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On the afternoon of Nov. 11, as 12 Olympic weightlifters from around the world came together in the noise and dust of Thessaloniki, Greece, to decide the 1979 world superheavyweight championship, a man on the outskirts of the Russian city of Shakhty was engaged in a curious task. A huge man, heavier by 25 pounds than the largest of the 12 superheavies gathered in Greece, he was engaged in moving a mountain. Who but Vasily Alexeyev, the greatest champion in the history of weightlifting, would attempt such a task? And who but Alexeyev could dominate, as he clearly did, a sporting event held some 1,000 miles away?
Though he has been absent from the competitive platform since injuring his hip in the 1978 World Championship, Alexeyev had been expected in Thessaloniki. But very much his own man, especially in matters involving conditioning, Alexeyev decided that his body needed more work. Thus, in addition to the hours he spends each week with the barbells, he goes every day to what is now called Mt. Vasily and, with only pick, shovel, pry bar and a barrow, moves that mother.
In this way he hopes—can it be said?—to round himself into top shape for the event that for him transcends all the others: the 1980 Olympic Games at home in the Soviet Union. Twice the Olympic champion, Alexeyev knows that by winning in Moscow he would separate himself even further from the world of mortals, because no Olympic weightlifter has ever won either nine world titles (the Olympics serve as the World Championship every four years) or three Olympic championships, to say nothing of doing both. And as Alexeyev also knows, no one is likely to accomplish these feats in the foreseeable future.
The three men who would be his only real competition in Moscow, unless one of the many second-line Soviet superheavies catches fire, were all in Thessaloniki—Gerd Bonk and J�rgen Heuser of East Germany, and Sultan Rachmanov of the Soviet Union—and all three had their eyes on the title. Heuser was the unexpected winner in 1978 in Gettysburg, Pa. following Alexeyev's injury and Rachmanov's virtual blackout on the final weight in the clean and jerk, and there was considerable speculation that the young German might have grown, as Supreme Court justices and Presidents are often said to do, in office. Most of the smart deutsche marks, however, were on 316-pound Gerd Bonk, who is the only man to have twice wrested the world record in the clean and jerk from Alexeyev, hoisting 543 pounds in late 1975, to which Uncle Vasily replied with an immediate 546; then registering a 557 in April of 1976, prompting the Russian to end the repartee with that monumental 562 in Munich. So demoralized has Bonk been by Alexeyev since then that the Soviet coaches laugh and make quivering motions with their arms and legs whenever the German is mentioned as a serious threat to Vasily. The other entrant, Sultan Rachmanov, has moved in his countryman's long, broad shadow ever since coming onto the international scene a few years ago. Now in Thessaloniki he was left to carry the Red banner alone, a banner that has been borne to victory 20 of the past 22 years by a succession of Soviet superheavies.
In Olympic weightlifting, each man is given three attempts in the snatch and three in the clean and jerk, and as the contest began there was much discussion about whether or not Rachmanov, even though he holds the world record in the snatch, could fill Vasily's lifting boots by achieving the highest combination, or total, made up of a competitor's best snatch and best clean and jerk.
In Alexeyev's absence, the crowd at the Palais de Sport was disappointingly small as Bonk led off with a solid snatch of 386 pounds. Next was his teammate Heuser, who opened with a successful 402, a weight Bonk also negotiated with ease. One hundred eighty-five kilos, or 408 pounds, brought the 314-pound Rachmanov onto the platform, and the big man, using the widest possible grip, succeeded with little apparent strain.
The weight on the bar was then increased to 413, a poundage that produced initial failures by both Bonk and Heuser, though the latter returned to succeed with it after a struggle. Rachmanov then elected to try 424, well below his world record of 442, but on his first try he missed what lifters call the groove. His balance was thus faulty, and the bar fell back to the platform. On his third and final attempt, however, he flipped the 424 to arm's length and stood up easily as relief spread across the face of Igor Kudyukov, the chief Soviet coach. But the contest was far from over.
Now the battle of wits began. Bonk was in third place, but as he was potentially the best in the clean and jerk he had the advantage of waiting until the other two men finished their three attempts before he chose what he needed to win. Heuser was in second place but at 294 pounds was lighter than Rachmanov and so needed only to exceed the Soviet lifter's best clean and jerk by 11 pounds to tie him in total poundage and gain the win on bodyweight.
Bonk decided to open with 507 pounds and then sit back and wait. His pull was high and his recovery from the squat almost laughably easy; only the jerk hinted at troubles to come. Heuser was next with 512� and, after a difficult clean, was unable to jerk the bar to arm's length and hold it under control. Rachmanov then stepped up to the platform, chalked his thick, heavy hands and made very easy work of the same poundage. With a wonderful effort, Heuser took the 512� again and managed, though just barely, to complete the lift to the referees' satisfaction.
The next move was Rachmanov's, and he elected to increase to 523�, a poundage he cleaned solidly and then, after holding the bar at least five seconds on his chest, jerked strongly to the full length of his arms. Heuser and Bonk were left with little choice but to wait until the Soviet athlete was done, and Rachmanov, in an attempt to force the Germans to try weights that would be beyond them, increased the weight by 5� pounds, the smallest increment possible, bringing it to 529. Again he walked slowly to the bar, after chalking his hands and stepping several times into the rosin box, and again he made an easy clean, paused and drove the bar overhead, staggering and taking several quick steps forward as he fought to recovery. But two of the three lights flashed red on the scoreboard. Later, the chief referee said that in his opinion Rachmanov's arms had unlocked slightly as he struggled to save the lift and that the two red lights, a majority, reflected this unlocking.