He leaned across the lane line and shook the hand of the champion. A rare sight indeed-Alexander Popov loses few races.
While Pieter van den Hoogenband smiled for the cameras and declared that the race was the greatest of his life, the czar of swimming slowly swam up and down the width of the diving tank. The doping control personnel, the reporters, and unbelievably, the people who gather the winners for the medal presentations, all waited patiently for Mr. Popov to stop swimming, and steadily climb from the warm-down pool. Still a giant, literally and figuratively, those who needed him to perform their functions approached him carefully. No one knew what to say to a hero who has shown that he really is only human.
When tentatively asked the question, "Alexander, may I get a flash quote from you?" he had nothing to reply; he merely nodded his head as he moved to his bag. Kneeling down he retrieved his towel, but left his head lowered for some time. His face showed no anger, just pain. Not physical, but emotional. One can only imagine the thoughts running through his mind. Eight years is a long time to go unbeaten-the word "invincible" takes on colossal meaning.
Surrounded by teammates who stared in silence, one wonders what they could possibly say that even Denis Pankratov dares not utter. "You can ask your questions whenever," he finally said. In respectful terror, the question was poorly phrased. "Are you going to do anything differently next season to prepare for the Olympics?"
"I am not going to tell you."
An uncomfortable silence before the next question, "Okay, well what do you think were the weakest areas of your season?"
"That is difficult to say. We did many things differently this year and some of them did not work. We have some different things to try next year, so we will see."
Not wanting to be swatted away like the parasite I was, I thanked him politely, and went back to report my findings.
Gracious, controlled, calm, and curt, Popov was without excuses. He again took van den Hoogenband's hand on the medal podium. He posed with him for photographs and sat for nearly 45 minutes in a press conference answering questions, his head slightly lowered for the duration.
He warmed up as time passed, his answers grew longer, and when taken aside, he did admit to missing his coach. "Gennadi (Touretski) has other swimmers to worry about too."
Yes, it seems that Popov now plays second fiddle to his Australian training partners. Unfortunately for Popov, Touretski's paycheque comes from the Aussies, not the Russians. And it is his same Aussie teammates that make millions of dollars more than Popov does.
At the Short Course Worlds this year, Touretski summed it up best by explaining there can be motivational problems when one of your athletes gets paid ten times what you do and the other gets paid half. Popov made no excuses, although there seem to be some. His preparation must have suffered somewhat as he underwent knee surgery in January and only returned to form in June.
There are few who truly know how well Popov was prepared for Istanbul. The most telling comment he made was when he declared that he did not think he would have to go a 48.4 to win Europeans. Popov has never had to swim that fast to be the best in Europe and perhaps he really is thinking only about next season.
Although Pieter van den Hoogenband now is the man to beat in Sydney, do not expect Alexander Popov to roll over and play dead. The man was not an undefeated champion for eight years because he gave up easily. The changing of the guard is not yet official.