Super heavyweight wrestler Alexander Karelin, 33, is a terrifying, glowering tower of a man, a 286-pound Greek statue, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips. Coming into the Sydney Olympics, he had not lost a Greco-Roman match in 13 years. Only one point had been scored against him in 10 years. He'd won gold in the past three Olympics. He once bought a refrigerator and carried it home--and up eight flights of steps to his apartment. He is a legend.
The gold medal had all but been conceded before the competition began. Certainly no one expected it to be won instead by Rulon Gardner, a Wyoming farm boy who had never won an international title in his life. Yet tonight at Sydney Exhibition Centre, Gardner--also 286 pounds, not all of it muscle--defeated Karelin for the gold medal, 1-0.
Call it the Miracle on the Mat.
"I cannot believe I actually won," said Gardner.
Eight miles away at the Olympic Baseball Stadium, the U.S. team was staging a miracle of its own, defeating Cuba, 4-0, to bring the gold medal home to the country that considers the sport its national pastime. Neither the baseball win nor Gardner's victory can match the sheer amazement surrounding the 1980 Miracle on Ice, when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians at the Lake Placid Games. But both victories are high on a list of improbable U.S. triumphs on the Olympic stage.
"It's our game," said U.S. baseball manager Tommy Lasorda. "We can't let anybody have our gold."
Baseball may belong to America, but Greco-Roman wrestling does not. Only two Americans had won Olympic gold in the sport before Wednesday night's match. International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch was among those who never envisioned adding a third to that list. He attended the match, intending to present Karelin with his fourth gold medal afterward.
Joining Samaranch was a full house of roaring fans that included former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. They looked on in stunned disbelief as Gardner withstood the withering attacks of Karelin, the stare-downs, the head-slaps and attempts to pick him up and use him as a human piledriver.
And he did the unthinkable--he scored a point halfway through the match on a technical call so close it had to be reviewed on videotape for confirmation, then hung on through overtime for the upset of these Games, and one of the biggest of any Olympics. Even more unthinkable, with eight seconds remaining, Karelin dropped his hands, conceding his first loss.
"What does this mean?" said U.S. Coach Steve Fraser. "He just beat the best wrestler in the history of wrestling."
Both wrestlers had humble beginnings, but the similarity ends there. Gardner grew up as the youngest of nine on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyo., population 1,400. He wrestled at the University of Nebraska, but has competed mostly in obscurity in a sport that is overshadowed in America by its staged cousin, professional wrestling.
"The biggest thing I said to myself was, 'Don't quit,' " said Gardner. "Coming from where I come from, with the life I had, I've been the underdog all my life. As the youngest of nine on a dairy farm, life was never easy. We'd get up and milk, haul hay, change the pipe, then go to school, wrestling practice, and come home and milk all over again. From where I started--not even a wrestling state--it's amazing what happened here."
Karelin grew up in Siberia but is now regarded as a superstar in Russia. He travels by helicopter with coaches, masseurs and doctors, owns a casino and hotel and was elected to the Russian Parliament after running on the advice of his friend, President Vladimir Putin.
"With his history," said Gardner, "there was awe. All I could do was do my best--throw it out on the mat and see what happens."
It was the first Olympic gold for a U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler since Jeff Blatnick won in 1984.
Gardner, 28, may have been the beneficiary of a common Olympic boost that comes to those of whom little is expected.
He defeated Matt Ghaffari for the right to come to the Games. Ghaffari, a silver medalist in 1996, had fought Karlin 22 times over his distinguished career--and lost 22 times. Gardner, on the other hand, had fought Karelin just once before, at the 1997 world championships, and lost, 5-0, when Karelin lifted him and flipped him feet-first over his head.
Gardner remembers it well. "It frightened me to face the strength he had. It was like pushing on a horse. He picked me up three times to try the reverse body lift and the last time he finished it."
But Wednesday night Gardner, would not be moved. Over and over Karelin tried to hoist him but Gardner squirmed or battled free. "The key was just knowing I was strong enough to stop him from picking me up and finishing the lift. The only way I could compete was dig, dig, dig and never give up."
Greco-Roman wrestling differs from freestyle in that competitors may attack their opponent only above the legs. All moves and holds are on the upper body, which puts a premium on bull-like strength.
Gardner scored his improbable point after a scoreless three-minute first period when the two circled and clashed like butting wildebeests, no one gaining an advantage. Under the rules, after a scoreless first period, officials toss a coin and the second period starts with the two standing and clasping each other around the chest. The coin-toss winner gets to make the initial clasp.
It's a significant advantage, but under the rule he must maintain the clinch until he scores or the opponent breaks free. Karelin lost the point when Gardner briefly broke the clinch. Karelin's hands flew apart for a split-second as the two grunted and heaved.
Officials were unsure enough that it actually happened to stop play and check a videotape, which clearly showed the Russian's hands parting. One point went up and Gardner had an edge he needed to hold for only 4 1/2 minutes.
When it was over, Gardner did not do a flip as smaller Greco-Roman wrestlers often do to celebrate. That might have literally brought down the house. But he did a cartwheel and rolling somersault, then raced around the arena like a gamboling rhino, waving the U.S. flag.
Karelin stole off without saying a word. Gardner talked and talked. Then he was off, charging bull-like into a huge throng of admirers, the unlikeliest hero of the 2000 Olympics.