The worst side effect of the end of the cold war is that, for Americans, beating the Russians has lost its meaning. If this were 1968 and a farm boy from Afton, Wyo., beat Alexander Karelin, a 130-kg Russian Greco-Roman wrestler who hadn't lost a match in 13 years, Rulon Gardner would have his own postage stamp.
Gardner, who was not seen as a medal contender, beat a three-time Olympic champion who had not given up a single point in 10 years, a man so intimidating that his last two opponents for a medal in Barcelona rolled over and pinned themselves rather than be pulped by the great Russian.
Gardner has the aw-shucks routine down pat. "I didn't think I could beat him. But I grew up on a farm where you just go forward and get the job done," he said. "Even though I wasn't thinking I was going to win, I was going to work as hard as I could." The only other time the two met, in a 1997 world-championship round, Karelin obliterated Gardner. "When he threw me, my feet almost hit the back of my head. That's not a good thing," he recalled.
Gardner, 29, an unorthodox wrestler, pressed up against Karelin, 33, to prevent the Russian from using his signature move, a head-over-heels throw. No points were scored in the first round. During the second round, Karelin amazingly unclenched his hold, which earned Gardner a point under Greco-Roman rules. Shocked judges reviewed the videotape of the moment. "He made a mistake, and I got a lucky call," said Gardner, who explained that the seeming impossibility of winning allowed him to grapple more conservatively. "He was the one who had to go out and win the gold medal. I would have been tickled pink to win the silver." With 5 sec. left in overtime, an exhausted Karelin, who was wrestling his third match of the day to Gardner's second, shocked the crowd by dropping his hands, surrendering and stepping away.
Gardner's profile makes Rocky look polished. The youngest of nine, who was teased in grade school for his freakish size, he gained his strength by working on his parents' dairy farm every day after school. "By the end of high school, I was carrying four bales of hay, 50 kg each, just walking with them," he said. After making the Olympic squad, he raised some $25,000 from Afton locals for the family trip to Sydney.
And then last week he beat a perfect Bond villain: the huge, opera-loving, poetry-writing, multilingual politician and friend of Putin. Still, without the politico-global resonance, the Miracle on the Mat won't get the attention it would have 20 years ago. "I hate to bring politics into wrestling. It's two great wrestlers from two good countries," said Gardner after the match. "Karelin is a world-class individual. I told him, 'You're still the best. There's nobody close to as good as you are.'" It almost makes you long for the Cuban missile crisis.