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Wednesday, September 27
Champion turned politician seeks fourth gold

MOSCOW -- Alexander Karelin has many roles in life -- as a member of the Russian parliament, a tax official and a colonel. He is also aiming to become the first wrestler to win gold medals at four successive Olympics.

The man affectionately known as the Russian Bear has taken the super-heavyweight title in Greco-Roman wrestling at the past three Olympic Games.

With his 33rd birthday approaching, Karelin, who has not lost a competition since 1987, is expected to make Sydney his last major international competition.

Karelin, a close friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, decided last year to go into politics as one of the leaders of a pro-Kremlin party appropriately nicknamed the Bear from its initials.

The party, formed only two months before a parliamentary election in December 1999, swept into second place in the polls and helped to provide the platform on which Putin won the presidential election in March 2000.

Kremlin insiders say Karelin has such an influence on Putin, an avid judoka in his youth, that he persuaded him to name Karelin's former sparring partner, Boris Ivanyuzhenkov, as Russia's sports minister last year.

Although he won a parliamentary seat, Karelin told his fellow MPs he would take a sabbatical to prepare for Sydney.

"My colleagues in parliament told me not to worry if I would have to miss a few sessions," Karelin said. "They said just bring home the gold. It would be the best present."

Painful injury

Karelin, who weighs 130 kgs, has won nine world and 12 European titles and has a reputation as a courageous fighter.

In April 1996, at the European championships in Budapest, he suffered a painful muscle tear in his rib cage in one of his early bouts.

He could barely lift his right arm and was confined to wrestling with only his left. Nevertheless, he won the remainder of his bouts to take the gold.

"I never thought of quitting," Karelin said afterward. "It just never crossed my mind. They would have had to carry me out on a stretcher for me to quit."

A couple of months later in Atlanta, still not fully recovered from that injury, Karelin earned his third Olympic title, beating home favorite Mat Ghafarri in a fiercely-fought final.

For his achievement Karelin was presented with a "Hero of Russia" medal by then President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin.

Karelin, who works as tax officer in day-to-day life, was also promoted to colonel in the Russian Tax Ministry.

Some sports officials privately say that Karelin can expect to be given an unprecedented fourth star on his epaulettes if he wins again in Sydney, making him the first ever Russian athlete-general.

But Karelin is not all brawn. Friends say he has a gentle side and he is an admirer of ancient Greek philosophy, poetry and architecture.

Unique distinction

Karelin has the unique distinction of having carried three different flags at three Olympic opening ceremonies.

He first represented the Soviet Union in 1988 in Seoul, then the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1992 in Barcelona and finally the Russian Federation in Atlanta four years later.

Karelin would have been a sure bet to carry the flag again in Sydney but the Games schedule has worked against him.

His competition does not start until the second week, meaning he is likely to still be in a training camp in the town of Podolsk, outside Moscow, when the opening ceremony takes place on Sept. 15.

"It would be almost impossible to find good sparring partners for Karelin in Sydney, so there is little sense in him going there long before he is scheduled to compete," said Anatoly Kolesov, who has headed Russia's Olympic preparations.

"Of course, it would be nice for him to carry our flag once again, but we're not going to jeopardize his final Olympic preparations.

"It's a lot more important for him to win than walk in the opening ceremony. Besides, we have many other great athletes who could carry the flag of our country."

Karelin is unperturbed at being the overwhelming favorite for the Olympic crown yet again.

"I know the weight of the nation is on my shoulders but I should be used to it by now," he said recently.

"My fourth Olympic medal will not be easy because there are so many opponents who want to defeat me.

"All my rivals are strong, strong men but it doesn't frighten me. On the contrary, it stimulates me to work harder in training."


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