Karelin, Alexander

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Alexander Karelin


Russian wrestler

Russia's Alexander Karelin is the most successful Greco-Roman wrestler of the modern era, having won twelve European Championships, nine World Championships, and three Olympic gold medals during his reign. Karelin's dominance is unparalleled: he won every match he entered for thirteen years and went ten years without giving up a single point. He also is an opera and ballet aficionado, a student of great literature, and a member of his country's parliament. Karelin is so loved in his homeland that Russia mourned his loss in the 2000 Olympic finals, his first and only defeat in international competition. It's even been suggested that the 6-foot, 4-inch, 286-pound Renaissance man could someday become Russia's president. "You consider this ancient sport and this monumental man who's had a perfect career," said NBC commentator Jeff Blatnick, himself an Olympic gold medalist who lost to Karelin in 1987, "and the only thing you come up with is that he is what Hercules was to the ancient Greeks."

Siberian childhood

Karelin was born in Novobirsk, Siberia, where his great-grandparents, progressive intellectuals, had been dispatched against their will. Temperatures there can reach -50 degrees farenheit. Nicholas Davidoff described the city this way in Sports Illustrated : "For months its snow-covered sidewalks are traversed by men and women swathed to anonymity in wools and furs. Days are short and grim. Gray buildings line streets that eventually give way to the endless pine forests that long ago gave this brooding part of the world its name: Siberia, the Sleeping Land. Today, within some of those gray buildings aremore than 100 universities and research centers, an opera house admired internationally for its architecture and its programs, a ballet company and a circus." Karelin's father was a truck driver and his mother an office worker. He weighed fifteen pounds at birth and, as a boy, hunted on skis and built his strength hauling logs through the snow. Victor Kusnetzov, the only coach Karelin would ever have, convinced the boy to take up wrestling at the relatively late age of thirteen. He trained by running through thigh-deep snow two hours at a stretch and rowed a boat

on frigid lakes until his hands bled. He once carried a refrigerator, alone, up eight flights of stairs.

A terrifying maneuver

In 1986, Karelin lost only one matchto 6-foot, 5-inch, 280-pound world champion Igor Rostorotsky. The following year, Karelin became the world junior champion and a member of the Soviet national team. At the same time, he and Kusnetzov were refining a vicious wrestling maneuver that would make Karelin indomitablethe reverse body lift. The move was unprecedented for a heavyweight, because it requires the wrestler to lift his 280-pound opponenta feat that was unthinkable until Karelin came along. "To execute it, Karelin locks his arms around the waist of an opponent," John Greenwald explained in Time magazine, "then lifts the wrestler like a sack of potatoes and, arching his back, heaves the hapless fellow, feet first, over his head." Following the severe impact, Karelin would descend upon his opponent. Top heavyweights so feared the move that they would roll over and allow themselves to be pinned rather than being subjected to it. "When it happened to me, every hair on the back of my neck raised up," Blatnick told Sports Illustrated. "I was doing everything humanly possible to prevent him from lifting me off the mat. I weighed 265 pounds. I was in good shape. I was scaredintense fear. I don't like flying through the air like that. I kept thinking, 'Don't get hurt. Don't get hurt.' With him, it's almost a victory if you don't get thrown."

Soon, Karelin was defeating Rostorotsky regularly. In 1988, he won the European Championship and earned a super-heavyweight berth on the wrestling team Russia would send to the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. It was the beginning of an unprecedented thirteen-year winning streak that would elevate Karelin to the top of the wrestling world and to folk hero status in his native Russia. He won the Olympic gold in Seoul in 1988 and again in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. He won the European Championship for nine consecutive years, from 1988-96, and again in 1998, 1999 and 2000. And he won the World Championship from 1989-91, 1993-95, and 1997-99. "You can't beat him until you score on him," said Mitch Hull, national teams director for U.S. wrestling. "And Karelin's not allowing anyone to score. Guys just can't get any position to move him."

