It was comedy for the British and triumphs for the Soviet Union, host country Cuba and the other, as the propagandists were calling them, "friendly socialist nations." For the United States? Disaster. Pure, miserable disaster. In the palmy days of John Davis, Tommy Kono and Isaac Berger, U.S. teams were the best in the world, but by the end of the 12-day World Weightlifting Championships in Havana they were not even the best in the Americas. Seven U.S. lifters competed, four bombed out, to use the indelicate term raised time and again in lifting circles, and the team—dreadful thought—could only tie for fifth with Puerto Rico in the Pan American Championships, held within the framework of the world tournament. Back at the Hotel Havana Libre (n� Hilton), Frank Capsouras of Hillsdale, N.J., a bomber in his own class—middle heavyweight—tried to cut the night with levity. "I can see the headlines now," he said. " U.S. bombers hit Havana."
Among the many not laughing was Bob Hoffman, the 75-year-old publisher and editor-in-chief of Strength & Health, president of the York (Pa.) Barbell Company and a man inordinately proud of being "the officially designated father of world weight lifting." To Hoffman, who is a kind of living Abner Doubleday, the U.S. B-52's were so many "louses" who purposely dropped their bombs "to embarrass the Establishment," apparently meaning, among others, him.
American debacle aside, the championships, even in Hoffman's view, were the best ever. Laying on the hospitality, the Cubans served multi-course meals in the reserved dining room at the Havana Libre, dispensed cigars and bottles of rum, provided ample reading material (one exciting item: Hijacking of Aircraft: A Boomerang Hurled at Cuba by the Imperialist Government of the United States of America
) and offered free careening shuttle service by a fleet of Fiat buses between the hotel and the mod Coliseum of Ciudad Deportiva, "Sport City." Crowds every night were close to capacity—12,000—some of the largest live audiences ever to watch weight lifting anywhere, although in a sense the houses during the competition were papered. No one has to pay to go to a sports event in Cuba. A sign hanging from a Sport City balcony said it all: "Sport is a right of the people—Fidel."
The Cuban crowds were remarkable. They had their hometown favorites, but they applauded or whistled in derision as their fancy, not their politics, moved them. They were reminiscent of oldtime Brooklyn Dodger fans who would give a hand for Stan the Man after he doubled off the right-field wall and before they took the gas pipe.
Weight lifting is a surprisingly compelling sport to watch. It combines raw strength and fluidity of technique with the mental cunning of poker. There are nine weight classes, from flyweight to superheavy, and contestants in each class compete in two different lifts for a total score. "The total is the important thing," said Dito Shanidze of the Soviet Union, who won the featherweight title in Havana after finishing second in both the snatch and the clean and jerk.
In the snatch a contestant lifts the bar in a single movement from the floor to overhead, both arms ending fully extended. The contestant must stand motionless before the chief referee signals his approval. In world competition two side referees also watch, and after the lift is completed all three press buttons. If two or three white lights flash on the scoreboard the verdict is that the lift was good. Two red lights—nyet.
In the clean and jerk a lifter first "cleans" the bar by raising it to shoulder height in a single movement. He then rests the bar on his chest or clavicles before he "jerks" it overhead, arms fully extended. Again all parts of his body must be motionless after he has gathered himself together at the finish of his lift.
Cunning enters into competition because each contestant is given three chances in both the snatch and the clean and jerk. His single heaviest lift is his score. The weight cannot decrease, and as the weight increases lifters can try to wait one another out. This happened in Havana where Vasilij Alexeev of the Soviet Union passed until everyone had completed all three clean and jerks. He then appeared on the platform like some latter-day apparition and topped them all with one lift of 496 pounds.
The sport is at its most popular in the Communist bloc, where it is extremely well organized and expertly staffed by coaches, trainers and doctors. Bulgaria, with a population of only 8.5 million people, has 50 paid coaches and 25 training centers. By contrast, the U.S. has not a single full-time paid coach. Inasmuch as weight lifting in a Communist country offers a promising competitor status, better living conditions and other perquisites, it attracts hordes of eager youngsters who, if successful, will train full time. To preserve their amateur status, authorities describe the athletes as "student," "army member" or "engineer." The last is in such favor these days that one envisions the steppes festooned with bridges and tunnels:
One non-Communist country that does well is Iran. Here again status and reward are the motivating forces, for the Shah takes a deep personal interest. Hoffman says, "The Shah once told me, 'Bob, I've been reading your magazine since I was 10 years old.'" Hoffman even claims, somewhat hazily, that the Shah owes his throne to weight lifting. In 1953 Premier Mohammed Mossadegh was riding high and the Shah was a lesser figure when a mob of 10,000 led, says Hoffman, "by weight lifters armed with iron bars and knives," advanced on Mossadegh, causing the premier to flee. Hoffman says he has a Persian rug in his home worth at least $5,000, a gift from a grateful reader, the Shah.