Olympic Legends: Aleksandr Karelin

Have you ever carried a fridge up to the 8th floor on your own? Neither have I, but this is one of the things that Aleksandr Karelin could do. Some of his other exceptional feats include gold medals in three consecutive Olympic games, a career wrestling record of 887 wins and 2 losses and the Karelin lift.

The Karelin lift (a reverse body lift) was named after Karelin when he became the first super heavyweight (130 kg+ / 287 lbs+) in Greco-Roman wrestling to ever successfully complete the manoeuvre. When the Russian exhibited his signature move for the first time on American soil, he was nicknamed “The Experiment”, as wrestlers in the US did not believe that a human being could perform the lift on a 130 kg opponent.

Karelin’s competitors were not only in disbelief, but also horrified. In Greco-Roman wrestling you lose points if you turn your back to the mat, yet, Karelin’s opponents would happily roll on their back when the Russian was trying to execute the Karelin lift. It may have saved them a broken neck and a few points, — as the lift earned Karelin the maximum 5 points — but the voluntary submission of points was considered extremely cowardly. “Yes, I see fear in the eyes of most of my opponents,” Karelin told Sports Illustrated in an interview in 1991.

Karelin’s dominance of international Greco-Roman wrestling spanned from 1987 to 2000. After losing to the reigning champion Igor Rostorotsky in the USSR championships in 1987, Karelin went undefeated in competition until the Sydney Olympics, where he lost to American Rulon Gardner in the final. Karelin retired from wrestling following his devastating defeat to Gardner to focus on a career in politics.

Karelin’s legendary athlete status has surely helped him in parliamentary elections, but the man is no meathead either. During his wrestling career, Karelin would spend his free time studying, listening to classical music and writing poems. His favorite writer used to be famous satirist Mikhail Bulgakov and he also greatly enjoyed the poems of peasant poet Sergei Yesenin.

“[Karelin] is a highly talented man. His knowledge and his feeling for poetry, literature and music are incredible. He is witty, full of puns and constantly embellishing his language with passages from books and music,” said Karelin’s interpreter to Sports Illustrated in 1991.

By the time he ended his wrestling career, Karelin had obtained a law degree and a PhD in sport-related pedagogy. Funnily enough, his PhD explored countermeasures against the throws that his opponents were never able to defend against…

The Karelin lift in action (starts at around 0:15):


Olympic Legends: Florence Griffith Joyner

Track and field is about stretching the physical limits of the human species. How far can we throw? How high can we jump? How fast can we run? With the likes of Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis the boundary of human male speed has certainly been pushed in the past 7 Olympiads: since 1988, the men’s 100m world record has been improved 16 times by a total of 0.35 seconds from 9.93 to 9.58. However, on the women’s side, the year 1988 marks a standstill in progression — Florence Griffith Joyner’s world record time of 10.49 remains untouched to this day. In fact, later female sprinters are yet to even reach Griffith’s third best of time of 10.62. Who was Florence Griffith Joyner? How did she run so fast?

Griffith first made headlines in 1982 when she won the NCAA Championships in the 200m sprint. A year later, right after graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she finished 4th in the 200m race at the World Championships in Helsinki. Her first real international success came in 1984, when Griffith finished 2nd in the 200m race at her hometown Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1985 and 1986, Griffith struggled to find motivation for running, as there were no major international competitions and besides training she had to work multiple jobs to get by. In 1987, Griffith ramped up her training again capturing silver in the World Champs 200m race and finishing the season as one of the top contenders for the upcoming 1988 Olympic season.

Image 1. Besides her quick legs, Griffith become widely known for her flowing hair, long, colorful fingernails and self-made running suits. After marrying Olympic champion triple jumper Al Joyner, Griffith changed her last name to Griffith Joyner and was immediately nicknamed “Flo-Jo” due to her graceful style.

With mastery of the 200m sprint, Griffith Joyner focused on getting better at the 100m during the off-season between -87 and -88. Her training quickly paid off, as she ran a personal best and world leading time of 10.89 in San Diego early on in the season. Despite her promising start to the season, what happened at the 100m race in the US Olympic Trials was beyond anything that anyone could have anticipated: in the quarter-finals, Griffith Joyner destroyed the previous world record of 10.76 by reaching the finish line in a mere 10.49 seconds.

Although the officials recorded zero wind during the race, there is sound evidence that the run was strongly wind-assisted. For example, the race before Griffith’s had had a wind of +5.2, while the heat right after had a wind of +4.9. People at the event also recall that there were significant winds during the race. Wind-assisted or not, Griffith Joyner would have broke the world record the next day in the finals, where she ran a 10.61 to an acceptable +1.2 wind.

