Gardner left it all on the mat after his bronze-medal match
Posted: Wednesday August 25, 2004 7:37PM; Updated: Wednesday August 25, 2004 7:37PM
In the end -- and this absolutely was the end for Rulon Gardner -- you knew it had to be the shoes.
Gardner, one of the greatest Olympians in U.S. history if the measurement is character and not mere medals, walked away from his sport Wednesday night. In ankle-length white sport socks. He left his size 13s in the center of the mat after winning a bronze medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, a gesture as pure in its simplicity as Gardner is simple in his athletic purity.
Greco-Roman wrestling is not the most comprehensible sport for non-initiates, meaning about 300 million Americans. The referee makes hand signals that need decoding, and a 2-0 lead at the end of the regulation time does nothing definitive except lead to an extra period.
But when Gardner slipped off his shoes and walked off the mat, his meaning was crystalline: He had left everything out of there, even his shoes. And now after beating an unwitting foil in a tough but callow 23-year-old Iranian named Sajad Barzi, he was going home. Everyone in Ano Liossia Olympic Hall in the gritty Athens district of West Attica understood; it was not Greek to them.
"You sit down as a kid and take off your [wrestling boots], and we all sit down the same way," a pensive Gardner said in the news conference following the match. "[Tonight] it felt [symbolic]. As a 4- or 5-year-old kid, I took them off, and now I took them off as a 33-year-old kid. That's it."
Symbolism is inherent in sports, nurturing the myths that are the underpinning of games that we play, infusing them with context and meaning and a sense of continuum. The Greeks who celebrated the first Games in 776 B.C. understood the need for ritual just as acutely as the world's greatest mythmaker, the IOC, which throws this quadrennial shindig replete with oaths and anthems and torches, does today.
All sports have their customs, their unique way of celebrating themselves, whether under the Olympic umbrella or not. The nets always come down at the end of a basketball tournament, one strand at a time. After beating up one another for seven games, hands will always be extended at the end of a Stanley Cup playoff series. For a retiring wrestler, it's the shoes.
Steve Fraser, the U.S. Greco-Roman coach, said he did not know precisely when and how this custom developed. Nor did Gardner. But he saw it a few times in the U.S. Olympic trials this summer, which planted the idea in his mind. Perhaps a half hour before his match against the Iranian, Gardner, who 10 hours earlier had been thrown in overtime in a semifinal match against a polished 23-year-old from Kazakhstan named Georgiy Tsurtsumia, announced to Fraser he intended to leave his shoes on the mat. There are entirely too many tears at the Olympics, but Gardner, whose right boot covered a missing middle toe lost to frostbite 2 1/2 years ago, should be forgiven for the ones he shed when he told his coach of the plan.
But Gardner wanted to do the shoe business the right way, the only way to perform a ritual. He did not want to be remembered as the bronze medalist who stole the headlines, who vaingloriously impinged on the gold-medal match. Gardner had had his moment four years earlier in Sydney, when he had beaten the seemingly invincible Alexander Karelin. He was determined that Athens would belong to someone who was saying hello, not goodbye.
So while the Iranian was protesting to the judge -- "What's the call? What's the call?" -- after Gardner's takedown 39 seconds into the extra period ended the match, Gardner was unlacing his shoes to be able to slip them off quickly after the referee raised his arm. (You do not wrestle in penny loafers.)
An American flag was passed down from the stands to his coaches and then to Gardner, who took it back to the circle with him. He sat for a minute, then abandoned the white shoes. He can spend the rest of his life in work boots or wing tips, but his wrestling boots -- which were later retrieved -- were finished. This was some great Olympic feet.
Gardner made the instant transition from just another arcane athlete to national celebrity in the time it took Karelin to unclinch his hands four years ago, handling everything with humor and grace and a special kind of down-home dignity. Maybe his run to gold in the 2001 world championships was more impressive to the coterie of Greco-Roman cognoscenti than his win over Karelin -- Fraser argues that -- but the five-ringed circus, a fortnight when the whole world can stare at a pair of shoes, made Gardner into an American folk hero. In Athens, he only embellished his story. Shoeless Rulon.
"Champions are made to be beat," said Shon Lewis, the U.S. assistant coach, "but legends live forever. He's a legend."
Abebe Bikila will be remembered for winning the 1960 marathon barefoot. Finnish distance star Lasse Viren will be remembered for taking victory laps in Munich and Montreal with shoes in hand to promote his sponsor. Michael Johnson, 200- and 400-meter wizard, will be remembered for his golden track shoes in Atlanta.
If Gardner has not added a new chapter in Olympic shoe history, at least he is a footnote.