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Cary Kolat Lost Golden Opportunity At 2000 Olympic Games

Cary Kolat Lost Golden Opportunity At 2000 Olympic Games

No American wrestler has faced injustice like Cary Kolat did from 1997 through 2000. In 2024, we are still wondering why.

Jun 5, 2024 by Kyle Klingman

This story ran in 2009 before United World Wrestling became the governing body for international wrestling in 2013. It recounts the four-year saga of Cary Kolat and the injustices he faced at the World Championships from 1997 to 1999 and the 2000 Olympic Games.

Kolat is the head coach at the United States Naval Academy, a position previously held by former National Team Coach Bruce Burnett who is quoted throughout the story. Updates were made to reflect current information. 

Strange things used to happen in the bizarre world of international wrestling. FILA – the global governing body for wrestling – had a history of functioning outside the realm of ethics, leading to its removal in 2013 after the sport was nearly booted from the Olympics. 

And no wrestler experienced the dark side of this organization like Cary Kolat. 

Kolat represented the United States at 63 kg (138.75 pounds) during three World Championships and one Olympic Games from 1997 through 2000. During those four years, Kolat garnered one silver medal, one bronze medal, and a lifetime of questions.

Kolat's only international title is unofficial: Best wrestler never to win a World or Olympic title. The title is subjective – and upsetting to Kolat – of course, but ultimately true.

College Is Over...Finally

An undefeated prep career (137-0) at Jefferson-Morgan High School in Pennsylvania, four state titles, and two third-place finishes at the Midlands – a prestigious tournament at Northwestern featuring some of the best college and post-college wrestling in the nation – as a junior and senior in high school meant Kolat was on track to become one of the nation’s finest wrestlers. 

Kolat enrolled at Penn State and placed second at the NCAA tournament in 1993 as a true freshman and third as a sophomore in 1994. Following a redshirt year in 1995 Kolat transferred to Lock Haven University Wrestling, winning NCAA titles in 1996 and ’97.

But Kolat’s heart belonged to freestyle. College was a stepping-stone to international wrestling – and near the end of his time at Lock Haven wrestling began getting stale.

“I loved wrestling,” Kolat said. “At seven years old the first national title I won was the AAU nationals in Omaha, Nebraska – a freestyle tournament. And I fell in love with freestyle at that point. In 1984 I watched all those guys win gold medals (seven in freestyle, two in Greco-Roman) and I was just obsessed with trying to chase down an Olympic gold medal.

“When they raised my hand on that NCAA platform for the final time I was saying inside that I’m glad this phase of my wrestling career is over because my passion and my love always was for freestyle. That’s where I loved to be. It was like the gloves are off, I don’t have to do the folkstyle stuff any more and I can focus on where I really want to wrestle.”

1997 World Championships

Following an unsuccessful bid to make the Olympic team in 1996, Kolat put all his efforts into freestyle. Kolat watched Tom Brands win the Olympics that year and learned an important lesson: You have to be hard-nosed and tough to win international wrestling tournaments – especially if you’re an American.

The 1997 World Championships in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, could have been the start of a gold medal run. Kolat won his first four matches and reached the finals against Iran’s Abbas Hajd Kenari, the same opponent Brands had defeated in the opening round of the ’96 Olympics.

Kolat learned another important lesson: Don’t fall behind early. He gave up a takedown and gut wrench within the first minute and had to play catch up – a dangerous game against crafty international opponents.

“That match in ’97, I don’t know if we can say that’s due to FILA’s corruption,” said Kolat. “That was more of a referee thing going on. I can kind of live with the ’97 thing. Not that I’m happy with a silver but in ’97 I gave up points 40 seconds into the match.

“I’ve never watched the match but people have told me there are seven or eight times he tied his shoes and he untied his shoes and that’s where we came up with the taped laces. And that’s more of a referee thing. You don’t know who you’re going to get.

“It’s us versus the world and it’s always been that way.”

A 4-2 loss to Kenari meant Kolat settled for a silver medal in his first World Championships. 

He would never place higher.

1998 World Championships

At the 1998 World Championships in Teheran, Iran, Kolat won his first-round match and was pitted against Serafim Barzakov of Bulgaria in the second round.

“Cary wins the match,” said Bruce Burnett, U.S. Freestyle National Team Coach from 1992 through 2000. “The match is over and Cary wins. They go into the back room, with no representation from the United States, and overturn it. There’s no wrestling. They overturned his win and turned it into a loss. 

“And it wasn’t Cary (they were after). It was the Bulgarian’s chance to get a medal.” 

Following the overturned match, Barzakov went on to win the gold medal, the only medal for Bulgaria at the tournament. Kolat reeled off six consecutive wins – including two over former World champions – to take third.

Kolat had his hand raised in every match but settled for the bronze. 

The next year’s World Championships were even stranger. 

1999 World Championships

In the opening round, Kolat defeated Russia’s Shamil Umakhanov – Olympic champion the following year – in a wild shootout. But during the first takedown, Kolat separated his shoulder defending a shot.

Wrestling severely injured for the entirety of the tournament, Kolat reached the semifinals against Elbrus Tedeev of Ukraine – the same wrestler he defeated for third the year before. 

Down by two late in the match, Kolat hit a swing single, turned it into an ankle lace, and won with two seconds left. Kolat won the match but a protest from the Ukrainians ensued.

The officials reviewed the situation matside and the decision stood for Kolat. But then, similar to the previous year, officials went into a back room (with no coaches allowed) to “discuss” the decision. The match was overturned and the match was re-wrestled.

“Now it’s like (Ukraine has) a one-armed guy trying to wrestle,” Kolat said. “They know what’s going on now and I wind up losing the next match 2-1 and there’s a questionable call but you can’t protest a protested match so it was done right there. For third and fourth that year I couldn’t perform. After that point mentally I was out of it. My shoulder is a wreck and I’m getting shot up after every match.

