It was comedy for the British and triumphs for the Soviet Union, host country Cuba and the other, as the propagandists were calling them, "friendly socialist nations." For the United States? Disaster. Pure, miserable disaster. In the palmy days of John Davis, Tommy Kono and Isaac Berger, U.S. teams were the best in the world, but by the end of the 12-day World Weightlifting Championships in Havana they were not even the best in the Americas. Seven U.S. lifters competed, four bombed out, to use the indelicate term raised time and again in lifting circles, and the team—dreadful thought—could only tie for fifth with Puerto Rico in the Pan American Championships, held within the framework of the world tournament. Back at the Hotel Havana Libre (né Hilton), Frank Capsouras of Hillsdale, N.J., a bomber in his own class—middle heavyweight—tried to cut the night with levity. "I can see the headlines now," he said. "U.S. bombers hit Havana."
Among the many not laughing was Bob Hoffman, the 75-year-old publisher and editor-in-chief of Strength & Health, president of the York (Pa.) Barbell Company and a man inordinately proud of being "the officially designated father of world weight lifting." To Hoffman, who is a kind of living Abner Doubleday, the U.S. B-52's were so many "louses" who purposely dropped their bombs "to embarrass the Establishment," apparently meaning, among others, him.
American debacle aside, the championships, even in Hoffman's view, were the best ever. Laying on the hospitality, the Cubans served multi-course meals in the reserved dining room at the Havana Libre, dispensed cigars and bottles of rum, provided ample reading material (one exciting item: Hijacking of Aircraft: A Boomerang Hurled at Cuba by the Imperialist Government of the United States of America) and offered free careening shuttle service by a fleet of Fiat buses between the hotel and the mod Coliseum of Ciudad Deportiva, "Sport City." Crowds every night were close to capacity—12,000—some of the largest live audiences ever to watch weight lifting anywhere, although in a sense the houses during the competition were papered. No one has to pay to go to a sports event in Cuba. A sign hanging from a Sport City balcony said it all: "Sport is a right of the people—Fidel."
The Cuban crowds were remarkable. They had their hometown favorites, but they applauded or whistled in derision as their fancy, not their politics, moved them. They were reminiscent of oldtime Brooklyn Dodger fans who would give a hand for Stan the Man after he doubled off the right-field wall and before they took the gas pipe.
October 7, 1973
Weight lifting is a surprisingly compelling sport to watch. It combines raw strength and fluidity of technique with the mental cunning of poker. There are nine weight classes, from flyweight to superheavy, and contestants in each class compete in two different lifts for a total score. "The total is the important thing," said Dito Shanidze of the Soviet Union, who won the featherweight title in Havana after finishing second in both the snatch and the clean and jerk.
In the snatch a contestant lifts the bar in a single movement from the floor to overhead, both arms ending fully extended. The contestant must stand motionless before the chief referee signals his approval. In world competition two side referees also watch, and after the lift is completed all three press buttons. If two or three white lights flash on the scoreboard the verdict is that the lift was good. Two red lights—nyet.
In the clean and jerk a lifter first "cleans" the bar by raising it to shoulder height in a single movement. He then rests the bar on his chest or clavicles before he "jerks" it overhead, arms fully extended. Again all parts of his body must be motionless after he has gathered himself together at the finish of his lift.
Cunning enters into competition because each contestant is given three chances in both the snatch and the clean and jerk. His single heaviest lift is his score. The weight cannot decrease, and as the weight increases lifters can try to wait one another out. This happened in Havana where Vasilij Alexeev of the Soviet Union passed until everyone had completed all three clean and jerks. He then appeared on the platform like some latter-day apparition and topped them all with one lift of 496 pounds.
The sport is at its most popular in the Communist bloc, where it is extremely well organized and expertly staffed by coaches, trainers and doctors. Bulgaria, with a population of only 8.5 million people, has 50 paid coaches and 25 training centers. By contrast, the U.S. has not a single full-time paid coach. Inasmuch as weight lifting in a Communist country offers a promising competitor status, better living conditions and other perquisites, it attracts hordes of eager youngsters who, if successful, will train full time. To preserve their amateur status, authorities describe the athletes as "student," "army member" or "engineer." The last is in such favor these days that one envisions the steppes festooned with bridges and tunnels:
One non-Communist country that does well is Iran. Here again status and reward are the motivating forces, for the Shah takes a deep personal interest. Hoffman says, "The Shah once told me, 'Bob, I've been reading your magazine since I was 10 years old.'" Hoffman even claims, somewhat hazily, that the Shah owes his throne to weight lifting. In 1953 Premier Mohammed Mossadegh was riding high and the Shah was a lesser figure when a mob of 10,000 led, says Hoffman, "by weight lifters armed with iron bars and knives," advanced on Mossadegh, causing the premier to flee. Hoffman says he has a Persian rug in his home worth at least $5,000, a gift from a grateful reader, the Shah.