A political career

In 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin's Unity Party selected Karelin to run for a seat representing his hometown in the parliament. Karelin was elected in December 1999, although he disliked campaigning: "They told me to grow hair instead of having my favorite short haircuts. They told me I should not drive sport-utility vehiclesbut I don't fit in a regular car. Finally I said, 'Maybe you want me to pierce my ears and nose, paint my cheeks, use lipstick and makeup? Look, the people who vote for me see me every day as I am. I don't have to pretend to make them like me.'"

Karelin loves the opera, theater and ballet, voraciously reads Russian history and literature, and writes poetry. "This is a highly talented man," said Larisa Mason, a graduate of Leningrad State University who has served as an interpreter for Karelin. "His knowledge and his feeling for poetry, literature and music are incredible. He is witty, full of puns and constantly embellishing his language with passages from books and music. And he is a big teddy bear, too."

A brilliant career ends

Finally, the impossible happened. Alexander Karelin lost a match. In one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, American Rulon Gardner, a relative unknown, defeated Karelin 1-0 in the super-heavyweight finals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. In overtime, Gardner was able to wiggle free of Karelin's grasp, avoiding the dreaded reverse body lift and scoring the first point against the Russian in a decade. It was enough for the gold medal. Karelin earned silver; Russia was devastated. "Karelin lost," the country's main sports newspaper said in a front-page column. "The great and unbeatable champion, who had never stood on the second step of the medals podium, ascended to it yesterday as to a gallows."


1967Born September 19 in Novobirsk, Siberia
1980Takes up wrestling at age 13
1988Wins Olympic gold medal in Seoul, South Korea; also wins European Championship
1989-91, 1993-95, 1998-99Wins European and World Championships
1992Wins Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, Spain; also wins European Championship
1996Wins Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, Georgia; also wins European Championship
1997Wins World Championship
1999Elected to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament
2000Wins European Championship
2000Wins Olympic silver medal in Sydney, Australia; also wins European Championship
2000Retires from wrestling

Awards and Accomplishments

1985Wins Espoir World Championship
1987Wins World Cup Championship
1988Wins European Championship
1988, 1992, 1996Olympic gold medals
1989-91, 1993-95, 1998-99Wins European and World Championships
1997Wins World Championship
2000Wins Olympic silver medal
2000Wins European Championship
2003One of the first 10 inductees into the new International Wrestling Hall of Fame

Alexander Karelin retired from wrestling in 2000 to devote himself full-time to his legislative responsibilities. He lives with his wife and three children in a mansion in Novobirsk, Siberia, his hometown. "Greco-Roman is an original Olympic sport," he once said. "I like the idea of being a classical man, of belonging to a classical tradition."



"Alexander Karelin: Russian Greco-Roman Wrestling." Time International (September 18, 2000).

Clark, Kim. "Wrestling with Demons." U.S. News & World Report (October 9, 2000).

Davidoff, Nicholas. "A Bruiser and a Thinker: Soviet Greco-Roman Wrestler Alexander Karelin is a Rare Combination of Massive Physique and Imposing Intellect." Sports Illustrated (May 13, 1991).

Dolgov, Anna. "Russia Laments Losses at Sydney Games." Associated Press (September 28, 2000).

"Famous Wrestler Alexander Karelin Goes in for Politics." Pravda (English language version) (April 25, 2001).

Greenwald, John. "Alexander Karelin." Time (September 11, 2000).

"International Hall Planned for Stillwater." Associated Press (January 13, 2003).

McCallum, Jack. "Bumper Crop: By Beating the Unbeatable Karelin, U.S. Farm Boy Rulon Gardner Reaped a Stunning Golden Harvest." Sports Illustrated (October 9, 2000).

"Russian Wrestler Karelin Says He Won't Compete in Another Olympics." Associated Press (October 13, 2000).

Stein, Joel. "Rulon Gardner." Time (October 9, 2000).

Tresniowski, Alex. "Giant Killer." People (October 16, 2000).

Sketch by David Wilkins