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Ready, Set, Cue Chariot Moment

October 02, 2000|MIKE KUPPER

SYDNEY, Australia — The best thing about Olympic moments is that they so often occur at precisely the right time.

Mine did in Sydney.

Covering the Olympics sounds like a glamorous job--and it is, in its wear-you-down way. It's a "major major," as we say in the business, and no serious sportswriter--is that an oxymoron?--would turn down such an assignment. Many, in fact, campaign to be sent.

But covering the Olympics is genuinely hard work.

By the second Wednesday, after a week and a half of living, eating, sleeping the Games, and nothing but the Games, all the early excitement had worn off and the days were being crossed off the schedule. The drug issue had reared its ugly head and there was more talk of that in the Main Press Center than of competition.

So as I headed off to cover that night's Greco-Roman wrestling, it was with little enthusiasm and low expectations.

Greco-Roman wrestling?

"I know my Greco, but I'm a little weak on my Roman," I joked lamely with colleagues.

I had covered one Greco-Roman wrestling match in my life, in 1996 at Atlanta, and had concluded then that if I never saw another, I wouldn't mind a bit. Besides, the match I was supposed to pay particular attention to involved some American only his immediate family had heard of against the Russian everyone was calling the greatest wrestler of all time. What kind of a story was that going to make?

Writers from other papers covering the event were of the same mind.

There were six or seven bouts before the "main event" that confirmed everyone's worst suspicions. Greco-Roman wrestling truly was every bit as thrilling as a knitting bee, with more pushing, pulling and grunting.

"They should have round-card girls going around with signs that say B-O-R-I-N-G," observed one writer.

Rulon Gardner against Alexander Karelin, we all assumed, would be more of same.

What we were forgetting, of course, was one of the cardinal rules of sportswriting, the one that says: If everyone knew who was going to win, they wouldn't have to play the games.

So when it became apparent early in the match that Gardner was, indeed, a suitable opponent for "Alexander the Great," that he wasn't only making an appearance, the wisecracks suddenly ended.

And when it became apparent that Gardner was more than a suitable opponent, that he might actually have a chance to win, a hush fell over the press section.

Suddenly unfolding before us was the kind of intense drama that grabs you by the throat and makes sports fans of princes and paupers, CEOs and convicts, stockbrokers and sportswriters. This might turn out to be something after all.

As we all know, it did. Gardner, in one of the major upsets in Olympic history, scored a point early in the second round, then held on through an overtime round and beat Karelin, the three-time Olympic champion who had gone unbeaten in 15 years of international competition.

At the end, with only seconds left, in the kind of salute rarely seen these days, Karelin, long known for his intimidation tactics, stepped back and acknowledged Gardner's superiority.

It was a great moment in Olympic history. It was a great story to write.

As I left the wrestling hall that night, I was humming the theme from "Chariots of Fire." And looking forward to my next assignment.

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