APRIL 14, 1975
Thirty-four years after Vasili Alexeyev became the first weightlifter to clean-and-jerk 500 pounds, the man who pumped the iron that added to the aura of the Iron Curtain still claims he doesn't understand why he was portrayed in the U.S. as the symbol of the power—and the threat—of the Soviet Union.
"In 1985, as the cold war icebergs were melting, I was watching an American TV documentary about the Soviet Union," Alexeyev said recently, sitting in the trophy room of his home in the Russian city of Shakhty, 600 miles south of Moscow. "Suddenly, they showed me, and the announcer said, 'At a time when the Soviet Union was lagging behind the United States in space exploration, the Russians responded with Vasili Alexeyev.' I was shocked at how highly America thought of me."
The two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion, who still describes himself as "the Number 1 sports legend in the history of the Soviet Union," was being coy. Each of Alexeyev's 80 world records in the superheavyweight division has been surpassed (his record for setting the most world records still stands), but, at 62, his ego remains as imperial as ever.
In 1975, between his Olympic triumphs at Munich (1972) and Montreal ('76), an SI cover story praised Alexeyev's "kingly chest and belly, broader than any barrel, bass drum or office safe in common use today." Back then, Shakhty was a booming coal-mining city, and Alexeyev was officially listed—and very well paid, by Soviet standards—as a "mining engineer." Now, like the U.S.S.R., the Shakhty mines are no longer operating. "Everything is in ruins," he says.
Alexeyev, who swears that he never used performance-enhancing drugs, was 38 when the Olympics came to Moscow in 1980, and he competed for the last time. However, he failed to complete a lift and complained, unconvincingly, that Soviet officials had poisoned him with "a strange drink that made me act like a stupid sheep." He was unemployed for eight years and then spent four years as national team coach, guiding the lifters representing the Unified Team of Independent States—the banner under which the former Soviet nations competed at the 1992 Games—to five gold medals in Barcelona. He remains the nominal vice president of the Russian Weightlifting Federation, but won't be on hand to assist his country's lifters in Athens.
Not surprisingly, Alexeyev's planet-sized abdomen and rain-forest eyebrows remain proudly intact, as does his 42-year marriage. He continues to work out avidly in the training cabin he built behind his house and is introducing his two grandsons-one of them named Vasili Alexeyev—to the sport that made his name synonymous with Soviet strength. "I think kids should be forced to do sports," he says. "I tell them, 'You may not be champions, but you do have to be strong!"