by Bruce Klemens

Vasily Alexeev first came to the attention of the American public at the 1970 World Weightlifting Championships in Columbus, Ohio. Although Alexeev had already set several world records including the first 600 kilogram total and was well known in the Soviet Union, it was his initial appearance in both the World Championships and the United States. Born January 7, 1942, the 28 year old Alexeev then weighed only 299 pounds, although the beginning of that enormous paunch that became his trademark was already there. As a young lifter, Alexeev set several world records in the snatch, but as he gained weight in later years, his belly seemed to get in the way, and his progress in the snatch stagnated. But then, as it would be for the rest of his career, Alexeev's best lift was always the clean & jerk. In Columbus, he brought the house down by becoming the first man in history to clean & jerk over 500 pounds. The legend of Vasily Alexeev had begun.

Over the next decade, Alexeev proved himself the greatest superheavyweight of all time as he won eight world titles, including two Olympic gold medals. He faced many challenges to his world supremacy, but up to 1978 was unbeaten for eight years in a row, an amazing record in the dog-eat-dog world of international Olympic lifting, where young supermen are constantly emerging, trying to knock off the top dog. In the early years Alexeev's strongest challengers were Rudy Mang of West Germany, Belgium's Serge Reding and Ken Patera of the USA. Mang nearly beat Alexeev at the 1972 European Championships, outlifting him in both the press and the snatch, but neither Mang nor anyone else could stay with "Uncle Vasily" in the clean & jerk and the West German got blown away. The late Serge Reding, an incredibly massive librarian from Brussels, seemed capable of beating Alexeev on paper. He broke several of Alexeev's records in minor contests and many felt he would be the next champion. But every time he went head to head against Alexeev he seemed to choke and failed to duplicate his record lifts. One might say that Alexeev "had his number". Vasily seemed to thrive on these challenges and set record after record. Ken Patera of the USA was also touted as the man to upset Alexeev. But Patera, although phenomenally strong, did not have as good lifting technique as the Russian and perhaps this contributed to several injuries he suffered which curtailed his progress. After bombing out of the 1972 Olympics, Patera turned professional and became a successful wrestler.

Alexeev, after winning his first Olympic gold in Munich, was in the prime of his career and seemed invincible. Although the press, in which Alexeev held the world record, was eliminated from competition after the Olympics, this did not seem to faze him. He continued to break the clean & jerk record seemingly at will, and once in a while even set a record in the snatch, his "weak" lift. At this time, despite the amateur rules to the contrary, it was the policy of the Soviet sports federation to award their athletes 1000 rubles for a world record. Alexeev was single-handedly responsible for reducing this award to 500 rubles. Instead of breaking the record by 5 or 10 pounds, which he was certainly capable of, he would only break it by the smallest legal increment, usually about a pound at a time. In this way he set record after record, accumulating a total of almost eighty by 1976 and nearly decimating the treasury of the Soviet sports federation. Somewhere in the middle of this record breaking binge, the Soviet authorities decided enough was enough and reduced the amount by 50%. By this time, however, Alexeev had already made himself a wealthy man by Russian standards.

As the years rolled on, new challengers to Alexeev's crown emerged. Bulgaria's Christo Plachkov set numerous world records in the snatch and even broke Alexeev's total record in a domestic meet. But Plachkov was a poor clean & jerker, and whenever they met head to head, Alexeev blew him away with his superior jerking ability. Two challengers who were good clean & jerkers were Gerd Bonk of East Germany and Aslanbek Enaldiev, a fellow Russian with a belly to match Alexeev's. But neither man was a good snatcher, and Alexeev, although a relatively poor snatcher himself, always managed to at least stay even or take a lead in this lift. Although both challengers had jerked world records in meets where Alexeev was not present, they could not duplicate their successes when up against the King himself. Call it a psyche-out job or whatever, but Alexeev owned the clean & jerk in the World Championships.

At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Alexeev stole the show. His chief competitor, Gerd Bonk, had broken the clean & jerk record earlier in the year and seemed to have a chance for an upset. But it was really no contest because Bonk was not even able to push the big man, let alone beat him. After Alexeev made a very light start in the jerk (for him)of 507, it appeared that he might be satisfied just to do a mediocre performance and go home with his gold medal, which he had already sacked up. But Alexeev knew the eyes of the world were on him and he wanted to prove without a shadow of a doubt who was the world's strongest man. For his second attempt he jumped to the mind-boggling world record weight of 562 pounds! Even I was doubtful he would make it, but there was no doubt in Vasily's mind. He ripped the clean up like nothing and popped the jerk in such a manner that indicated there was room for a lot more where that came from. Even Alexeev himself admitted "I had intended to take 573 for my third attempt but was too tired." We should all be so tired .

