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The giant falls

Unheralded American slays Russian wrestling legend

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Latest: Wednesday September 27, 2000 02:08 PM


SYDNEY, Australia -- We were all waiting to see the shoes. Russia's Alexander Karelin, perhaps the greatest wrestler in history, was supposed to dispose of a not hapless but certainly hopeless American named Rulon Gardner in the super heavyweight final (130 kilograms or 286 pounds) Wednesday night to win his fourth Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. Then, according to protocol, Karelin was going to dispose of his shoes, leaving them in the center of the mat as a sign that he was hanging it up, offering them as a token to the wrestling gods.

It didn't happen. In one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Games, the unheralded Gardner, who next to the massive Karelin looked like the school nerd being led to slaughter by the school bully, made a second-period point stand up in a 1-0 victory to earn the U.S. its first Olympic gold in wrestling since 1984.

"I still think he's the best wrestler in the world," said Gardner, "but tonight belonged to me."

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It's almost impossible to overstate the prodigiousness of Gardner's upset. Karelin -- who routed Gardner 5-0 in 1997, the only other time they had met -- had not lost an international meet in 13 years. Opponents rarely register a point on him, never mind a victory. He has been unleashing his devastating lift-and-slam technique on opponents since he first burst onto the scene in the mid-'80s, but it's not as if he's an over-the-hill champion trying desperately to hang on. If, at 33, Karelin is not in his absolute prime, he is not far from it. His body is still thickly muscled, his mien is still fearful. He still looks like a man against boys. In Atlanta four years ago he was coming off shoulder surgery and looked vulnerable against a strong Matt Ghaffari, who was able to repel Karelin's efforts to lift and slam him. But the Russian used all of his strength and experience to make a 1-0 lead stand up to win his third gold. "That's when he had the chance," said Karelin, a man of few words, "and he didn't do it."

Gardner, who had beaten Ghaffari to make the U.S. team, didn't look like the wrestler to do it, either. He is a roundish man with a crewcut and somewhat of an innocent baby face. He has a comically large chest that measures 54 inches, but it's not a sculpted 54, and, indeed, some loose skin protrudes from his wrestling singlet. But Gardner has heart and a seemingly limitless aerobic capacity, the latter being a rare quality in the super heavyweight division, where matches often degenerate into tedious grunt-and-groan affairs. "My best chance is to get a guy tired because I'll just keep on going," said Gardner.

Will Karelin keep on going? Well, he rarely talks when he wins and he had nothing to say after this devastating loss, which he accepted graciously but glumly. Perhaps the defeat will discourage him and be the final wedge that drives him into retirement. Or perhaps it will motivate him to keep on going. There were, after all, no shoes left in the center of the mat.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and Check back daily to read McCallum's behind-the-scene reports from Down Under.

Related information
Jack McCallum: Wrestler who sued to make team earns silver
Archive: Sports Illustrated at the Olympics
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