Work in Sports
The giant falls
Unheralded American slays Russian wrestling legend
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."
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 CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read McCallum's
behind-the-scene reports from Down