Shortly after the Olympics, Alexeev boosted his clean & jerk to an even more unbelievable 564, a record which still stands, as does his total. During these years, the big man had been getting still bigger and by the time of Montreal was nearly 350 pounds. Although the added bodyweight apparently helped his jerk, it did little if anything for his snatch, and at the 1977 World Championships in Stuttgart, West Germany, he nearly bombed in this lift, and was lucky to get white lights for his only success, which seemed pressed out to many. Although he won his eighth world title, defeating his team mate Enaldiev with an ordinary (for him) clean & jerk, in retrospect it appeared that Alexeev's peak form was in 1976.

He appeared again in the 1978 World Championships in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Even though not in his best shape, the 36 year old living legend still seemed capable of winning a record ninth title. But on his first clean & jerk, which would have put him in the lead, he pulled a muscle in his hip and could not even begin to jerk the weight. Finally, age was catching up to the seemingly invincible Alexeev and he was forced to retire from the contest, leaving Jurgen Heuser of East Germany the new champion.

After Alexeev failed to appear in any contests in 1979, including the world championships, many observers (myself included) felt the combination of his age and the injury had put him out of action for good. As the 1980 Moscow Olympics approached, there was still no sign that Alexeev would ever compete again. He had been away from competition for nearly two years. Therefore, you can imagine the astonishment of all when he strode out on the platform in Moscow, heavier than ever, ready to do battle and win his third Olympic title. There is some question whether or not he ever made a qualifying total for the Games. According to my sources in the Soviet Union, the coaches did not pick him for the team and his fellow lifters did not feel he deserved to be on the team. Alexeev, however, was by now an influential man and used his friendship with Soviet Sports Minister Gavlov to get himself on the team deserved or not. Unfortunately, in the Olympic competition, Alexeev had finally met his match. It was not another lifter but Father Time himself. Three times his 38 year old body tried to snatch 396 pounds and three times it failed. In fact, his final try was a pathetic little deadlift. As he stoically lumbered off the platform, the huge Russian audience, which only minutes before had cheered him wildly, now erupted in catcalls, jeers, and whistles. A truly ignominious end to the legendary career of the greatest superheavyweight of all time.

But don't feel too sorry for "Uncle Vasily". The perks and allowances he received from the state as one of Russia's greatest athletes enabled him to live in a manner far above that of the ordinary Soviet citizen. He owned a beautiful house where he lived with his wife Olympiada and sons Sergei and Dmitri. Out back was his own gymnasium. Alexeev was his own coach and training partner. He disdained the help of the Soviet coaching system because he felt he could train himself better than anyone else. Based on his record, how can one argue with him? I'll never forget watching Alexeev train in Stuttgart, West Germany, a few days prior to the 1977 World Championships. As the rest of the Soviet team was finishing up their training and leaving the hall, he was just arriving. Only his teammate Bessonov waited around a few miriutes to talk with him, but soon he left too. Alexeev was literally the only man on the floor: no coach, no trainer, no fellow lifters. This is the way he preferred it and I believe the feeling from his coaches toward him was mutual. Alexeev had become such a famous and influential man in the USSR that his power transcended sports circles and he could go his own way and do as he pleased as long as he produced more world titles and records. Alexeev was a living legend and he knew it. Modesty was never Vasily's strong suit.

In the mid-1970's an article appeared in Sports Illustrated Magazine, portraying Alexeev as a pompous egotistical braggart. At the Moscow World Championships, I showed the article to a Soviet coach who read English. After studying it, he replied, "The authorities would never allow such an article to be published in the USSR. But it's all true, of course!"

Will we ever see the great Alexeev on the platform again? I think not. But then again, I was surprised to see him competing in the Olympic Games. However, I think Alexeev himself, nearing age forty, knows that the game is over for him. He wanted to win just once more in front of his countrymen but failed. I believe he is too proud a man to become weightlifting's version of Muhammad Ali. Let's remember Vasily Alexeev as he was in his prime, THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD.