From shock winner to dignified loser, Gardner leaves stage a true Olympian

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The Independent Online

The man who beat the man they said was the greatest wrestler the world has ever known felt his own tug of mortality here yesterday, in a grey building on a scorching, rubbish-strewn hillside of broken-down houses and a stray goat.

It was a long way indeed from the surreal stadia of glittering, downtown Athens and its calvacades of official limousines, but when Rulon Gardner, a 33-year-old Mormon from Wyom- ing, who four years ago in Sydney produced what some historians of the Games of the Modern Era argue was the greatest shock of all time, left his shoes on the mat - the traditional gesture of a retiring Greco-Roman warrior - you knew you were at the Olympics.

And, maybe, at the heart of them - one of the parts of them, certainly, which, who knows, might just be worth fighting for.

Gardner, shockingly, was defeated by a Kazakhstani 10 years his junior in the semi-finals of the 120-kilogram super-heavyweight class.

Silence fell on the hall where three sets of opponents fought side by side, to the utter absorption and appreciation of the crowd of aficionados, when Georgiy Tsurtsumia sent Gardner crashing to the mat for the three-point winning hold in extra time.

Tsurtsumia for several long seconds couldn't quite grasp the scale of his achievement. Then he performed a dance of exquisite pleasure. It was an extravagant version of Gardner's own reaction when he won his gold medal in Sydney against the legendary Siberian Aleksander Karelin, who had been a winner in three Olympics stretching back to Seoul in 1988.

Half an hour after his triumph, Gardner was asked when he realised he could beat the man who had gone for six years without surrendering a single point. "About 10 minutes ago," said the new ruler of the Greco-Roman trenches. Three years earlier in his first collision with Karelin, who won one world championship flawlessly despite broken ribs, Gardner found himself powerless and in the air when the Siberian produced his trademarked manoeuvre, the reverse body lift. "It was cool," said the man from Wyoming. "I'd never flown before."

Yesterday the beaten champion briefly put a stop to the flow of wisecracks which had softened life on the dairy farm where he grew up with eight siblings. "Hey, I've had four years on the top of my world, and who is going to complain about that? In the end, this competition is a crapshoot, someone can make a great move, and you're done, it's all over. But that's the beauty of it. I beat Karelin and no one could believe it."

As Gardner talked, a young, beaten Turk, his face consumed with agony, walked by, tears streaming down his face.

Up in the stands the great Karelin watched inscrutably. He had been avenged, but of course he knew that his legend had never been imperilled by the American. Karelin was elected to the Russian Duma as the representative of his hometown of Novosibirsk in 1999 and when he came down from the stands, politely but firmly refusing to discuss the swirl of old emotions, he paid his respects to his fallen conqueror. "It is a great achievement to win a gold medal at the Olympics... it is every competitor's dream."

It is one which, despite Karelin's modest political success, is never likely to be lined with more than that single piece of gold to hang around your neck. "You don't come into Greco-Roman wrestling [which was invented in France in the 19th century and given its name out of respect for the classical culture of hand-to-hand sport] for money or great celebrity," said Gardner. "You do it because it satisfies something very deep inside you." But then sometimes it leaves you settling for rather less, as Gardner was obliged to last night when, after an afternoon's rest and psychological rehabilitation, he beat Iran's Sajad Barzi for the bronze medal.

The imperative to win has, considering the ferocity of the competition, come at a negligible cost to the Olympic image.

In the 20 years since the Swede Thomas Johannson was stripped of a silver medal in Los Angeles for using steroids, the Greco-Roman discipline has produced just one positive drugs test - or a fifth of the weightlifters in these current Olympics, and a mere fraction of the track and field carnage of recent months.

Gardner's philosophical acceptance of yesterday's defeat was no doubt a triumph for perspective. A character of mythic toughness in the backwoods of Wyoming, he competed in one tournament in Los Vegas with a dislocated wrist. "It was dislocated right of out its socket," reported Gardner, "but I could still get a little leverage."

Two years ago he lost a toe from frostbite after his snowmobile crashed through a frozen lake surface - and he was obliged to spend 18 hours in the snowy wilderness before being spotted by a private plane. Doctors told him they would have to amputate one foot and it was unlikely that he would ever walk again. On both counts, he said, "No, way."

Before yesterday's brief and sensationally unscripted piece of action, Gardner had been a delight for anyone looking for the lighter side of the highest levels of competitive life.

He was asked about his liking for Greek food. Yes, he said, he enjoyed gyros, a pork dish, souvlakia, but he had passed on ouzo, adding, "I did have one bite of cow's stomach... it was good, but it was cow stomach."

How would it be sitting in the stand with his new wife, Lisa, and 15 other members of a boisterous family? "You'd feel scared, and loved at the same time."

And what, away from the mat, was the advantage of scaling 18st, 12 lb? "People move out of the way when you're coming through - and then you can go to the buffet line and really handle yourself."

He confirmed that his missing toe is preserved back home in Wyoming in a jar of formaldehyde in the fridge, but in Athens he wouldn't recommend refrigerating other separated body parts. "It's really hot here. You'd need very good air conditioning."

When Georgiy Tsurtsumia put the winning move on him yesterday, Rulon Gardner didn't see the funny side immediately. Indeed, he admitted it might take a little while. "When I realised what happened, I just said, 'Darn it.' I guess I'm too big too cry."

Back out in the sun on the hillside, the goat had disappeared. However, briefly, though, the Olympics were for once in perfect focus.