Outside the doping control station at the Georgia World Congress
Center last night, one of the greatest Greco-Roman wrestlers of
our time slumped in a chair--elbows on knees, eyes staring at
concrete. Rivulets of sweat dripped from his gargantuan head
onto the floor, forming a puddle near his feet. Moments earlier
Aleksandr Karelin had extended an unbeaten streak that spans
more than nine years. It hadn't been easy.
"Your toughest match in nine years?" he was asked.
"Not so tough," he replied.
The scoreboard, and the puddle of sweat, told a different story.
Karelin and a bulldog from Paramus, N.J., named Matt Ghaffari
wrestled each other for the 13th time, and reality slapped
Ghaffari in the face again. Karelin, 45-0 in Olympic and world
championship competition since his last loss, in 1987, won his
third Olympic gold medal in the 286-pound Greco-Roman class,
besting Ghaffari 1-0 on an early takedown.
Strange match. As is his custom, Ghaffari sprinted from the
locker room to the mat to music from Rocky. He came out
head-slapping and seeking an early edge against the man he has
become obsessed with beating. No such luck. Two minutes into the
match Karelin grabbed Ghaffari near the edge of the mat, shoving
him down and earning the lone point. For the next six minutes
the two grizzlies pawed at each other, sweating profusely,
working each other into exhaustion. "Once he scored," Ghaffari
said, "he knew he had it won. I just can't score on the guy. He
doesn't give you an opening."
Karelin inspires that kind of awe. The man he had beaten in the
morning semifinals, Panayiotis Poikilidis of Greece, said
afterward, "I will be honored to tell my children I wrestled
this great man." Ghaffari has a poster of Karelin in his locker
at training camp in Colorado Springs and a portrait of him in
his living room. On Monday night Ghaffari went to bed in the
athletes' village and dreamed the dream he has had so many
nights for so many years. "I pinned him," Ghaffari said. "Then I
picked him up and told him, 'You're a great champion.'"
Just last year at the world championships, Karelin whipped
Ghaffari 10-0. Last night, though, was no time for moral
victories. "I lost to the better man," said Ghaffari, who cried
on the medal stand and later in the privacy of the locker room.
"I got the silver, but I let my country and my teammates down."
Fellow U.S. wrestler Brandon Paulson was happy to take home the
silver--and a surprise. Paulson, a Minnesota wrestler in his
first season of international competition, was outpointed 5-1 by
Armen Nazaryan of Armenia in the gold medal match of the
114.5-pound class. "I achieved a lifetime dream for millions of
people," Paulson said. "I won a silver medal in the Olympics."
Silver is an alloy with which Karelin is unfamiliar.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Karelin (left) and Ghaffari went at it for eight minutes. [Aleksandr Karelin and Matt Ghaffari]