age of 32.Getty