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Transmission

Vasily Alekseyev: The Passing Of A Soviet Weightlifting Icon

Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev in January 1975, at the height of his powers
Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev in January 1975, at the height of his powers
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
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by: Thomas H from: California, U.S.A.
November 28, 2011 12:25
Sir,

Many people of American origin are aggrieved at the passing of Alekseev as well. I do remember watching his Olympic competitions as a young person and the guy was a perfect combination of technique and muscle strength and a perfect example of the scientific approach to athletic training as entertained by soviet trainers at the time (1970's or so.) The remarkable thing about his lifting was indeed the technique and he had the most deft clean, and probably dead lift as well, of many weightlifters at the time.
Alekseev, as I read about him, also raised things like strawberries at his dacha, and had a truly gentle image among Americans despite his athletic explosiveness that endeared him to people everywhere. People such as the 1970's Russian and other Eastern Block athletes, as they became known in the West, showed a human side to the soviets, and at least in part was responsible for mood around 'glasnost' and so forth that came later. They were Peacemakers inside the controlled and channeled forces that ruled Olympic and other international games at the time. People like me, again, are very sorry he is gone, and I did not even know he was ill. God bless you for this sympathetic and outstanding column on his life and legacy. More people need to read about this.

by: Paul Byfield from: England
November 30, 2011 15:25
Yes, he was an icon of the olympic games, I remember watching him as a kid on TV and being in awe. Its a shame that his death hasnt been marked outside of Russia. Like alot of sportsmen and women of his stature he transcended national loyalties. A lot of people will be saddened by his loss.


by: John G Leddy from: Colleyville, TX USA
December 02, 2011 13:40
Alexeyev knew how to use the Soviet system of rewards. According the press at the time (S.I., Wash Post Olympic and pre Olympic coverage), Vasily, knowing that there was a reward for each new world record, would make sure to only break that record (usually his own) by just a few kg's, thus garnering the maximum rewards over his lengthy era of dominance.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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