Thursday, September 28, 2000

Wrestler turns Olympics on its head

        SYDNEY, Australia — It wasn't Lake Placid, if only because Greco-Roman wrestling isn't hockey. Greco-Roman wrestling isn't even freestyle wrestling, which isn't exactly a glamour sport. Greco is the original, if arcane, style of wrestling. It's older than the Olympics.

        So there is a good chance Rulon Gardner's epic win in the 130-kilo final Wednesday will be just another pleasant American tale of boy-makes-good. Another gold ribbon to hang on the U.S. tree.

        But understand: This was like reversing the Mississippi River with a coffee mug.

        Gardner beat Alexander Karelin 1-0 in overtime. It was unexpected; it was stirring; it was one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

        “I don't know where to start,” Gardner said afterward.

        How about here:

        Karelin, a Russian, hadn't lost in 13 years. He's the Yankees times 10. He has three Olympic golds and nine world titles. He'd given up exactly three points in the last eight years. He has a forehead like a banquet table.

        The other wrestlers call him The Experiment.

        Remember Ivan Drago, the villain from Rocky IV? “I must break you.”

&nbsnbsp;     Karelin takes that to a whole new dimension.

        I must maim you and eat your liver.

        I must body-slam you back six generations.

        I must show you the end of days.

        Most of the wrestlers in the 130-kilo class are on the porcine side. Karelin is 6-foot-4 and 286 pounds. His specialty is the reverse body lift, which is as bad as it sounds.

        “Maybe inhumanly strong,” said Mitch Hull, a U.S. wrestling official.

        And maybe Wednesday, a little old, at age 33. Also, a little weary. It was his third match of the day. “Get him tired and don't get scored on” was the advice Gardner took from his coaches. “He's got to be feeling his legs. His lungs have got to be burning a little.”

        Karelin had three chances to score on Gardner, with a lift, a turn or both. He couldn't. Gardner scored the only point of the match when Karelin unlocked his own hands while the two were in the clinch position to start the second and final period.

        We told you Greco was arcane.

        No matter. “When did I actually think I could beat him? About 10 minutes ago,” Gardner said. He's from Afton, Wyo., population 1,400. His family runs a dairy farm.

        When someone asked him what it was like to wrestle The Experiment, Gardner said: “It kind of frightened me, to feel the strength he had. If you ever get a chance, go to a dairy farm, get up against a cow and push it. It's like that. The only difference is, he's a little quicker.”

        After he won, the 287-pound Gardner turned a cartwheel and a front somersault. He draped a U.S. flag over his father, Reed's, shoulder.

        “A coach told me once, "A farm kid knows how to get the job done,'” Reed said a half-hour later, still wrapped in the flag. Reed brought his wife and eight other kids; Rulon is his youngest. “On a farm, you milk cows twice a day. That happens to be 730 times a year. That's tough.”

        And so, on this glorious day of stubborn eloquence, was his son Rulon, who beat the great Karelin.

        “Kids called him fat,” Reed recalled. “I don't think they would do that anymore.”

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.


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