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That the U.S.S.R. and other Eastern bloc countries dominate the sport of weightlifting isn't what you'd call news, but that fact was never more dramatically demonstrated than it was at the World Weight-lifting Championships, which ended on Oct. 31 in Moscow. World records fell like wheat before the sickle to the Soviet strongmen and their stocky clones from neighboring Eastern European countries. Indeed, as International Federation of Weightlifting President Gottfried Sch�dl of Austria said, "This championship has produced 23 new world records, a world record for world records."
As weightlifting in the U.S.S.R. and its satellites has waxed over the last 30 years, in the U.S. it has waned to an extreme, and the differences between the Soviets and Americans were never so starkly apparent as in Moscow. The U.S. performance was so dismal as to be almost baffling.
Each country may enter 10 athletes, and the U.S.S.R., of course, had a full complement. The U.S., still reeling from the loss of its No. I lifter, Jeff Michels, suspended from competition for two years for testosterone use at the Pan American Games, entered only eight: One U.S. lifter went home before the competition began—his wife was having a child—and the Americans were without a 114-pound representative because no one qualified for the team.
Of the 10 Soviet lifters, each had at least one successful snatch and one successful clean and jerk, now the official lifts. The seven remaining Americans, attempting much lower poundages than their U.S.S.R. counterparts, all failed to complete one or both of the required lifts—a fiasco so stunning it seemed possible that Michels' suspension had rendered the Americans so fearful of drug testing on foreign soil that they deliberately didn't make the two-lift totals to avoid possible tests Says the angry president of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation Murray Levin "If we find that any of our people lifters or coaches were involved in a decision to purposely fail those people will be removed from the sport. We will not kill our athletes in an attempt to produce champions." In any case, simply stated, the Soviets were successfully lifting heavy weights and the Americans were failing to lift light ones.
There's a great irony here. One of the first thawings, in the 1950s, of the U.S. U.S.S.R. cold war was a trip in 1955 to the Soviet Union by a group of American weightlifters. Their first stop was a competition held outside in Gorki Park in Moscow. Though it rained that day, 16,000 Muscovites turned out to witness the international debut of 22-year-old U.S. heavyweight Paul Anderson, whose physical appearance, no less than rumors of his unprecedented strength, had all of Moscow agog. Anderson was only 5'10", but his mastodonic bone structure carried over 340 pounds. His hair was a mop of unruly black curls, and his gait a swinging roll made necessary by his 36-inch thighs. He was quite a sight.
He was opposed by Alexei Medvedev, a young Soviet who opened their competition with three successful lifts, the last an overhead press of 325 pounds. Then it was Anderson's turn. For several minutes there was no signal from the U.S. coaches. Finally, as the crowd was beginning to worry that perhaps Anderson had injured himself in warmup, he called for an increase to 402 pounds—an amount over the world record—for his first attempt.
Medvedev, now a top Soviet sports official, says. "I will never forget that day. Anderson lifted the bar easily to his chest and pushed it over his head as if he lifted feathers, not iron. The crowd was totally silent for perhaps five seconds and then roared as I have never heard before or since. He was proclaimed a chudo pirody—a wonder of nature."
Spurred by the ignominy of the Gorki Park defeat, the Soviets increased the resources devoted to weightlifting that enabled the U.S.S.R. to establish a superiority in the sport it has never relinquished. Meanwhile, the U.S. went into a prolonged decline that culminated with this year's Moscow audience sitting in embarrassed silence while the Americans displayed ineptitude.
Drug testing was of course done in Moscow, and the results were all negative. According to IWF officials, these were the same tests that were performed at the Pan Am Games, which suggests that Eastern European sports scientists have developed ways to beat the tests, or that Soviet bloc athletes aren't using steroids and other illegal ergogenic aids, or that the officials in charge of the testing simply ignored any positive results in the interest of protecting the sport's reputation That rep wasn't enhanced when Tour Canadian weightlifters were caught at Montreal airport upon their return from Moscow with 22,515 capsules of anabolic steroids and 414 vials of testosterone which the lifters said they'd bought from Iron Curtain athletes.
Regardless of where the truth may lie on the complicated drug issue, the lifting itself at the championships was simply splendid. Among the lighter classes the 123-pound division shone, as two men, or, more accurately, one man and one boy, exceeded the world record for total scores. The victor, Oksan Mirzoyan, 22, of the U.S.S.R., had to clean and jerk 363 pounds, for a total of 645, to edge past the minutes-old record total of 639 just established by Naim Suleimanov, a Bulgarian who's all of 15 years old.