Host City: Atlanta, United States
Date Started: July 20, 1996
Date Finished: July 26, 1996
Participants: 762 (417 men and 345 women) from 117 countries
Youngest Participant: Hem Reaksmey (12 years, 320 days)
Oldest Participant: Manuela Dalla Valle (33 years, 186 days)
Most Medals (Athlete): 6 athletes with 4 medals
Most Medals (Country): United States (26 medals)
The 1994 World Aquatics Championships had been considered a failure for the American team as their haul included only two individual titles amidst just four gold medals. The story of those championships was the sudden emergence of Chinese women not just as a major force in the sport but as a team with an overwhelming dominance to match the East Germany of the 70s and 80s.
China won 12 of the 16 women's titles in Rome and appeared to be on course to match that achievement in Atlanta.
What happened at the [Georgia Tech Aquatics Center] came as a surprise. The Chinese team that competed in Atlanta was a shadow of what it had been two years earlier and left with only a solitary gold medal to its' name. Instead it was the home nation that provided some of the great moments in the pool. Led by the combative Amy Van Dyken, who won four golds to emerge as the most successful swimmer at the Games, the US took 13 gold medals which was three times as many as the next best nation.
The other great star of the Games came from a nation which had very little heritage of success in the sport. Ireland had competed in swimming since 1928 but had never produced an Olympic finalist in all that time. Suddenly they had a multiple Olympic champion on their hands but not one without a touch of controversy. Before 1994 Michelle Smith was a moderately successful performer who had never reached a major final but, at a relatively late age for a swimmer, she made a vast improvement under the tutelage of her soon-to-be husband Erik de Bruin, a Dutch discus thrower who was serving a drug ban at the time. Smith was the outstanding performer at the 1995 European Championships and carried that form into Atlanta where she won three gold medals. Her rise from obscurity was the subject of much speculation during the Games although she passed every drug test in Atlanta. In 1998 she was banned by the International Swimming Federation who alleged that she used alcohol, specifically whiskey, to tamper with her urine sample.
Elsewhere Penny Heyns won both breaststroke titles to become South Africa's first Olympic champion of the post-Apartheid era whilst Krisztina Egerszegi ended her Olympic career with a third successive title over 200 metres backstroke.
On the men's side Aleksandr Popov retained the 50 and 100 metres freestyle titles he had won in Barcelona and was joined as a double champion in Atlanta by his compatriot Denis Pankratov who was unbeatable at butterfly. Danyon Loader was another winner of two Olympic titles in 1996 and, more importantly to those in his home nation, was the first swimmer to win gold in New Zealand colours. His two golds were New Zealand's only successes in the pool. In contrast Germany, although second in the number of medals won with 12, failed to convert any into an Olympic championship.