“Here I am where I’ve beaten everybody and I’m forced to wrestle for third when I should be wrestling in the finals. So I wind up losing to Uzbekistan to take fourth.”

2000 Olympic Games

Yet the strangest event occurred at the 2000 Olympics. 

To advance in the tournament each wrestler had to win his respective pool. Kolat’s pool consisted of two other wrestlers: Mohammad Talaee of Iran and Ramil Islamov of Uzbekistan. 

“People always ask me if I was nervous at the Olympic Games and I can tell you honestly this was the first time in my life where there were absolutely no butterflies,” Kolat said. “Like I knew I was going to win that event. I was ready, I felt good, and I didn’t have an ounce of nervousness in me. I’m ready to go…this is where I wanted to be.”

Kolat faced Talaee in the opening round. But, like many of Kolat’s matches, a scramble occurred. The Iranians argued the call. A matside video review showed that the score would stand and Kolat eventually won.

But…FILA reviewed the match in a back room where coaches weren’t allowed, and it was overturned. The match had to be re-wrestled.

“This is the only part of my career that I have a lot of regrets and a lot of anger at myself because I could have beat him,” said Kolat. “I could have beat him in the second match, too. When we came out and shook hands in the second match, when we had to re-wrestle, the whole time I was thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m wrestling this guy again.’ If you’re thinking when you’re competing in the Olympic Games your mind’s not in it.”

Talaee won the protested match, 5-4, but there was still hope for Kolat. Because the loss was in pool competition Kolat could advance if he beat Islamov and if Islamov beats Talaee.

There was only one thing Kolat could not do: pin Islamov. That meant Islamov had no chance of advancing out of the pool even if he did beat Talaee.

But wrestlers are trained to pin, so when Kolat saw an opening he took it. Pinning Islamov meant that Kolat’s fate rested in the hands of Islamov wrestling – and beating – Talaee.

“John Smith goes over to (Islamov), and we used John Smith, he’s our six-time World and Olympic champion, he carries some weight with those dudes,” Kolat said. “He asks if he’s going to wrestle and he was like ‘I’m going to wrestle. I’m not going to lay down.’ I’m waiting back at the hotel and I’m calling and John’s like ‘Look, I’ve talked to them, the dude is going to wrestle, you’re good. The guy is going to give it his all.’”

“I looked at my watch and I call and (John) said he saw the Russians walk over to him – and Uzbekistan is one of those old Soviet republics – so the Russians still have some reach. So they go over and they say something to him, they point to his shoes and the guy took his shoes off, left the arena, and didn’t wrestle. And then the Russian went on and won the gold medal. And that was how the whole thing finished up.”

Cary Kolat’s Olympic dream was gone in two matches.

The Aftermath Of Corruption

“(Corruption) goes on,” Burnett said. “This is part of what happens. You have all of these Olympic ideals and all of a sudden you get the backside of it. And that’s not to say Cary couldn’t have beaten the guy again, but he shouldn’t have had to. He won the match based on the rules that they had in place at the time.

“Can you justify it? Absolutely not. Can you complain? Yeah, I complained. To this day I’m convinced that FILA has a picture of me hanging on its walls.”

For Kolat, life was a blur for two months following the Olympics. The Pennsylvania native flew back from Sydney to a home he had just rented in Morgantown, West Virginia. His wife, as he found out during the Olympics, was pregnant with their first daughter, Zooey.

“We’ve always screamed to fight more but (USA Wrestling) did some things behind the scenes to try and help me get through it and try to help me when I was over there and I appreciated it,” said Kolat. “It just took me some time to calm down. I was projecting my anger on everyone that was around me.

“Since 2000 there isn’t a day I don’t walk around thinking I don’t have one gold medal – and I wanted multiple. I would take just one now. There are days where I’m still not fully recovered. You don’t ever escape something like that.”

How Could This Happen?

Yet, through it all, an even deeper question looms: How could all of this happen to one person?

“If you think about it, you’d say that it can’t happen to one guy,” said Burnett. “They’re out to get Cary. But it wasn’t Cary – it was who he was wrestling. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I got out of international wrestling because I was so disgusted by that part of it.”

Burnett, the current head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, had Kolat serve as a clinician at a summer camp this year. And for the first time the two sat down and opened up about what went on during those four years.

“When Bruce talks about it, it bothers me more than anybody else because he was always in the trenches there with me,” Kolat said. “When he starts reliving it, it really stirs up emotion in me. When other people ask me it doesn’t bother me but he said ‘You had the wrong guys with the wrong connections in your weight and it was just pure bad luck.’”

Burnett left his position as National Teams coach following the 2000 Olympics but Kolat kept wrestling…sort of. He placed second at the 2001 World Cup with little training. 

Cary Kolat's Return To Wrestling

Kolat entered a couple of tournaments with an Olympic run in mind, but lackluster performances led to his decision to step away from wrestling.

However, in 2007, Kolat found his way back to the mat to challenge the nation’s best in earnest. He entered the 2007 U.S. Nationals – training only with his Adam Takedown Machine – and placed fourth. His next competition was the 2008 U.S. Nationals where he lost in the first round to Jared Lawrence.

Kolat was eligible for the 2008 Olympic Trials because he made a previous Olympic Team. He competed there, losing in the semi-finals of the mini-tournament to Chris Bono, for the last time.

Or was it? 

“I miss it,” said Kolat. “I miss it every day.

“If the right situation was there where I could support my family and train I’d be on the mat again. I wrestle and I love doing it.”

Watch FloWrestling's series on Cary Kolat

Episode One
Episode Two
Episode Three