September 29, 2000

Fall of a Giant

Print More

Rarely in the world of athletics can someone so dominate a sport that there is no doubt heading into a tournament about who the winner will be. And less frequently does that someone stay on top of his or her sport for more than a year or two.

Tiger Woods, if he can maintain his present playing skills, may be one. Carl Lewis is arguably another.

Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky were dominant athletes, but they had teams to support them at times. THE ‘AT TIMES’ SEEMS TACKED ON AS AN AFTER THOUGHT

Alexander Karelin is certainly one of these select few. For the last 13 years, the 130-kg (186-pounds) weight-class at every major Greco-Roman wrestling tournament was won by the Russian. Heading into this year’s Olympics, Karelin had given up one point in 10 years.

He first broke onto the scene at the 1988 Olympics where he captured the gold. The final match was the last time Karelin was challenged, as Bulgaria’s Rangel Gerovski was leading 3-0 with less than a minute to go.

But in that last minute, Karelin showed just how he would change the sport. In an event where attacks below the waist are not allowed, a heavyweight is rarely able to lift the competition off the mat. Karelin destroyed this conception, and executed the reverse waist-lift against Gerovski, earning five points and the gold medal.

Karelin, the only one able to use this move in this weight-class, has performed the so-called “Karelin Lift” over and over, destroying every opponent he has faced for all those years.

His dominance in the sport is nothing but unprecedented. Heading into these Olympics he was picked as “very close to a certainty for gold.” It has been said that beating him is impossible.

Many of his competitors have lifted their shoulders off the mat while in a penalty position, essentially allowing him to pin them, as opposed to suffer the pain and embarrassment of the Karelin Lift.

The only man who gave “Alexander the Great” any challenge for the majority of those 13 years was American Matt Ghaffari. In their World Championship match in 1993, Ghaffari broke one of Karelin’s ribs, yet Karelin still managed to win. By the end of Ghaffari’s career, Karelin had run his record against the American to 23-0, including a win in the 1996 Olympic Gold medal match.

In all, Karelin has racked up a ridiculous record — nine World Titles, 12 European Titles, and three Olympic golds. He was also the “Wrestler of the Year” in 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1994 according to international wrestling journalists.

But this amazing record is a reflection of his training regime — running through the waist-deep snow in his homeland of Siberia, carrying logs on his back and pushing sleds. He looks like the evil Russian in ‘Rocky IV,’ but he trains like Rocky.

Perhaps most amazing is that his ability as a champion goes beyond the mat. Karelin is rumored to be a fan of classical music and a lover of classical Russian authors.

As his wrestling titles have grown, so has his popularity in his country as he serves in the Russian Duma, the legislative arm of the government.

So when this great champion wrestled for his fourth Olympic gold medal last night, I was watching. Sure, I knew the results already, but I couldn’t believe it. I had to see it with my own eyes.

And when the big Russian broke his grip in the first minute of the second period, awarding American Rulon Gardner a point, I shook my head. Sure, I knew that was going to be the lone point scored of the match, but I kept cheering for the champion anyway.

With about eight seconds left Karelin seemed to give up, and I stared on in disbelief with a couple of roommates and a girlfriend wondering what was wrong with me.

While Gardner was celebrating with the crowd his miraculous victory, Karelin calmly walked to the locker room. Clearly depressed, one of the greatest athletes and champions in the history of sports ended his reign.

And as he disappeared into the locker room, I realized that God-like ability in anything is fleeting.

So while I would normally be cheering for the underdog, instead I felt a knot in my stomach about the destruction of an “all-powerful” being, and the difficulty of making a lasting impression on the world.

Perfection it seems, may simply be unattainable. Wednesday night seemed to prove just that, as the defeated Russian faded into the locker room and the inevitable progress of time has begun taking another champion from our memory.

Archived article by J.V. Anderton