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Iran's big man in Havana was one of the smallest, 4'8" Mohammed Nassiri. A bantamweight in the 1972 Olympics at Munich, he finished second. For Havana he sweated in a sauna to compete as a 114-pound flyweight, and on opening night he set two world records for the class: 308� pounds in the clean and jerk and 528� pounds total. "When Nassiri gets home to Teheran he'll own the place," said Hoffman.
An engaging extrovert, Nassiri savored his win the remainder of his stay in Cuba by doing backflips around the hotel swimming pool, performing solo dances � la Carmen Miranda on the nightclub floor and impersonating an elevator operator demanding that guests display their floor passes. He was instantly recognizable, in part because he wore a straw cowboy hat everywhere, even at dinner. As a high-born Briton said, "Hmmm, interesting chap. Foreigner, I suppose."
But the real star of the championships was a 20-year-old middleweight (165 pounds) from Bulgaria, Nadeltcho Kolev. He, too, set world records: 419 pounds in the clean and jerk and 744 total. Kolev is a lithely muscled and extremely quick athlete whose techniques appear to be as natural as breathing. A gymnast until he was 15, he credits his elasticity, unusual among lifters, to his training in that sport. He is an army sublieutenant stationed in Sofia and works out five hours a day, five days a week. In his spare time he likes to play basketball and listen to jazz.
Morris Weissbrot of New York, who helped coach almost all of the best U.S. lifters of the past, almost drools when he talks of Kolev. "In baseball," Weissbrot says, "Kolev would be even more than a Willie Mays or a Mickey Mantle. He exudes confidence. You look at him, and you can see how splendidly conditioned he is. There are no extraneous muscles on his arms. They are perfect lifting hooks. With his trapezius area, his back, the spinal erectors, his thighs and buttocks, he looks like a lifting machine. Paul Anderson used to say, 'The guy with the biggest butt lifts the biggest weights.' The gluteus is literally the seat of your power; it acts as a fulcrum. Kolev's back is a whole chain of muscles, and there is no weak link. What fantastic coordination he has. And he is not even fully developed yet. Weight lifters can compete almost as long as any athlete, because strength is at its maximum between 35 and 45 years of age. If he stays in the sport, Kolev is going to get better and better over the years. He is the story of Havana."
At Munich the Bulgarians finished with the most medals when the Russians played it too cool and waited for higher weights in several classes. But the Russians reversed this order last month at Havana. Vladimir Rizhenkov won in the 181-pound light heavyweight class; David Rigert, another Soviet, in the middle heavyweight; and Pavel Pervushin, the blond dreamboat of Russian teen-age girls, in the 242-pound heavyweight division. "What a fullback he'd make in pro ball," said Capsouras. "His legs are so strong his knees would punch holes in the chests of tacklers." Rigert, who was supposed to put on the sort of performance that Kolev did, was disappointing with a total of 804� pounds. He seemed to come on like a bit of a ham, pausing dramatically each time before attempting a lift. "Rigert has suddenly grown aware of his star status," said Weissbrot. "He knows he's supposed to be the world's best, so he acts the part."
To the surprise of many but to the joy of the crowd, Javier Gonzalez of Cuba gave Pervushin a run in the heavyweight class, finishing second in the snatch and third overall. He became the first Cuban ever to win a medal in world competition, and he was the local hero as he led Cuba to victory in the Pan Ams. Coached by a Russian, the Cubans are on their way to becoming a world power in lifting.
The superheavyweights, a dozen behemoths in all, attracted the most crowd interest. Military police outside had to hold back the crush of people at the Coliseum on the final night. As expected, the 320-pound Alexeev won, although he was beaten by Rudolf Mang of West Germany in the snatch. Probably the strongest man at the championships and maybe in the world was Serge Reding of Belgium, a genial intellectual who is a librarian by profession and a lifter dogged by hard luck. Despite a marvelous lifting build-5'7" and 310 pounds—he has never taken a world title. At Havana he appeared briefly to have won the snatch with a final lift of 402� pounds, tying his own world mark, but he was stunned to see three red lights flashing on the scoreboard, one of them signaled by a Belgian referee. The crowd erupted in protest over the decision, and Reding, grief-stricken, stumbled from the stage into the arms of his coach. He pulled himself together and returned for the clean and jerk, but he failed completely, injuring his leg and hobbling from the scene like a wounded Babar the elephant.
Oddly, the popular hero of the final night was one of the colorful—if not always effective—Britons, Terry Perdue. He is bearded, stuffs 320 pounds into a six-foot frame and could be played in a film by Peter Ustinov. Like his teammates, he was expected to contribute little more than laughs to the proceedings. The British had another superheavyweight, bespectacled Andrew Kerr, who resembles Peter Sellers, and a tiny flyweight, Precious McKenzie, who palled around with Perdue. (The two of them are featured, namelessly alas, by Mai Zetterling in Visions of Eight.) One British lifter found Cuban hospitality so cordial that he did not sleep in his room four nights running, and another, when asked how things were going, said, "Very well. We've gotten very good prices for shoes, shirts and so on." Informed that Cuban authorities took a fairly dim view of such dealings and that anyone who checked out of Havana with more pesos than he had upon his arrival could be dealt with severely, the lifter replied brightly, "Oh, we've been spending it at the bar."
The British knew they did not stand a chance in world competition, but they gallantly gave all, for as Lightweight George Newton said, "We're battling not to finish last." Their coach, John Lear, had so little hope for the chances of Perdue and Kerr, he told friends that since he had failed to get himself committed to a hospital the day of the superheavyweight competition, he hoped he would be struck by a car on the way to the Coliseum.
A scrap dealer in Swansea, Perdue had been arrested in 1971 along with two other men and charged with the theft of 41,000 pounds of metal. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but he kept up his training there and after serving nine months was acquitted on appeal just in time to join the Olympic team and appear in the games. The joke with the British lifters in Havana was, "Hurry up and lift. Perdue is coming. We might not have any barbells left."