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Take one look at the Russian, Alexander Karelin (menacing, muscular, mysterious) and his American opponent, Rulon Gardner (crew-cutted, chubby-cheeked, cream-pie-soft), and the outcome of this gold medal Greco-Roman heavyweight match seems foreordained. The celebrated Karelin, 15 pounds at birth, hardened by a boyhood spent hauling logs and rowing on the frigid lakes of his native Siberia, his mind molded by doses of Dostoyevsky, surely will annihilate the unknown Gardner, an athlete, yes, but one no doubt with a background of TV watching, Nintendo playing and Whopper consuming. Karelin, 33, is on the downside of a career that has put him among the Olympic gods, but when he finally loses—if he ever loses—it will be to some hungry Hungarian, some massive Moldavian or maybe Bulgaria's Sergei Mourieko, a.k.a Baby Karelin, widely considered the second-best super-heavyweight at the Sydney Games. But it won't be to this Gardner.
In the audience on Sept. 27 is IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has apparently decided that he's the only one worthy of hanging on Karelin's thick neck a fourth gold medal, an unprecedented number in Greco-Roman wrestling.
The match begins, and it is, like most superheavy bouts, a tugging and pulling contest, but any second the 6'4", 290-pound Karelin, who last lost in 1986, is expected to lock both arms around Gardner's midsection, hoist him over his shoulder in a move known as a reverse lift and launch the American so that he lands on his pumpkin head. That's what Karelin did to Gardner three times in 1997, when during their only previous meeting Karelin drubbed him 5-0, a margin of victory comparable to 10-0 in baseball. "I landed so hard," Gardner says, "the back of my heels almost came around and touched my head."
This time, however, Gardner repeatedly repels Karelin and then takes a 1-0 lead early in the second period when Karelin makes a small, rare mistake. Karelin is the aggressor and Gardner is twice called for passivity, but it's not as if Gardner is pulling a rope-a-dope. He's merely refusing to bend under Karelin's pressure. Concern begins to appear on Karelin's chiseled face as the match goes into overtime (mandatory when neither wrestler has scored at least three points), and soon something more telling appears: fatigue. Karelin's eyes narrow, his mouth hangs open. At every break in the action he puts his hands on his hips and gasps for oxygen.
Then, with five seconds left in the overtime, Karelin simply bows his head in resignation. Gardner remains crouched in the center of the mat, wary of a ruse, but the match is over. Karelin has lost to a man whose most impressive credential is a fifth-place finish in the 1997 worlds. Karelin looks dazed as the referee holds up Gardner's hand. In a few minutes Karelin will stand on the podium and hear the national anthem of a country other than his own, something that has never happened to him.
A Russian journalist pounds the press table over and over, lowers his head and puts his hands over his eyes. How could it have happened? How could the Greco-Roman world have turned so topsy-turvy that, within an hour, the great Karelin will be ripping the medal off his neck "as if it were a black mark, not an Olympic silver," as one Russian newspaper will put it the next day? At the same time Gardner, gold around his thick neck, will be continuing the most eventful night of his life, one that will take him to Michael Johnson's birthday party at Planet Hollywood. And on Sunday night, as the U.S. athletes march into Sydney's Olympic Stadium, how is it possible that an athlete whom virtually no one outside the wrestling world had ever heard of until four days before will be carrying the American flag, his smile stretching from ear to ear? Well, consider this: It turns out that where Gardner came from and where Karelin came from aren't so different after all.
On the 250-acre dairy farm in Afton, Wyo., where Reed and Virginia Gardner raised their nine children, things were so quiet in the evening that as teenagers Rulon and his older brother Reynold got so they could recognize which friend was approaching by the sound of his car. The friends dropped by, in twos and threes, asking if the brothers wanted to abandon their chores for a drive into town. The answer was always no. There was usually something else to be done around the farm, and, anyway, beer drinking and carrying on weren't options for the Gardner kids. They were Mormons.
Life in the Star Valley in western Wyoming was hard. Maybe not as hard as life in Siberia, but damn hard. For nine months a year Rulon rose between 4 and 5 a.m. to complete his chores before school, and it was worse in the summer because there was no leaving the farm for classes or after-school sports. Rulon got it coming and going. Reed thought Virginia babied him a little, and Rulon had a sometimes rocky relationship with his father. Reynold, 16 months older, had a knack for arranging the unassigned tasks so that Rulon got the more odious ones, like shoveling cow muck, the family's polite word for manure. "As an older brother, I felt that was my job," says Reynold, referring to sticking Rulon with the dirty work. At school Rulon was called Fatso and was chided for coming to school with muck stains on his shoes. He rarely struck out at his tormentors, and his round face, innocent as an unshucked ear of corn, was usually bathed in a smile. Still, the insults toughened him, made him a little hard inside.
In 1979, when Rulon was eight, the Gardners had a terrible year. The Fatso jokes were plentiful, the milking barn burned down, a side business of Reed's (selling livestock feed) was failing, and Rulon's 14-year-old brother, Ronald, died of aplastic anemia. The Gardners had to borrow $150,000 to rebuild the barn, and life became even harder—hand-me-downs and simple meals and no vehicles except those needed to get around the farm. "It was hard on everybody," Reed says. "Maybe it made us tougher in the long run."
A lot of things made the Gardners tough. Though the boys didn't look like athletes, they were strong and fit. Rulon and Reynold picked up newborn calves in the field as easily as others picked up a puppy. They tossed rocks into dump trucks. They heaved bales of hay, pitched pails of milk, made a competition out of changing irrigation pipes, which were 30 feet long and 50 pounds heavy. Sure, Karelin may have carried a refrigerator up eight flights of stairs, as the story goes, but Rulon invested a lot of hours pushing and tugging recalcitrant 1,000-pound cows. Moreover, he was doing it at Afton's 6,100-foot elevation, building his lungs and his aerobic capacity to that of a long-distance runner.