Ukraine Giant Finds Lonely Fame

Sept. 19, 2002
By Phil Stewart

Photo: Viktor Zabolotny, billed as the world's tallest man, sharing the circus ring with the announcer and a spectator in Medellin, Colombia.Albeiro Lopera / Reuters

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- There are no bearded ladies or dwarfs. No Siamese twins, three-legged men, or knife swallowers.

Under a scruffy big top, sheltering a rag-tag circus that limps from one South American city to another, the main attraction is a giant called Nikolai -- billed as the tallest man in the world.

Rising from beneath a blue tarp, hidden behind the circus, Nikolai stretches out his arms, his massive jaw dropping for a long, gaping yawn. It's gray and drizzling, and a few Colombian beggars wander the industrial sprawl beyond the circus gates.

In just moments, Nikolai will lumber onto a small stage for a 15-minute presentation before a mostly empty audience. He will sneak up behind a young female spectator and make her shriek. Then he will pat the head of a short man, cooing "awwwwww" in a low, hollow voice, as if he's found a new pet.

Hopefully, the small crowd will laugh at Nikolai and snap some photos. But usually they also poke him, tug at his clothes and sometimes call him names.

"All the way from Russia, with a height of 2.39 meters, the tallest man in the world, Nikolai!" bellows a tuxedoed circus announcer, his voice echoing.

It wasn't always like this. Indeed, Nikolai didn't even exist eight months ago.

His real name is Viktor Zabolotny and he is Ukrainian, not Russian. He looks like a classic James Bond villain, the kind that laughs when 007 throws his best punch.

Capitalizing on his extreme size, he once played center for the Soviet Union's best basketball team. His apartment, car and spending money were all generously provided by the state.

But that was more than a decade ago, and Zabolotny's life took a turn for the worse with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian basketball went broke, and he was living off irregular handouts from sports enthusiasts.

Then his telephone rang late last year.

"I found this job by accident. A man from Ecuador called and said, "Come to Ecuador, we have work for you," Zabolotny, 33, said in a recent interview in Medellin, the latest stop in a tour through a string of violent and poor Andean cities.

"My wife said, 'Why the hell do you have to go away?"' he said, smiling sadly. "This is how I ended up in the circus."

Zabolotny now gets a steady paycheck of about $2,500 a month, and in exchange calls himself Nikolai and says he's from Russia. He speaks slowly, thoughtfully and only in Ukrainian.

"I've gotten used to my circus identity," he explains. "People laugh and as long as it's a healthy laugh, it's OK. But there are other people who start yelling like a bunch of drunks. I don't like it. Or sometimes they try to grab my shoulder, or take measurements from behind."

The circus makes Zabolotny's clothes, mostly oversized jumpsuits, with the name "Nikolai" stitched across his white jackets and down the sides of his trousers.

He performs twice on weekdays and three times on Saturdays and Sundays. The small circus is wedged in beside a Medellin airstrip, and Zabolotny's act is often drowned out by the roar of jets landing or taking off just beyond the big top.

Nikolai is the only sure lure for the small circus, which also boasts a dog show and a slightly plump woman who wiggles dozens of hoola-hoops. Under the big top, he is treated like a celebrity, with assistants and his own VIP tarp strung up behind the circus.

Security is tight. Four men, clad in black uniforms, patrol the grounds with rifles and leashed attack dogs, guarding against Medellin's infamous cocaine-fueled violence.

Still, Zabolotny says he's comfortable here. He compares himself to a comedian trying to win laughs from the audience. And he likes the tender moments in his routine. At one point, he lifts children to a basketball hoop so they can slam-dunk.

"At the beginning, I was very nervous every time I stepped on stage. In basketball, when you go out onto the court, you forget about the audience and just play," he said. "But here you have to keep contact with the audience, like wrestling with someone or winking at someone, or something."

Even at the circus, though, life is lonely for Zabolotny. The tight-rope walkers, the animal trainers and the acrobats don't talk to him. Indeed, they make fun of him.

"Sometimes we'll joke with him. We'll say something like, 'How do you make love with that thing.' But he'll just walk away," said gymnast Antonio Daza, who lives with his family in a trailer parked on the circus grounds.

The others earn as little as a quarter of Zabolotny's salary and say they and Nikolai have little in common -- branding him a human oddity. They mention that he isn't even recognized as the tallest man by the Guinness Book of World Records. That title belongs to Tunisia's Radhouane Charbib, who is about 2.5 centimeters shorter than Zabolotny claims to be.

"The rest of us, it's like we're a family. We practice, spend time together. Nikolai doesn't really perform. He just goes and stands out there," Daza said.

It's closing time at the circus and Zabolotny is posing for his last Polaroid.

A mother from the audience handed him her baby, and she and the circus photographer -- dressed like a hobo clown -- are frantically waving and making sounds to draw the child's gaze toward the camera.

The infant keeps staring at the giant's head.

Beyond the circus gates, Zabolotny's celebrity status has a much crueler side and he usually heads home after his last act. But today is the tight-rope walker's birthday, and the magician reserved a table at one of Medellin's hottest clubs -- apparently promising that Nikolai would make an appearance.

Zabolotny reluctantly agrees to go.

The animal trainers, the hoola-hoop girl, the magician and some clowns are gathered outside when Zabolotny's car pulls up. When the bouncers see Nikolai approaching, they waive the $8 cover.

Inside, half-naked women dance in cages to hard, pounding techno music. The Ukrainian's head and chest bob above the crowd as he pushes toward his table.

The DJ lowers the music to announce the giant's arrival, and hundreds of people stare.

Shying from the attention, Zabolotny curls into a small, plastic chair, his knees nearly reaching his chin. The others dance, but he never gets up. Not even to go to the bathroom.

By 4 a.m., most people are drunk and the club is closing. A few men, rumored to be drug traffickers, become belligerent.

As he makes his way outside, a woman cries out "What is that thing?" Others laugh. A man pokes Zabolotny in the back and asks him how tall he is. Spilling out into the parking lot, a burly man gets hostile with Zabolotny, taunting him and calling out vulgarities.

"Wanna fight? Hey, you. Do you wanna fight?" shouts the man.

But the Ukrainian giant only walks away, shyly.

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