Work in Sports
Proving he belongs
Wrestler who sued to make team earns silver
SYDNEY, Australia -- Conjure up this scenario: As the U.S. men's basketball team prepares for the Olympics, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd are engaged in a nasty, name-calling, one-on-one showdown on a side court to see who is going to play point guard. And in the process one of them (well, it would've been Payton) calls team officials a bunch of criminals. Think it would be distracting?
U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling coach Dan Chandler had just about that exact problem with his squad. "We took two different team photos because we didn't know who was coming," said Chandler. "So, yes, I'd say it was distracting. But that's all forgotten now."
If not forgotten, then the discord was temporarily buried when an intense, bearded 31-year-old John Malkovich lookalike named Matt Lindland stood on the podium and watched the U.S. flag get raised to the silver medal position Tuesday.
Lindland? Wasn't he the weasel who sued to get on the roster? You mean the guy can actually wrestle? Well, Lindland came within a few points of a gold medal in the 76-kilogram class (167.5 pounds), leading a charge that has made the U.S. Grecos one of the surprises of the Games, not that many Americans are noticing.
Lindland, who competed and coached at the University of Nebraska, had on eight occasions before the Olympic trials beaten his No. 1 rival in his weight class, Keith Sieracki, an Army sergeant. But Sieracki won the deciding bout between them 2-1 in overtime on a referee's decision.
Lindland claimed he had been tripped and filed a protest. There followed a heap of arbitration too vast to delineate here but, after the USOC finally (it thought) put Sieracki on the team ahead of him, Lindland said, "I think they're all criminals. I think USA Wrestling and the USOC are criminal and corrupt. There's something crooked going on." Did you get the message? Lindland, determined not to give up, continued to pursue arbitration and, finally, the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, put him on the team.
After all this, did the guy have pressure on him to wrestle well or what? Some observers thought Lindland looked tired by the gold-medal match against Russian Mourat Kardanov -- enervated, perhaps, by the long struggle to get to Sydney. Lindland insisted he wasn't and felt he would've had a better chance to beat Kardanov had he been able to get the match into overtime. It looked that way from matside, too. Lindland fell behind 3-0 in the first three-minute period but was definitely the aggressor in the second. He could just never muster quite enough leverage to throw the Russian and get back in the match, losing by that initial margin.
Lindland is not the only U.S. Greco who made his mark in Sydney. Garrett Lowney dominated Konstatinos Thanos of Greece 3-1 to win the bronze medal at 97 kg (213.75 pounds) and Rulon Gardner (130 kg, 286 pounds) is through to the final, where he may beat Russian legend Alexander Karelin.
But Lindland is the man of the moment, and he deserves better than being remembered just for his litigiousness. Take a look at his almost comically cauliflower left ear, disfigured by hours and hours of torture on the mat, and you see someone who earned his way to Sydney. "Look, I'm sorry I had to get on the team the way I did," said "Malkovich" after his match. "I wish it didn't happen. But I felt the best wrestler should be the one who to come. And that was me."
No argument now.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read McCallum's behind-the-scene reports from Down Under.