We’ve tried to find a way to contact Karelin for a long time, and after a lot of work we finally get hold of an e-mail address to someone who is supposed to work close to him. We write repeatedly for several months, and eventually a person named Kostya replies. He is Karelin’s media director and says that if we send our questions he will try to get Karelin to answer them. Five days later, we get an e-mail notification, and we have received comprehensive answers to all our questions, written by Karelin himself. He also sends us photos to use and promises to help if we have more questions. We can sense humility in his replies, even though the communication is via e-mail, in Russian.

Photo: Lars Nyberg. This photo of Karelin at the Olympics in Seoul 1988 was awarded prize for Sports photo of the Year.


Russian King Kong

It was in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk that Aleksandr “Sasha” Karelin was born in 1967, about 3500 km east of Moscow in former Soviet Union. It’s not unusual with -30°C in the winter there, and in the coldest years temperature has dropped to about -50°C. He was an active child who swam in the summers and went skiing in the winters. Several wrestling coaches had noticed young Aleksandr and tried to convince him to come and train, but it wasn’t until he was 13 years old that he tried wrestling for the first time. At that point he was already taller than his father. It wasn’t love at first sight between Karelin and wrestling, but his trainer Viktor Kuznetsov got him to keep going.

”When I started wrestling I trained three times a week. Then I increased it to five and eventually seven. During limited periods, in preparation for tournaments, I trained three times a day.” His international breakthrough came in 1988 by winning first the European Championship and then the Olympics. From there on, he won all tournaments he participated in until 2000, which means three Olympics, nine World Championships and twelve European Championships. Everyone considered him unbeatable and you can guess that he had a huge psychological advantage before the bouts even started.


Karelin just defeated the American Matt Ghaffari in the Olympic final 1996 in Atlanta, and thereby won his third Olympic gold.

Winning everything year after year must build an incredible pressure, and a fear of losing. We ask him if that was the case. “I was just happy that I was in the strongest team on the planet and that I managed to win the biggest championships in the world. I never thought about losing titles. I was happy about my training and that I was successful in spite of injuries.” Karelin had several serious injuries, for example broken arm twice and broken ribs eight times. He actually won the Worlds 1993 with two broken ribs and the Europeans 1996 with a torn pectoral muscle.

Every fairy tale has an end, and so does the one about Aleksandr Karelin. September 27th 2000, the world was sitting in front of their TVs to witness the historical moment that was about to happened; Aleksandr Karelin was supposed to become the first greco-roman wrestler ever to win four Olympic gold medals! He started strong like always, and won all four bouts, which took him to the final. Rulon Gardner from the US was waiting for him, a wrestler Karelin had preciously beaten. When Gardner managed to get a point on Karelin, and the fight suddenly was over, the world was in shock. The impossible, unthinkable had just happened. A 13 years long winning streak was broken and the God of wrestling had proved to be human. We ask Karelin how he handled the defeat, and how long it took to get over it. “I have not gotten over it. However, I don’t live in captivity of that event. Life goes on…”

The world, and Karelin himself, is in shock when American Rulon Gardner wins the Olympic final in Sydney 2000 which ended a 13 year long winning streak.


Less known facts about the Russian Bear

Few people know that Karelin actually lived in Sweden for a while in the early 90s and competed for GAC – Gothenburgs Athlete Club. “My time in Sweden was filled of interesting and memorable events. There were many wrestling tournaments and promotion events. I got to meet bright people who were both kind and hospitable. Swedes are calm, reasonable and hardworking. I understand why I received so much attention in Sweden, as wrestling is so popular over there. That is probably thanks to Tomas Johansson, the world champion who was very famous.” Karelin beat Johansson in the Olympics, both 1988 and 1992, and his names comes up when we ask about the best wrestlers he ever faced.

“Every wrestler, with whom I was fortunate to compete, deserves attention and respect. Without their participation, there wouldn't have been any meaningful fights, and there would be nothing to talk about. One of my strongest opponents was Tomas Johansson. Besides him, there were many strong wrestlers from Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary and America. The key to become a great athlete is to enjoy what you are doing, then enjoy the training and finally enjoy the competitions.”

Karelin's favourite technique, the so called "Karelin lift". Photo: S. Kivrin

A huge success factor for Karelin, besides his incredible physique, was the Karelin lift, a reverse body lift. When the opponent lay flat with his stomach to the mat, Karelin would get a grip around the waist, lift the opponent while leaning back so that the opponent was thrown over his head and down in the mat. The lift gave five points, the maximum award in Greco-Roman wrestling. The was of course wrestlers who had down this lift before Karelin, but never a heavyweight, as it requires an enormous strength to lift and throw 130 kg like that. Karelin had good use of his strength, also in other situations. One example is when he carried a refrigerator eight floors to his apartment, all by himself.

The enormous Karelin could surely look intimidating to people walking by on the street. But those who knew him often describe him as Ferdinand the Bull. At the side of wrestling, he appreciates reading poetry, literature and listening to music. He often attends opera, dance shows and art exhibitions. While dominating the wrestling world, Karelin has also managed to get a Ph.D in sports related pedagogy and a degree in law. A poetry loving graduate who can do splits and backflips with ease, is probably not what most people thought when they saw Aleksandr Karelin.

Russia's president Bros Yeltsin hands over the highest award - the Gold Star Medal of the Hero of Russia - to Karelin for his courage and heroism shown in the Olympics in Atlanta. Photo: S. Kivrin

Karelin in the UFC?

After his loss in the Olympics 2000, Karelin retired from wrestling and transitioned to the political world. As a member of Vladimir Putins party United Russia, he was elected into the State Duma, where he is currently working. “The transition was quick. I went from wrestling competitions to political election competitions; same thing but in a different area. However, I still train regularly and wrestle at my native gym, Dynamo Novosibirsk, where my trainer and mentor Viktor Kuznetsov works. He turns 76 in December and has then been a wrestling coach for more than 55 years. He looks for rough diamonds to transform to stars. One example is Roman Vlasov, two-time Olympic winner, who is trained by Kuznetsov.”


We wonder what Karelin, who has expressed pride of wrestling’s noble and traditional roots, thinks of modern inventions like MMA. "I’m not a fan of MMA. I wouldn’t even think about MMA if it existed in my time. If I would have been distracted by something like that I would probably not have achieved anything and wouldn’t be interesting for anyone today. But we can learn from the promoters in MMA how to make wrestling tournaments more attractive and spectacular!”

Photo: S. Kivrin

Lastly, we ask Karelin to choose the three major highlights from his career, plus a name of someone he thinks we should interview. “The first is when I started wrestling with my coach Viktor Kuznetsov. The second is when I got selected for the USSR Team in 1985 and went to the Junior World Championship. The third is all the wonderful people around the world that I got to meet thanks to wrestling!” The person he recommends us to interview is Makharbek Khadartsev, a Russian freestyle wrestler who won five World Championships and two Olympics in the 80s and 90s.

We thank Aleksandr Karelin for taking time to answer our questions, and the inspiration his achievements contribute with still to this day!