This was supposed to be a coronation, not a competition. At the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, Aleksandr Karelin (Russia) was supposed to become just the third athlete ever to win Olympic gold in the same event four consecutive times. The event he so dominated, of course, was Greco-Roman wrestling.
It wasn’t just the Olympics that he dominated. Karelin was a legend, even to a kid growing up on folkstyle wrestling in Oklahoma who only saw high-level Greco on television once every four years. He was the only Russian wrestler I could identify on sight thanks, in large part, to the Asics poster with a picture of Karelin, in the middle of performing his famous reverse lift, and a caption that read “Train Like a Madman”. The look on his face and his incredible physique made him seem like some kind of nightmare. To his opponents throughout his 13-year undefeated run, including winning world-level titles every year from 1988 to 1999, he was just that.
On his way to the final in Sydney, Karelin was his usual dominant self. He didn’t surrender a single point. This was not surprising as he had not given up a point in the six years prior. His opponent in the final would be American Rulon Gardner. Gardner was a good wrestler, but by making the finals he had already far exceeded pre-tournament expectations. He had never placed higher than fifth in the world before Sydney. He had faced Karelin before and lost 5-0. Every sign pointed to this being another victory for Karelin while Gardner left Sydney, head held high, after a surprising silver medal.
There is a lot going on in this match despite the 1-0 final score. Just over one minute into the match, Gardner is put down for passivity. This is when it should have all gone wrong for him. Karelin is still fresh and his reverse lift series is so difficult to defend. Twice Rulon leaves the mat and looks to be in trouble, but both times he is able to unbalance Karelin and prevent the throw. He survives the first trip underneath, but there will be more.
After a scoreless first period, the two wrestlers began the second in the clinch. Karelin won the flip and got to lock first. It is clear on the video that Gardner’s 54-inch chest makes it difficult for Karelin to lock around him, but it also makes for a tight lock. Rulon, on the other hand, has a loose lock that slides around easily. This is key as the period begins and Rulon has trouble keeping his lock around Karelin’s chest. It keeps sliding up around Karelin’s neck and head. Just as it looks like Gardner’s lock will come completely off of Karelin, the impossible happens. Karelin loses his grip.
It happened so quickly, and Karelin got his lock back without much delay, that there is confusion amongst the officials as to what the call should be. They go to a video review as the arena holds its breath. When they finally, correctly, award Gardner a point it is a huge moment, but the match is not over. Karelin, knowing he must score now, is relentless in trying to push Rulon’s head down or gain a lock around Gardner’s giant chest. His efforts are not fruitful but earn him two more passivity calls against Gardner, one in the second period and one in the overtime forced when neither wrestler scored three points in regulation. Neither time is he able to come as close to throwing Rulon as he did in the first period.
As the seconds tick down, Karelin continues to attack, but the story remains the same. Gardner is able to consistently stay in position, fight Karelin’s hands and avoid making a mistake. With five seconds remaining, Karelin concedes! He steps back, knowing he is beaten, and allows the clock to expire. Rulon Gardner has won the Olympic gold medal in Sydney!
After the crowd goes crazy and Rulon does his goofy, yet endearing, celebration that includes a cartwheel and a somersault, we are left to ponder, how did this happen? Under earlier Greco rules, it probably would not have. Before the clinch, this sort of match might have gone to a referee’s decision after three periods. Given that Gardner was warned three times for passivity and Karelin was only hit once, in addition to Karelin’s reputation, Karelin almost certainly wins in that scenario. If Karelin keeps his lock just a few seconds longer, he wins. If Karelin, as he usually did, throws Gardner when he had him lifted in the first period, he wins. He had so many chances, but Rulon’s defense, and perhaps a bit of luck, were just enough to spawn a legendary upset and a moment that wrestling fans will remember forever!