As expected, Griffith Joyner went on to win Olympic gold in both the 100m and 200m in Seoul later that year. Although she did not improve on her incredible 100m world record, she ran three new world records in the 200m race finishing off with a freakish 21.34 in the final. To everyone’s surprise, Griffith Joyner retired soon after the 1988 Olympics. She had become a global superstar and wanted to now focus on her other passion, creative arts — and her lucrative endorsement deals. After her track career, Griffith Joyner designed — among other things — the Indiana Pacers NBA team uniform. Sadly, the former track queen died of a heart seizure at the age of 38.

It is commonly believed that Griffith Joyner’s abrupt spike in performance in 1988 was due to the use of doping. In 1988, she improved her 100m time by 0.47 seconds (or 4.3%), and her 200m time by 0.62 seconds (or 2.8%). If we ignore the potentially strongly wind-assisted world record, her improvement on 100m would have been 0.35 seconds or (3.2%). Many people from inside the sport consider such improvements impossible without the use performance-enhancing drugs. Griffith Joyner’s former teammate Darrell Robinson also famously claimed that he had sold $2000 worth of human growth hormone to Griffith Joyner in 1988. Some further think that she had build up a noticeable amount of muscle mass in a short period of time, which could also signal drug use.

Image 2. Carmelita Jeter flexing her biceps in the London Olympics. With a 10.64 in Shanghai in 2009, she has come the closest to Griffith Joyner’s times.

Doped or not, Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner was undoubtedly one of the most gifted athletes ever to run track races. Her Soviet and East German rivals were not eating plain oatmeal for breakfast and the runners who have come the closest to her records in more recent decades have either confessed to using steroids (Marion Jones) or raised serious questions with their physique. The reality is, that doping has been and always will be an integral part of training for sports where the human species is pushed to its physical limits.



Griffith Joyner’s 100m world record run:



Featured image: http://www.blackpast.org/files/blackpast_images/Florence_Joyner_Summer_Olympics_1988.jpg

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Florence_Griffith_Joyner2.jpg

Image 3: Image by Stephen Walli from Redmond, United States (Jeter after 100m Heat) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



Olympic Legends: Boris (Dis)Onischenko

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

The 1976 Montreal Olympics was meant to be a majestic farewell to modern pentathlon’s grand old man, Boris Onischenko, but he retired from the sport as the biggest cheater in Olympic history. What on earth happened?

Onischenko, the defending Olympic silver medalist had a very promising start to the Montreal Olympics. In the first event, which was horseback riding, he recorded a personal Olympic best of 1068 points and in the second event, which was fencing, it looked like Onischenko was likely to repeat his event victory from the previous Olympics…….. Until midway through the event a Brit named Jeremy Fox noticed something suspicious. In the match between Fox and Onischenko, the Ukrainian lunged at his opponent and as Fox leapt backwards to keep the distance, the scoreboard lit up. In fencing, hitting the opponent with the weapon completes an electric circuit that is linked to the scoring system. A touch is automatically registered on the scoreboard as a point. This time, however, Onischenko had scored a point without even being close to touching his opponent.

Having noticed something similar in one of Onischenko’s earlier bouts, Fox immediately demanded that officials inspect the weapon. “It was like he was waving a magic wand” Fox later recalled in an interview with The Guardian.

The 38-year-old fencing specialist went on to easily beat Fox and five further competitors with a back-up weapon before the officials came back with their findings: underneath a layer of leather, Onischenko’s épée handle had a button that when pressed completed the electric circuit and signaled a touch to the scoring system. In other words, Onischenko was able to add points to his score by pressing a button in his handle. Onischenko was immediately disqualified and as he was a member of the USSR team in the team competition, the reigning team champion USSR was also disqualified.

The news of Onischenko’s blatant cheat naturally generated anger among his teammates and the wider sports community. Some Soviet volleyball players, for example, threatened to throw Onischenko out of the hotel’s window if they ran into him. Consequently, soon after the news had broken out, the pentathlon legend was escorted out of the athletes’ village by Soviet officials and put on the next plane to his hometown, Kiev.

Back in the USSR, Onischenko, the leader of the national pentathlon federation, received a personal roasting from the country’s leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev renounced all Onischenko’s sporting honors, dismissed him from his post as major in the Red Army and fined him 5000 Rubles. Onischenko subsequently took up a job as a taxi driver in his native Kiev and still lives in the area today.

The incident caused much confusion in the sporting world: why would Onischenko, the best fencer around, go to such great lengths to gain an edge in fencing? Was he too obsessed about retiring as an Olympic Champion? Fellow competitors believed that the pressure to succeed in his last Olympics got the best of Onischenko.  Planned by the Soviet state, perhaps? Others thought there was some external pressure.

Why do athletes risk their reputation and career by cheating?