Ask Alexander Karelin to name his greatest challenge, and he will tell you about the time he outwrestled a refrigerator that weighed nearly twice as much as he did. Clamping a bear hug on the appliance, the 6-ft. 3-in., 286-lb. Russian hoisted it off the floor. "It was a huge fridge," he recalls, "and I carried it to my apartment up eight flights of stairs."
Humans have even less of a chance against Karelin, 32, a super-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler who has won gold medals in each of the past three Summer Games. In fact, the Siberian native has never lost in international competition. His streak extends 13 years, an astounding record. No wonder Karelin is a bogatyr — a folk hero — in Russia, where he represents his home town in the Duma (the Russian parliament) and holds the rank of colonel in the customs police.
And just what — besides massive size — makes him virtually invincible on the mat? First and foremost, says Mitch Hull, national teams director for U.S. wrestling, "he's maybe inhumanly strong." American wrestler Matt Ghaffari, 38, who has spent his career trying to defeat Karelin, can unhappily vouch for that. In Atlanta the 6-ft. 4-in., 286-lb. Ghaffari wept in frustration on the silver-medal stand after he extended Karelin into overtime, but still lost. "I wrestled my heart and soul out," he says. His performance was so moving that he is now sought as a motivational speaker. He can certainly speak to never giving up: he is 0 for 22 against the Russian.
Strength is paramount in Greco-Roman wrestling, which doesn't allow a competitor to take down an opponent by attacking his legs. That places a premium on lifts and throws. Such tactics are common in lighter weight classes, but Karelin — "King Kong" or "The Experiment" to fellow wrestlers — is the only super heavyweight with the strength to hoist a 290-lb. foe and fling him to the mat, in a maneuver the Russian calls a "reverse body lift." To execute it, Karelin locks his arms around the waist of an opponent, then lifts the wrestler like a sack of potatoes and, arching his back, heaves the hapless fellow, feet first, over his head.
Just the thought of such punishment can make men quake. Take the '92 games in Barcelona, where Karelin dispatched two frightened challengers in the semis and finals without breaking a sweat. Both opponents obligingly rolled onto their back to avoid being lifted and airmailed. "They were so afraid of that," says Hull, "that they practically let themselves be pinned."
For all his glaring menace, Karelin — who weighed 15 lbs. at birth — has a gentle side. A fan of opera (particularly Mussorgsky), ballet and theater, he is especially fond of poetry and has written verse. This Bunyanesque figure is a husband and the father of three children, including a daughter who was born this year.
As a national hero, Karelin enjoys advantages unknown to other athletes. "There's not another wrestler in the world who travels with a helicopter and a massager and two or three doctors and coaches," declares Ghaffari, who says he and Karelin regard each other with mutual respect. Small wonder that when Russian President Vladimir Putin's Unity Party needed a boost last year, it picked Karelin to run for a legislative seat. Today the wrestler denies rumors that he wants to be President. "It's a totally different level of responsibility," he says, "and I am not ready for it." Just running for parliament was hard enough. "For the first two weeks," he recalls, "I regarded it as a personal humiliation. People watch you too closely. They want you to answer their questions, explain things, joke, sing and dance. I felt like a clown."
Karelin and his campaign managers gave one another fits. "They told me to grow hair instead of having my favorite short haircuts. They told me I should not drive sport-utility vehicles — but 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.'"
Mat rivals hope that the rigors of politics will help wear Karelin down. They note that his matches have got closer of late, with the Russian winning by 1-0 and 2-0 scores. "I truly think he's beatable," says Steve Fraser, national coach of the U.S. Greco-Roman team and a light-heavyweight gold medalist in 1984. Fraser says Rulon Gardner, America's No. 1 super heavyweight, will try to outwork Karelin and exhaust him on his feet. (Ghaffari is an alternate.)
There's just one problem. "You can't beat him until you score on him," says Hull. "And Karelin's still not allowing anyone to score. Guys just can't get any position to move him." That's because, of all the Olympians in Sydney this month, Karelin is the closest to being both an immovable object and an irresistible force.
— With reporting by Victor Gusev / Moscow