The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The story of the Sydney 2000 super heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling final.
It’s a classic tale of David vs. Goliath... if both David and Goliath were 130kg Greco-Roman wrestling gladiators.
But use your imagination a little. To say that one of these challengers was an underdog would be a colossal understatement.
In this case, Goliath was ‘The Russian Bear’ Aleksandr Karelin. At 1 metre 93 cm tall, Karelin was an immense physical specimen.
Over the past 13 years of competition he hadn’t lost a bout. Not even once.
His career record going into the final was 887 wins and one loss. And nobody had even scored a point against him in seven years.
Karelin’s awards included 12 consecutive European Championships, nine consecutive world championships and three consecutive Olympic gold medals – the last of which had come in Atlanta where he had suffered an injury in the final, leading to him essentially winning the gold medal with one arm.
Was he human? Probably not in the normal sense of the word that includes weaknesses and doubts.
Coming up against this formidable Goliath was our David, AKA Rulon Gardner, a Wyoming dairy farmer with very little international pedigree.
His training for the Olympics began on the farm, where he wrestled cows to get into shape.
Would the cow-grappling farmer have what it takes to beat one of the greatest sportspeople of all time?
In the first of the two three-minute rounds, Karelin attempted his signature move – the reverse lift. To pull-off the move successfully a wrestler needs to lift the entire body of their opponent off of the ground before twisting them around in the air and landing them underneath their own body on the floor.
It is a move most wrestlers had deemed impossible, due to the immense strength required to perform it.
Karelin wasn't most wrestlers.
Over the years, the move he had become a master at performing usually led to one outcome – victory.
But if Karelin wasn't your average human being, neither was Gardner, who was extremely physically imposing. His large frame made it impossible for Karelin to lift him from the ground and, by the end of the first round, the scores were even.
In the second round, as the two wrestlers grappled for superiority, Karelin made a huge mistake. While both men had their arms locked around each other, Karelin broke his lock first. This seemingly insignificant movement brought into play a recent rule change that meant the USA's Gardner was awarded a point to lead 1-0.
Incredibly, the Russian Bear found himself losing a bout for the first time in seven years.
The rules of Greco-Roman wrestling are such that if the two-round bout ends with one person leading by only a point, the match goes to overtime. And so the Sydney 2000 final moved onto a nail-biting three minutes of action that would decide the Olympic gold medallist.
Karelin once again attempted the reverse lift. Gardner held strong.
As the bout moved towards its conclusion, it seemed as if the Russian athlete – once thought of as invincible – was tiring in front of the crowd's eyes... perhaps even looking human.
Finally, the bell tolled and Rulon Gardner was pronounced Olympic champion.
The underdog had triumphed. David had beaten Goliath, and the world of wrestling would never be quite the same again.
Karelin immediately retired from the sport, leaving his shoes on the wrestling mat as a symbol he would never fight again. Gardner on the other hand became something of a celebrity at home. At the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, he once again competed for the USA, winning a bronze medal to add to the gold he had won four years before.
But Sydney 2000 proved to be the high-point of Gardner's career. In the following years he suffered a snow mobile accident and even filed for bankruptcy, while a more recent foray into the world of MMA proved unsuccessful.
But for a cow farmer from Wyoming, Rulon Gardner had already achieved something that will remain in the history books forever: beating the unbeatable at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.