Iran's big man in Havana was one of the smallest, 4'8" Mohammed Nassiri. A bantamweight in the 1972 Olympics at Munich, he finished second. For Havana he sweated in a sauna to compete as a 114-pound flyweight, and on opening night he set two world records for the class: 308¾ pounds in the clean and jerk and 528¾ pounds total. "When Nassiri gets home to Teheran he'll own the place," said Hoffman.
An engaging extrovert, Nassiri savored his win the remainder of his stay in Cuba by doing backflips around the hotel swimming pool, performing solo dances √† la Carmen Miranda on the nightclub floor and impersonating an elevator operator demanding that guests display their floor passes. He was instantly recognizable, in part because he wore a straw cowboy hat everywhere, even at dinner. As a high-born Briton said, "Hmmm, interesting chap. Foreigner, I suppose."
But the real star of the championships was a 20-year-old middleweight (165 pounds) from Bulgaria, Nadeltcho Kolev. He, too, set world records: 419 pounds in the clean and jerk and 744 total. Kolev is a lithely muscled and extremely quick athlete whose techniques appear to be as natural as breathing. A gymnast until he was 15, he credits his elasticity, unusual among lifters, to his training in that sport. He is an army sublieutenant stationed in Sofia and works out five hours a day, five days a week. In his spare time he likes to play basketball and listen to jazz.
Morris Weissbrot of New York, who helped coach almost all of the best U.S. lifters of the past, almost drools when he talks of Kolev. "In baseball," Weissbrot says, "Kolev would be even more than a Willie Mays or a Mickey Mantle. He exudes confidence. You look at him, and you can see how splendidly conditioned he is. There are no extraneous muscles on his arms. They are perfect lifting hooks. With his trapezius area, his back, the spinal erectors, his thighs and buttocks, he looks like a lifting machine. Paul Anderson used to say, 'The guy with the biggest butt lifts the biggest weights.' The gluteus is literally the seat of your power; it acts as a fulcrum. Kolev's back is a whole chain of muscles, and there is no weak link. What fantastic coordination he has. And he is not even fully developed yet. Weight lifters can compete almost as long as any athlete, because strength is at its maximum between 35 and 45 years of age. If he stays in the sport, Kolev is going to get better and better over the years. He is the story of Havana."
At Munich the Bulgarians finished with the most medals when the Russians played it too cool and waited for higher weights in several classes. But the Russians reversed this order last month at Havana. Vladimir Rizhenkov won in the 181-pound light heavyweight class; David Rigert, another Soviet, in the middle heavyweight; and Pavel Pervushin, the blond dreamboat of Russian teen-age girls, in the 242-pound heavyweight division. "What a fullback he'd make in pro ball," said Capsouras. "His legs are so strong his knees would punch holes in the chests of tacklers." Rigert, who was supposed to put on the sort of performance that Kolev did, was disappointing with a total of 804¾ pounds. He seemed to come on like a bit of a ham, pausing dramatically each time before attempting a lift. "Rigert has suddenly grown aware of his star status," said Weissbrot. "He knows he's supposed to be the world's best, so he acts the part."
To the surprise of many but to the joy of the crowd, Javier Gonzalez of Cuba gave Pervushin a run in the heavyweight class, finishing second in the snatch and third overall. He became the first Cuban ever to win a medal in world competition, and he was the local hero as he led Cuba to victory in the Pan Ams. Coached by a Russian, the Cubans are on their way to becoming a world power in lifting.
The superheavyweights, a dozen behemoths in all, attracted the most crowd interest. Military police outside had to hold back the crush of people at the Coliseum on the final night. As expected, the 320-pound Alexeev won, although he was beaten by Rudolf Mang of West Germany in the snatch. Probably the strongest man at the championships and maybe in the world was Serge Reding of Belgium, a genial intellectual who is a librarian by profession and a lifter dogged by hard luck. Despite a marvelous lifting build-5'7" and 310 pounds—he has never taken a world title. At Havana he appeared briefly to have won the snatch with a final lift of 402¼ pounds, tying his own world mark, but he was stunned to see three red lights flashing on the scoreboard, one of them signaled by a Belgian referee. The crowd erupted in protest over the decision, and Reding, grief-stricken, stumbled from the stage into the arms of his coach. He pulled himself together and returned for the clean and jerk, but he failed completely, injuring his leg and hobbling from the scene like a wounded Babar the elephant.
Oddly, the popular hero of the final night was one of the colorful—if not always effective—Britons, Terry Perdue. He is bearded, stuffs 320 pounds into a six-foot frame and could be played in a film by Peter Ustinov. Like his teammates, he was expected to contribute little more than laughs to the proceedings. The British had another superheavyweight, bespectacled Andrew Kerr, who resembles Peter Sellers, and a tiny flyweight, Precious McKenzie, who palled around with Perdue. (The two of them are featured, namelessly alas, by Mai Zetterling in Visions of Eight.) One British lifter found Cuban hospitality so cordial that he did not sleep in his room four nights running, and another, when asked how things were going, said, "Very well. We've gotten very good prices for shoes, shirts and so on." Informed that Cuban authorities took a fairly dim view of such dealings and that anyone who checked out of Havana with more pesos than he had upon his arrival could be dealt with severely, the lifter replied brightly, "Oh, we've been spending it at the bar."
