On September 16, Aleksander Vasilyevich Medved celebrated his 80th birthday. There was a time when this name thundered throughout the globe, seen regularly on the front pages of newspapers and on magazine covers. He was already a legend even then. Medved (whose name means “bear” in Russian) was the first person in the history of world sports to win three Olympic championships in freestyle wrestling, seven world championship seven times, three European championships. He now lives in Minsk, where in 1969, having already won the Olympics twice, he began working at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, in the Physical Education Department. After he finished his sports career Medved worked there as a professor for many years, passing on his knowledge to a new generation. Then, for those who were not lucky enough to learn from the best wrestler of the 20th century in person, he penned his memoirs, “Life is a Wrestling Match.”
The Olympic champion’s childhood coincided with WWII, years filled with hunger and fear. From a very young age, heavy labor became the norm of life for the “Bear Cub,” as his school pals came to call him. He was barely eight, yet he was already helping his father, who was a forest ranger: removing tree stumps, cutting down undergrowth so that healthy trees could grow better, splitting wood for the fire. Years later, on the wrestling mat, he more than once gave thanks to his father, who was strict but fair; he remembered his incredibly strong hands, which could grab on and never let go. The hard times taught him to keep going even when he was at the end of his strength, they enabled him to cultivate dexterity, stamina and the will to win.
“It was because I developed that hunting instinct as a child that I became who I am, the Bear that feared no one, be it on the mat or in life,” he wrote in his memoirs.
The reason Medved first took to wrestling was… the gypsies! One day, he saw them belt-wrestling, and he liked it. He was a feisty teenager, never backing down to anyone in street fights. He was quick to use his fists, yet honest and just at the same time. Aleksander Vasilyevich believes he inherited these qualities from his grandfather. When Aleksander was elected class monitor in the fifth grade, he not only established order in a class lacking discipline, he also set apart a smoke-free area on the school’s premises (he could not stand tobacco smoke).
The future champion began attending wrestling school at 16, but that did not last long. Young Medved went to work in a plant as an assembly worker – he needed to make a living. “I was happy tostartworking,”hewrites.“Iwasabitnervous,ofcourse,butmore than that, I was filled with curiosity. That was also the way I always approached wrestling – no fear, driven by curiosity. And that was the way I lived my life.”
Medved got back to wrestling when he was drafted into the military. He immediately stood out in the tank regiment – he was the only conscript who did not have proper footwear. His “bear paws” would not fit in any boots, and he ended up wearing slippers for an entire month. It was also there, in the army, that he became known as a wrestler when he easily won a match with Ivan Kotsegub, the Minsk oblast wrestling champion. “That was when I came to fully realize that wrestling was my calling,” he writes. During his first USSR championship in 1957, Aleksander ended up in the top ten. This achievement had an invigorating effect on the young wrestler. He began training even more, with more intensity.
In 1961, Medved won first place in the USSR freestyle wrestling championship in the heavyweight category. This victory opened the way to the Tokyo Olympics. It was there, in 1964, that he earned his first Olympic gold. Later the celebrated athlete recalled, “You know why I was sad when I returned home? It was because my father had not lived to see that day; he did not have a chance to appreciate my triumph. I think he underestimated me a little and never took my wrestling seriously. Subconsciously I wanted to prove to him that I belonged on the wrestling mat and that we, the Medveds, are strong in everything. And I proved it.”
There are some victories on Aleksander Medved’s long list that are especially dear to him. Among them is the match with Iranian wrestler Gholamreza Takhti, a Melbourne Olympic champion and a two-time world champion. “At that time I had not yet won
such titles. Takhti was famous for never losing a match in his home country. He was a true national hero! And he lost in such a way that no one doubted my decisive advantage! After the match, Takhti dropped to his knees and cried.”
The Olympic victory in Tokyo was well deserved, but not an easy one. The young athlete was not only forced to overcome his opponents, he had to overcome himself. He did not treat the match with Lennart Ericsson, a Swede, seriously, which almost cost him the medal. “I was heading to my first Olympic Games already everyone’s favorite,” he writes. “How could it be otherwise? Everyone was repeating the joke: ‘No human can overcome the Bear!’ Besides, I was winning one match after another. That must have played an evil trick on me. Not meeting a worthy opponent, I became so confident of my own superiority that I almost lost to Ericsson.” The Belarusian wrestler never forgot this lesson. From that moment on, he treated every opponent facing him on the mat with respect, no matter what his title.
Among the champion’s many victories were some that were especially striking, ones that displayed not only Medved’s strength but also the power of his character, his talent, his mind… These matches still make one wonder, “How is that possible?”
1968, Olympic Games in Mexico: The games took place at an elevation of 2240 meters (7349 feet). By then Aleksander Medved, in spite of being perfectly healthy in every other way, had developed atrial fibrillation. His blood pressure was all over the place. “When I stepped off the mat, everything was dark before my eyes. I could not see the way, I just followed my coach’s voice, as he yelled ‘This way!’ I went to the medical center, where I passed out three times before the end of the competition. However, they would always bring me back around, and an hour later, I was back on the mat. It was like passing through seven circles of hell.”
The fans saw none of that; they never knew the true price of those victories. The spectators remembered something entirely different: Medved’s match with German wrestler Wilfried Dietrich. They had faced each other before, and Medved had lost. He burned with the desire to gain the upper hand. During the match, Dietrich dislocated Medved’s right thumb. The match was halted. They wanted to take Aleksander to the doctor. But… he put his thumb back in its place himself, using all his strength to jerk it in the opposite direction. Everything went dark before his eyes because of pain. However, Medved did not show his weakness. “ ‘Let’s continue,’ I said to the judge. Dietrich, poor thing, turned pale. He was overcome, mentally destroyed, and I realized, ‘This is it, – this is my victory!’”
1972, Olympic Games in Munich: Aleksander Medved was then 35 years old. He went to these games thinking that it was time to retire from professional wrestling. As a true champion, he wanted to leave undefeated. During semi-finals, his opponent was the American athlete Chris Taylor, who weighed over 418lbs – almost 220lbs more than Medved. They had faced off three times prior to that. Aleksander Vasilyevich had studied his opponent well and had prepared for the match thoroughly. But the victory over the “elephant-like” American came at a great price: because of that match, Medved was diagnosed with injury- related radiculitis. And he still had ahead of him a final duel with the famous Bulgarian wrestler, Osman Duraliyev. Duraliyev also intended to retire from professional wrestling after the Olympic games and wanted to end his career with a flourish, by finally wrestling the gold medal out of Medved’s hands. But Medved was also fighting for the last time… When this match, unparalleled in its intensity, ended in a decisive victory for Aleksander Medved, the great athlete bowed to the audience that had admired his talent for so many years, then he stepped into the middle of the mat, dropped to his knees and kissed it… The entire audience stood up as one and unleashed an avalanche of applause upon the three-time Olympic champion.
Since then, Aleksander Medved has not appeared on the wrestling mat, but he did not leave sports behind. He became a coach, a mentor and a second father to hundreds of young athletes. And if any of them complained that it was hard, Aleksander would say, “It was hard back then, in the post-war years, when the very thought of professional was far from everyone’s mind. I have often heard people say that Medved – well, he had a God-given talent, he could not be defeated. Yes, I was a very strong wrestler, yes, Mother Nature endowed me with much, but without pushing myself to the limit, like a madman, during every practice I would never have achieved the heights that I was able to conquer.”
The life story of Medved the great wrestler is still being written. Aleksander Vasilyevich is a consulting coach for the Belarusian national wrestling team. The Minsk Olympic Reserve City Center bearing his name trains new champions. Boys come there who aspire to follow in the footsteps of their idol. Some of them will learn from personal experience what it costs to earn an Olympic medal.
By Irina Frolova, Vitaliy Babich