Sports Illustrated Daily, July 30, 1996

Sports Illustrated Olympic Daily Flashback

A Soviet strongman's finest hour

by Ron Fimrite

He was regarded as the strongest man in the world, and Vasily Alexeyev let no one forget it. From 1970, when at 28 he won his first world championship and became the first man to lift more than 500 pounds in the clean and jerk, until the Moscow Games 10 years later, the Soviet superheavyweight set 80 world records and won two Olympic gold medals. Then, as happens to all strong men, age and infirmity drained him of his immense power.

Vasily Alexeyev

Alexeyev got his second gold medal—and a world record—with his lift of 562 pounds.

photograph by
Neil Leifer

In his prime Alexeyev was a forbidding figure, 6'1" and weighing nearly 350 pounds, scowling and blue-jowled. He would stride ponderously to the platform, stand before the barbell with eyes tightly closed, as if in a trance, and then with astonishing speed hoist the great weights overhead. As spectators gasped, he would lower the weights and imperiously take his leave. He was, in every sense, a presence. (The superheavyweight competition will be held today at the Georgia World Congress Center.)

But Alexeyev was also capable of great gregariousness. He and his wife, appropriately named Olimpiada, enjoyed entertaining in their fine home in the mining city of Shakhty. He was an avid reader, Jack London being, as with many Soviets at the time, a particular passion. He spent hours in his flower garden.

Alexeyev attributed much of his strength to his early training as a woodcutter, working alongside his lumberjack father. He didn't begin lifting until he was 21, and seven years passed before he won that first world championship. However, he became the sport's most recognizable figure after he won his first superheavyweight gold at the 1972 Munich Games, setting an Olympic record of 1,411 total pounds in the three lifts—press, snatch and jerk. He reached the pinnacle at the 1976 Montreal Games, when the competition was confined to two lifts. He was confronted there by East Germany's Gerd Bonk, who, 10 years younger at 24, had already broken Alexeyev's clean-and-jerk record with a lift of 557 pounds.

In Montreal, Alexeyev waited patiently in the warmup room until Bonk completed his efforts in the snatch with a lift of 375 pounds. Then, arrogantly, Alexeyev began by lifting his own Olympic record of 386 pounds and subsequently increased the weight until he had lifted 408. In the clean and jerk Bonk bettered Alexeyev's Olympic record of 507 pounds with his final lift of 518. Alexeyev had already clinched the gold with total lifts of 915 pounds to Bonk's 893, but spurred by the challenge he ordered new weights added to the bar to bring it up to 562 pounds—a world record if he could lift it.

The crowd cheered the great champion's stately march to the platform. Alexeyev fell into his momentary trance. Then, with a mighty grunt, he hoisted the barbell to his shoulders, pausing there for the final push. He first staggered backward and then to one side as he raised the weights overhead. As the crowd thundered its approval, he held the barbell steady before dropping it triumphantly to the floor.

He would add another half pound to his record in the coming months, before suddenly falling on hard times. At the '78 world championships he popped a tendon in his right hip while attempting to clean-and-jerk 529 pounds and was forced to withdraw. He virtually dropped from sight after that until the 1980 Moscow Games. At that time Alexeyev was 38, grossly overweight and not entirely recovered from his injury, but he desperately wanted to win a third Olympic gold in his own country.

It was not to be. Three times he failed at 397 pounds in the snatch and was quickly eliminated. This time he walked off to the jeers of the home crowd. But he had lost none of his bravado. "I am an old and very strong horse," he said. "This is not the end."

But it was.

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