The British knew they did not stand a chance in world competition, but they gallantly gave all, for as Lightweight George Newton said, "We're battling not to finish last." Their coach, John Lear, had so little hope for the chances of Perdue and Kerr, he told friends that since he had failed to get himself committed to a hospital the day of the superheavyweight competition, he hoped he would be struck by a car on the way to the Coliseum.
A scrap dealer in Swansea, Perdue had been arrested in 1971 along with two other men and charged with the theft of 41,000 pounds of metal. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but he kept up his training there and after serving nine months was acquitted on appeal just in time to join the Olympic team and appear in the games. The joke with the British lifters in Havana was, "Hurry up and lift. Perdue is coming. We might not have any barbells left."
The joke in the superheavyweight contest was that neither Kerr nor Perdue performed ignobly for Britain. Kerr finished 10th with a total of 716½ pounds, while Perdue was ninth with 722. But what sent the Cubans into ecstatic frenzy was Perdue's style. Instead of entering upon the stage in deliberate fashion and walking back and forth cautiously during the three-minute time period allotted for a lift, he strode briskly from the wings like a fretful Ustinov, then paced back and forth in quick march. Where other lifters would stop and carefully rub their hands in one of the two bowls of chalk on either side of the stage as if engaged in some mysterious rite, Perdue would have none of this. Without breaking stride he would suddenly flick a giant paw into a bowl, raising clouds of white dust. The Cubans, who love the impulsive gesture, would roar their appreciation.
Perdue next would eschew the customary approach to the lift. He would suddenly cease his marching, wheel and practically run to the bar, seize it and hurl it over his head. Thunderous applause. He earned gales of laughter when he slipped once and tumbled on his back, and he almost brought down the house when he cleaned the bar to his chest only to have it appear to become ensnarled in his beard.
After that misadventure, Perdue immediately sallied forth on his second attempt and paced back and forth on the stage with occasional glances at the clock until it read 2:15. He then raced forward, grabbed the bar, cleaned it, jerked it and set it down, waving his arms in victory amid tumult in the hall. Satisfied with that lift of 408 pounds, he never did take his third attempt, yet after Alexeev made his winning solo jerk of 496 pounds, there were those who hoped Perdue would suddenly appear from the wings to challenge the giant Russian. The very idea of this would have outraged serious lifters, but his new fans were hungering for just one more temps Perdue.
In contrast to the British, the U.S. performance was woeful. The best American hope, Fred Lowe of Lansing, Mich. (SI, June 25), won first in the middleweight Pan Am clean and jerk, after bombing out—that phrase again—in the snatch, and therefore had a total score of 000.0. Lightweight Jim Benjamin of Tulsa bombed out, as did Capsouras in the middle heavies and long-haired Jacob Stefan of Seattle in the heavies. Stefan did not even bother to try the clean and jerk. Middle heavyweight Phil Grippaldi of Belleville, N.J. finished first in the Pan Ams, and so did Mike Karchut of Calumet City, Ill. But the best U.S. showing was by Dan Cantore of San Francisco who, although he finished seventh in the world lightweight, won three Pan Am firsts. Cantore took a stroll through Havana the next day and was amazed at the number of Cubans who came up to shake his hand in congratulation.
The U.S. performance was something like the Yankees finishing last in the Three-I League, and there were recriminations galore. Probably the team was whipped even before the championships began, but who is to blame is a matter of dispute. According to one lifter, the team carried only seven members instead of the usual nine because Hoffman wanted an alibi in case the Cubans did well. Asked about this, Hoffman hemmed and hawed and declared that he did not even know the Pan Am championships would be held at Havana until he got there. In any event, the lifters were pessimistic from the beginning, and defeatist talk can be deadly to a competitor trying to psych himself up. One heard that the Communists had an advantage because they understood anabolic steroids—those strength-inducing hormones that are used to fatten cattle—better than the U.S. did. There was talk of amateurs (U.S.) vs. pros (Soviet Union et at.) and some lifters even claimed that their team doctor not only did not bring along his black bag but he left early because he was homesick. Of all the complaints, one seemed fairly legitimate. The U.S. officials (who paid their own way) accompanying the lifters outnumbered them two to one.
Brushing all such considerations aside, Hoffman was livid over the U.S. showing. He said he was going to write a 25-page editorial in Strength & Health denouncing the "bums" who had done poorly, he believed, on purpose. He was bitter about the length of Stefan's hair—"It comes down to his shoulders!"—and he fumed over the money he said he had spent to send this lifter through college or to help that one buy a house.
Amid all the finger-pointing, Cantore observed optimistically, "There is potential in the U.S." But will the potential ever be used? Perhaps Fred Lowe put it best. "If weight lifting is going to be a spare time hobby," he said, "you can expect spare time results."