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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

Forget the Russian Bear: Meet Russian King Kong

July 24, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — In these dry days of post-Cold War coziness, it is comforting to know there is still somebody around to scare us.

And how Alexander Karelin scares us.

"He looks inhuman," said Amy Ghaffari.

"In my mind, he is disproportionate," said Jila Ghaffari.

To think that the United States' Matt Ghaffari--Amy's husband and Jila's son--lost to Karelin only 1-0, in overtime, in the Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestling final Tuesday.

It wasn't as if Karelin carried him up seven flights of stairs or anything. Like he once did with that refrigerator.

Nor did Karelin throw him into a boat and row him across freezing lakes in Siberia, as he used to do to his wrestling coach. When Karelin was a child.

No, Karelin simply threw Ghaffari two minutes into the five-minute match and survived a late push by the American for a 1-0 overtime victory.

It was the third consecutive Olympic gold medal for the man considered the greatest wrestler ever and he extended his winning streak to eight years.

But Tuesday at the Georgia World Congress Center wasn't about narrow margins or good fights or closing gaps.

It was about nightmares.

It was Alexander Karelin serving to remind us that in an era of Jurassic Park-sized special effects, a single human being can still raise the hair on our forearms.

And that single human being can still be from Russia.

And we should not feel bad about it.

Because it wouldn't matter if we did.

"Wrestling him is like wrestling King Kong," Matt Ghaffari said afterward. "I always thought the only way to beat him is to teach wrestling techniques to the strongest animal on earth. That would be a big gorilla."

Ghaffari, a pleasant, plump guy from Cleveland via Iran, was soon joined at the postmatch news conference by Karelin.

So he wisely clarified his comments.

"I said he wrestled like King Kong," Ghaffari noted. "I never said he looked like him."

Karelin smirked. Because he knows he does.

Despite his 6-foot-4, 286-pound frame, the intimidation starts with the eyes. Cold, blue eyes, hidden behind cliff-sized cheekbones. Eyes that never, ever look at yours.

Well, yes, once he looked into Ghaffari's eyes during the match. That was the time Karelin laughed.

The image continues with the head. A massive, flat head with protruding ears, topped by a shorn scalp featuring a tiny scar running across the top.

The rest is muscle. From the thick neck to the handbag-sized feet. He has hands like melons, legs like fire hydrants, and an aura like every villain from every "Rocky" movie combined.

When Karelin stalked to the mat with his head underneath a towel, the loudspeaker actually blared the bad-guy music from one of the "Rocky" movies.

Good-guy music was played for Ghaffari, who jogged out waving his towel.

And Karelin loved it.

"I have seen the 'Rocky' movie, it is very beautiful," he said through a translator.

He later added, "The music is particularly good when you leave the platform with your shield, not on it."

The scariest man at the Olympics is filled with such sarcasm.

Folks crowded around him afterward not to talk, but to look. To shake his hand, stare into his eyes, experience his aura, perhaps in hopes of overcoming the fear of it.

So he shook everyone with his words. Even after translation, the sneer remained.

"I am so ashamed that I only won by one point," he said. "However, I do believe there is a future for me out there."

He was asked about his alleged job as a member of the Siberian tax police.

"I represent them at wrestling matches," he said.

Does he ever actually collect taxes, asked one reporter? And if so, does this mean everyone in Siberia pays their taxes?

"You are swimming in shallow water there," he told the reporter.

Karelin was not smiling. The reporter hurriedly thanked him and left.

He was asked how he relaxes.

"I'm not one for passive relaxation," he said. "If you sit and relax, you become kind."

Chimed in Ghaffari, "I really hope you start relaxing."

While Ghaffari talked about his wife and played with his young daughter, Karelin, 29, refused to admit that he was also married, and has two daughters.

"That is why it is a private life," he said.

Ghaffari acknowledged that he has a poster of Karelin on his wall, and that he once carried a photo of Karelin in his wallet, all for inspiration.

Karelin scoffed.

"If I start carrying pictures of my opponents . . . I don't know," Karelin said.

He was asked to compare his feeling now to when he won in his previous two Olympics.

"The Soviet sports machine was much more impressive," he said.

It is said here that you learn about a competitor by watching him not on the playing field, but on the medal stand.

As the Russian national anthem was played here Tuesday evening, Ghaffari openly wept over the loss of the gold medal and what he said were the failed dreams for his country.

Karelin didn't so much as twitch.

"I will start with a quote from Lenin," Karelin said. " 'All of life is a fight.' "

Shame he can't stay longer.

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