The passing away on November 25 of Vasily Alekseyev
, a legendary figure in competitive weightlifting, marks yet another poignant closure for the former Soviet Union.
Alekseyev, who reportedly died of heart failure at the age of 69 in a Munich clinic, epitomized the achievements as well as the failures of a rigid system designed to crank out champions and to mercilessly weed out those deemed unfit to pass the grade.
Having worked initially as a miner and forester, Alekseyev took up weightlifting in his 20s. He would detach the heavy iron axle of the mining cart and use it to practice lifting, steel wheels and all.
At 28, Alekseyev entered international competitions relatively late, but his formidable dominance in the super heavyweight category (plus 110 kilograms) led to 80 world records, eight world and two Olympic championship titles. Alekseyev’s 1972 world record for a combined lifting total of 645 kilograms still stands (it can’t be beaten because one of the lifts has since been eliminated).
In appearance Alekseyev resembled very much the proverbial Russian bear -- bulky, slow, heavy gaited, but gentle mannered. Modern weightlifters are much faster with their chiseled bodies and scientifically calibrated diets.
After a disastrous performance at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, Alekseyev retired. But, not one to put his head down, he went on to coach a unified team of former Soviet weightlifters at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona that won five gold medals.
Growing up in communist Bulgaria, I often saw Alekseyev on our grainy black-and-white TV screen setting yet another world or Olympic record.
The Soviet propaganda machine relentlessly promoted Alekseyev as superior to his Western counterparts, and, in his particular case, the description wasn't far from the truth. In his heyday, 1970-77, Alekseyev was matched by no one. In 1975, the popular U.S. "Sports Illustrated" magazine prominently featured Alekseyev on its cover under the title “World’s Strongest Man.” He was "the human drama of athletic competition" personified in Jim McKay's iconic introduction to the spectacularly successful "ABC Wide World of Sports" program in the late 70s and early 80s.
It was in the 1970s -- when Alekseyev was in his prime -- that the Bulgarian school of weightlifting was coming of age, setting the stage for the world dominance of Soviet and Bulgarian weightlifters in later years. Even though the two countries were politically the closest of allies, the competition between them was fierce and sometimes nasty.
As a freshman at the University of Sofia in 1981, I joined the university weightlifting team. Even for a university team, the requirements were so high that with a personal best in Snatch and Jerk of 140 kilograms, I barely made the passing grade. A huge color poster of Alekseyev securing his first Olympic gold in 1972 was splashed across the wall of the training hall.
As intimidating as he was with his 120 kilogram bulk, there was a tender side to Alekseyev. He cared deeply for the younger kids in his hometown, Shakhty, in the Rostov Oblast of Russia; after retiring from active competition in 1980, he devoted his energy to training a number of them into successful international competitors.
Competitive weightlifting was and remains a cruel game. It ravages the body as few other sports do, and Alekseyev suffered from heart ailments throughout the latter part of his life.
Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin paid tribute to Alekseyev, calling him “a true Russian hero." Vladimir Vysotsky, another Soviet pop icon, devoted a song to Alekseyev called “Record Cleared! (The Weightlifter)."
-- Nikola Krastev