Alexei Nemov grew up in Tolyatti on the Volga River. His father left him and his mother when Nemov was just a baby, and Nemov has never seen him since. Alexei started gymnastics at age five.
As a 16-year-old he made his debut at the 1993 World Championships, placing fifth on floor. The following year, he stamped himself as a true all-around contender, winning his qualifying session at the Worlds. He later faltered and dropped to 12th overall. He won his first major all-around title at the Goodwill Games in Saint-Petersburg, beating his 2nd-place teammate and World Silver Medalist Aleksei Voropaev by over one point. Nemov's style of gymnastics was considered very well-rounded; he had complex acrobatics, a unique style, and elegance when he performed.
Despite promising initial international success, in 1995 he gained a reputation for having inconsistent performances. In the all-around at the 1995 European Cup, Nemov, then 19, was the leader after five events and had put up the high score on three events. When he came to high bar, he only needed an 8.75 to win the title. He missed his two major release moves, crashed into the bar on another release move, botched a required element, and stopped in the middle of his routine. He scored a 7.35 and dropped to ninth overall.
A few months later, Nemov competed in the World Championships in Sabae, Japan. The Russian team had a disastrous showing during the qualifying round—finishing in 11th place. Nemov was in 96th all-around. The team rebounded in the finals to finish 4th overall (still a disappointment since it marked the first time in decades that the Russians failed to medal in the team competition), while Nemov put up the highest optional score of all the competitors. His compulsory round ranking prevented him from qualifying to the all-around finals, however.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, US, Nemov seemed poised to win the gold. Nemov won six medals (two gold, one silver, and three bronze). He performed solidly in the all-around, battling World Champion Li Xiaoshuang every step of the way. He ruined his chances for gold, however, when he botched his middle tumbling run on the final event. He finished in second by a narrow margin.
While many questioned Nemov's dedication and fitness level, he continued to excel. Several shoulder injuries, as well as his marriage and the birth of his first son, along with perceived inconsistencies in character were cited as evidence of weak gymnastics prior to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. This led to increased concerns about Aleksei's lack of a major title. However, as a high performance athlete, Nemov went into the Sydney games in the best shape of his life – having never seen his newborn son (born in September 2000), and was able to take home to his son what he called a golden rattle, in reality an all-around gold medal. More than anything though it is important to note that Nemov was the last of the Soviets and the first of the Russians. He was a relic of the old era in his style and training and an indicator of the new in his personality.
Although injury took its toll, Nemov competed through to the 2004 Athens Olympics, mainly as an anchor for the fledgling Russian team. Though unable to defend his all-around title, Nemov's performances brought the house down in Athens, and placed him in the middle of a judging controversy. After performing a routine with six release skills in the high bar finals (including four in a row – three variations of Tkatchev releases and a Gienger), the judges posted a score of 9.725, placing him in third with several athletes still to compete. The crowd erupted in a chorus of boos and cheers upon seeing the results and interrupted the competition for nearly 15 minutes. The judges felt the pressure of the crowd, reevaluated the routine, and increased his score to a 9.762, which still placed him out of the medals. The crowd continued their raucous protest, subsiding only after Nemov stepped up to the podium and pleaded with his supporters to quiet down for the sake of the other athletes.
This scandal was considered one of the last straws after several judging controversies in the competition, such as the scoring controversy involving Korean gymnast Yang Tae-Young, and prompted a massive reconstruction of the scoring system which was implemented in 2006. The rule changes are credited as having encouraged more acrobatic activity and increasing difficulties on the high bar apparatus seen in later competitions. Nemov rarely criticised the judges or the situation. The Russian Olympic Committee later awarded Nemov $40,000 in recognition of his class and character, and he retired from gymnastics soon after.
He currently lives in his hometown of Tolyatti with his wife Galina, and his son Alexei.