Modern man is still victimized by a leftover Neanderthal urge to pick up huge, heavy objects to show everybody how big and strong he is. Not that this sort of thing is bad, assuming he can limit it to maybe sneaking out into the garage at night and lifting the Volkswagen. But let the old instinct take over completely and it can only lead to a terrible end. Suddenly one evening he will come to his senses too late; he will shake his head dazedly and find himself in the Senior National AAU Weight-lifting Championships in a place like York, Pa. There on the floor in front of him will be the biggest, ugliest barbell he has ever seen. And all around him will be about 1,800 spectators with disbelief on their faces—all waiting to see him try to pick it up.
If he does it, forcefully and well, without ripping out all the muscle tissue along his loins, there is every prospect the instinct will have paid off. He will suddenly become a celebrity in this strange, misunderstood sport. He will very possibly become a U.S. champion and perhaps even that U.S. rarity—an Olympic gold medal contender.
The country's best lifters were all huffing and heaving last weekend, seeking to become just such champions and contenders. Eighty-nine of them had shouldered their way into York, which is a more fitting setting for such a show than, say, Muscle Beach in California, since York is the barbell manufacturing center of the world. York is the city that pectorals built. It also is occasionally called the Dumbbell capital of America, but only by people who probably have trouble pulling up their socks and who therefore could not be expected to understand. The lifters came in all sizes, lurching through town in that sort of top-heavy stagger that is peculiar to practitioners of the sport, and staged their showdown right there on stage at William Penn High School where everybody could see it. They ranged from 123-pound Puerto Rican Fernando Baez, who would have trouble peering over the top of a volleyball but is a champion nonetheless, to monsters like national champion Bob Bednarski, who measures 31" around each thigh and breaks some sort of record almost every time he touches a barbell, and Joe Dube, whose weight is up to 325 pounds now, is still climbing and is expected to be out of sight when the Olympics begin in October.
And when it was all over last Sunday night there was plenty of reason for America to sit up and take new notice. For one thing, the meet presented some of the strongest men ever seen in the country. More important, the lifters who were outstanding in last weekend's tournament will almost certainly make the U.S. squad at the Olympic trials in September. And there is every chance that they will bring back medals from Mexico.
"I feel like maybe I could do it right now," said Dube, looking ahead to the fall. "I'd like to win on my first lift—maybe set a new world record for the press—and demoralize the opposition right off."
"I'm feeling stronger than I ever have," said Bednarski. "When those weights get to feeling lighter, you can tell you are there, man."
The reason for this tensed-up optimism was that, while the light and middleweights were dandy in their classes, men like Dube, Bednarski and others—the superheavies, the whales—had a more special mission in mind. They all were lifting against the specter of Russia's Leonid Zhabotinsky, who is 6'5", weighs 364 pounds and can lift tall buildings with one hand. Any heavy who makes the U.S. team had better not flinch at the thought of 483¾ pounds, which was Zhabotinsky's clean-and-jerk record. The thought of it dominated all else in the days leading up to the meet.
"You lift weights because—I don't know—maybe it's a complex or something," said Dube, settling down to one of his five daily meals in the old Yorktowne Hotel. "Take me. I just started out to do a little body building and then I got interested in lifting. I was five foot seven and weighed 135 pounds in 1958. Now I'm six feet. I would weigh maybe 220 if I wasn't competing. As it is now, at 325, I still need more muscular weight to compete properly. I want to weigh 350, if possible, to meet that Russian at Mexico City. He's a brute, that guy."
Dube, who is a 23-year-old Floridian, lifts such items as three quarts of milk a day (during one lost weekend he downed three gallons) and steaks that stagger full-grown waitresses. He does heavy squats with more than 400 pounds on his shoulders. "Building a body for Olympic lifting," he said, "is like building a house. You've got to have that solid foundation."
Bednarski, who had broken a world record in each of his last six meets, also was getting up for the occasion. It meant half a dozen eggs, buckets of milk and a bowl of vitamins and minerals for breakfast—followed by roughly four other meals before dark each day. He had tapered off his heavy training to a series of light isometrics in the York Barbell Company gym, in which he would tug and push against fixed equipment until he bent girders and generally twisted everything out of shape.
"I've always been fascinated by feats of strength," Bednarski said, "like Hercules and all that. And listen, the size of my competitors does not bother me. I mean, three weeks ago I broke the world mark with a press of 451 pounds. That beats the Russian, who has only done 444, and a couple of other guys. And my 471-pound clean-and-jerk is only 12¾ pounds away from Zhabotinsky's record. I weigh 252 pounds now—on my way to 260 for Mexico—and my chest is, oh, 48 or 49 inches. I feel great, but buying shirts is a problem."
Then the heavy weekend, for all the contenders, got down to business. And for all the strange language of lifting, it is pretty basic stuff. There is the press: one single lift to the shoulders while the lifter either does a squat or scissors his legs. Next, on signal, he pushes the barbell to arm's length and waits for the approving nod. There is the snatch: up and over the head with the barbell in one movement. The third lift, clean-and-jerk—which sounds like a comedy team—takes on the highest poundages. The lifter squats, lifts the bar to shoulder height, stands and jerks it, hopefully, overhead.
The prospect of all those whales, baby whales and, say, a minnow or two, brought the town down to the high school gym—gradually filling it up on Saturday and taking all 1,800 seats for the monster finale Sunday night. York Barbell Company had, with a crew of comparatively weak-muscled men, filled the stage with enough weight to sink the whole school. The lifters got laced into their built-up shoes, shrugged into their strangely old-fashioned suits with the 1890 circus strong-man armholes, and stood around, flexing. It was awesome to see. A thick heat wave settled over York, and as each man struggled to raise the bars overhead rivers of perspiration flowed down from his muscles. By the time the whales took the stage, 19 new national and meet records had been set and the place was full of wringing-wet Olympians.
Then came Bednarski and Dube, so big that they cast monster shadows against the backdrop. In the press, Bednarski called for 420 pounds, lifted it easily. Dube lifted 425. Bednarski lifted 440; Dube failed with 445. Then Bednarski called for 455 pounds; four more than his own world record. He planted himself in front of the bar and lunged it into the air. Another record, later verified at 456¼.
Dube hefted 425 pounds in the clean-and-jerk, plenty good enough for an Olympic berth, and then gave up.
Bednarski said, "I feel like another world record. Gimme a 485."
He did it, of course (the actual weight was 486½), trembling and in a faint shower of perspiration, but looking as though he could lift the whole auditorium. When it was over, he had two new world records and one big Russian to face. "I can handle him," he said. "I'm still going up, remember?"