The Bear of Belarus

The Bear of Belarus, Alexander Medved', is considered by most to be the best freestyle wrestler of all time. He was the first person ever to win three gold Olympic medals in this sport.

By Maryna Rakhlei

Alexander Medved' in Staiki, 1972

Alexander Medved’ (‘the Bear’) was born in 1937 in the Kiev region of Soviet Ukraine, in the village of Belaya Tserkov’, where his family had come from when it was within the Russian empire. It is believed that his telling last name used to be the nickname of the relatives.

Medved’s grandmother was called a she-bear by the neighbours not without a reason: 45 was the size of her shoes, 192 cm was her height; and his grandfather was even taller.

The future athlete grew up working in forestry in difficult post-war conditions, from an early age helping his father-forester: ploughing, sowing, mowing; he carried water, chopped wood and brought home wildfowl for the hunters. His inherited figure only added to qualities that made him a champion: honesty, the ability to work and work hard, and the ambition to achieve the best results.

In 1954, the Bear found work in an aircraft factory as a fitter, and stayed there until he was drafted into the army. In 1956 he was called to serve in the tank division of the Belarusian Military District. As a schoolboy, Medved’ tried different sports: gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, track and field. He competed for his military unit in hammer throwing and played handball. But all this was only until he got completely captivated by wrestling.

As Alexander explained, in team sports you are responsible for everyone and everyone is responsible for you; but a wrestler is alone on the battle grounds, responsible only for himself.

Medved’ barely mastered good techniques and got acquainted with basic tactics, and still managed to win the Belarusian Military District championship. He had a go at freestyle and classical wrestling as well as sambo. Not yet able to choose his favourite sport, these experiences gave him a taste for competition. After demobilisation Alexander remained in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, graduated from the High School for Coaches and started a course at Minsk Institute of Physical Education.

In 1957, Medved’ met his mentor - Pavel Grigoriev. In 1961, their tandem was joined by Honoured Trainer of the USSR Baliaslau Rybalka. That same year Alexander Medved’ won his first gold in the Soviet Union Championship and became a heavyweight champion and a world bronze medallist.

Alexander Medved' and Alexaqnder Ivanitsky

In the early 1960s, there was another talented heavyweight, Alexander Ivanitsky. He was almost the same age as The Bear, his main competitor in the championship selections and ...a true friend outside the ring. Both wrestlers were honest and demanding of themselves. Their battles usually ended in a draw and the gold medal in the USSR championships was won by one then the other in turn. The Soviet team had to decide who would compete in the middle weight category? The USSR team had two Alexanders, two heavyweights who aimed at the gold. And Medved’ decided to lose weight and move to another category. He continued to lose and put on weight until 1966. As Ivanitsky finished his career, he finally returned to fight among the heavyweights.

Getting his first Olympic medal in 1964 in Japan was not easy for The Bear. Such a superiority over his
rivals almost backfired on him. Even before entering the ring in the finals, he was sure of his victory seeing the
opponent was not in good shape.

Getting comprehensively beaten him, the Bear learnt his lesson: Always respect your opponent. He remembered this rule until his very last fight The XIX Olympic Games in 1968 wasn’t a piece of cake either.

Mexico City, with its thin air due to the high-altitude scared many off from participating. It is actually little known that Medved’ fell seriously ill there. His blood pressure rose so dramatically that his coach contemplated withdrawing him from the competition. But Alexander insisted that he would be able to wrestle. To demoralise his rivals,
he walked with his head up, always cheerful and smiling. While in the locker room he would now and then lose consciousness, then doctors would help him to recover so that half an hour later he could be in the ring ... and then usually would be the first to make a move, at his opponent.

At the Olympic Games in 1968 Medved’ fought in the heavy weight category. His main rival was a German called Wilfried Dietrich, who successfully competed in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. They tried to make a grip on each other as a sudden crunch came – one of the Bear’s fingers unnaturally stuck out to the side.
That might have been the end of the battle.

Alexander spoke about it afterwards: "They wanted to call a doctor for me. I thought, "I will go, they will remove me, and that will be the end of my Olympic Games.
So I took the finger and put it back in place. Dietrich and the judge looked at me with wide eyes. I said "OK" and went back to the ring. As I pressed him to the edge, the German raised his hand and asked to call a doctor”.

Dietrich broke down. Medved’ won this gold medal through his bear-like will power: a feat it seemed no human was capable of.

This constant strain, and work at his limits did not pass unnoticed. The Soviet wrestler had cardiovascular problems: high blood pressure.

Doctors believed that he was out of great sport. Although it was clear that Olympic Games of 1972 would anyway be the last for him, Alexander came up to the scratch in his best shape. He became the first wrestler to hold the flag of the USSR at the opening of the Olympic Games. An honour previously only given to weightlifters. Expectations
were high that Medved’ would get a third gold medal in a row.

The two bears

Against the background of political confrontation between the Soviet Union and the U.S., the fight between the 114 kg athlete from Minsk and 190 kg American Chris Taylor was one of the most anticipated events in Munich. It took the Bear two rounds to exhaust the American giant. As he was getting tired, he knocked him to the mat and won by one point. But this victory was costly for Medved’, who needed injections in the final to lessen the
pain, although ultimately managing to win.

With his last fight over, the then three-time Olympic champion stepped into the middle of the room, went down on his knees and kissed the rug, and so symbolically ending his career.
Medved’ admits that it was impossible to believe that a wrestler could show his best results for 12 years, during three consecutive Olympic Games. He explains his success with Belarusian modesty, saying that anything is possible, if one goes slowly, step by step, works hard every day and so gets the universe to help you.

As Alexander explained, "As I went out into the ring, I enjoyed it". He liked to move, polish techniques to become like instinct. He would win over an opponent, for example, who would come up afterwards and say, "Show me how you do that?" –He says the champions who met in the most elite fights were often the same people who become your friends
outside the wrestling mat.

The Bear's practice of using every minute wisely helped him to live a full life even as his sports career came to an end. He worked as a coach, taught at universities and the headed Belarusian Wrestling Federation.

Since 1970, in Minsk, the international tournament in freestyle and women's wrestling awards Alexander Medved’ prizes, and he has helped with the opening of a new youth sports centre.

Alexander Medved' today. Photo by:

Today Medved’ is Vice-President of the National Olympic Committee of Belarus. He is only vice because the Belarusian president heads the committee: there is no athlete worthy of a post higher than the Bear.

Belarusians know this unique wrestler as a modest and approachable man; he doesn’t believe he is a star, knows how to work, and how to both win and lose. They also know one other of his secrets: is his family, which has supported him through the years; his wife, children, and now grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Could it be a coincidence that Medved’ Bear chose to stay in Minsk? He was destined to be a fighter and a winner. And a Belarusian.