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The first hint that all might not proceed according to schedule came on Wednesday when Alexeyev contracted a severe case of hives. Huge welts formed first across his upper arms and back, then spread to his forehead, thighs and, worst of all, his hands, causing them to swell to a degree that made it difficult to grip the bar. Early theorizing had it that Bruce Wilhelm's desiccated liver tablets were the culprits: Alexeyev had tried some for the first time, at Wilhelm's urging. Later that explanation was abandoned in favor of the "strange fruit" theory. Alexeyev had been eating a lot of pineapple, it was said, a fruit to which his system was not accustomed. By Saturday morning the desiccated liver-pineapple crisis had passed, but a new problem, more serious, had arisen. Sometime Thursday, during a brief and friendly tussle with Wilhelm over a copy of Iron Man magazine, Alexeyev had strained a weight-bearing tendon in his right wrist, the flexor carpi. On Friday he was injected with Americaine, an anesthetic agent, by a local orthopedist. When the day of the lifting arrived and the condition was unimproved, he took the advice of the U.S. team doctors and declined to lift. Dr. Richard Wright said later, "The injury had loosened the tendon from its attachment. If he had lifted he would have sheared the tendon and possibly ended his lifting career."
Alexeyev is 35 now. He has set 82 world records during his 17-year career, in the snatch, the clean and jerk and the total. He has been world champion eight times, Olympic gold medalist both in Munich and Montreal, and he recently set the world record for the clean and jerk and the total (the record for the snatch was taken from him by Christo Plachkov of Bulgaria in 1976). Alexeyev might reasonably be ready to retire, but with the Moscow Olympics approaching, he defers the decision. "I will be 39 then," he said last Friday, through his local interpreter for the week, a Las Vegas resident named Mara Dixon. "The body pays the price of the years. Perhaps the body will endure, perhaps not. We will see."
Although various components of the celebrated 354-pound body took a beating last week, the U.S.S.R.'s contract with the AAU called for Alexeyev to lift, and lift he did. With one hand. Olympic-style weight lifting is made up of only two events now, the snatch and the clean and jerk, but once upon a time there were five, including a one-handed snatch. Alexeyev announced that he would attempt to equal his personal best of 231� pounds. He started at 198�, the bar in his hand looking about as heavy as a broomstick. He smiled his small cat smile at the audience and bowed slightly. Alexeyev has two public expressions—that little smile and the blackest scowl of which the human physiognomy is capable. He exhibited the scowl one day last week after a workout as he rested his belly against the cool, slanted glass of a Baskin-Robbins refrigerator case. He had just polished off a Moa Moa Punch, and the girl behind the counter was urging him to try a sample spoonful of Pralines 'N Cream. He obliged, decided it was not the flavor of the month as far as he was concerned, and scowled his disapproval, blackly but good naturedly.
After toying with 198� in the first one-handed snatch, Alexeyev upped the weight to 220� pounds and again raised it easily. But 231� proved too much, and he dropped the bar with a crash.
Another disappointment, from every point of view, was the failure of the two smaller Russians, flyweight Alexander Voronin and middleweight Yuri Vardanyan, to make the weight for their respective classes. Each weighed in one pound over the maximum at 9 a.m. Saturday and each therefore had to lift in the next heavier class, eliminating all hope of a world record.
Vardanyan is a 21-year-old, 5'7", 165-pound Armenian with the smooth face of a choirboy and a disposition to match. He holds the world middleweight records for the clean and jerk (413�) and the total (733 pounds), and he is a Master of Sport, International Class. Vardanyan was the most conspicuous consumer of the Soviet delegation, buying, among other things, a $230 stereo set, but he was also the artist. Backstage, after the lifting Saturday, he sat down at a stray piano and for half an hour played Russian songs in complete peace while a sea of chattering people swirled about him.
Voronin is 26 and comes from Siberia. He is listed as 4'8" tall, but seems even smaller, though his tiny frame is sturdy. If he had made the weight and had been competing as a flyweight as expected, his 242-pound snatch would have been the only world record of the Record Makers Invitational. He holds all three world records in the division and he won the gold medal in his class at the Montreal Olympics.
Language barriers made questions difficult. Although Alexeyev had an interpreter of his own, the rest of the Soviet lifters had to make do with monosyllables or nothing at all, and speculation as to why such disciplined athletes as Voronin and Vardanyan should have missed their weights ran up the aisles of the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts and spilled out into the Genie Buffet. Cynics felt that the two might be avoiding the drug test that would have followed immediately on the heels of a world record. By missing their weights and lifting in the next class, they eliminated the possibility of a world record and, therefore, of a drug test. Another theory was that the Russians, with considerable justification, were not taking this event so seriously as to disrupt their training schedules with world-record attempts from which it would take several weeks to recover.
But Lee James, a young lifter from Pennsylvania who was serving as a loader, gave no credence to either rumor. He said he had seen both Vardanyan and Voronin in the sauna early Saturday morning, still trying to get the weight off, and it is known that they had taken the trouble to borrow a doctor's scale. Along with many others, he thought that the carnival atmosphere of the event and its "unusual" setting had more to do with the poor showings than anything else.
What the Soviet team really thought will probably never be known. Enormous 28-year-old Aslanbek Ivanovich Enaldiev, the 342-pound possible successor to Alexeyev's throne, dutifully wore an I LOVE NEVADA button on the blue expanse of his sweat suit wherever he went. And maybe he did, but he had a very bad day Saturday, which his coach attributed to his biorhythmic schedule being out of sync.