When Vasily Alexeyev arrived in Montreal, all 345 pounds of him, his reign as the strongest man in the world seemed to be finished. This year a pair of young upstarts had broken the 34-year-old Russian's two superheavyweight records. The gold medalist at Munich in 1972, he was now without a world mark to his name. The new superheavies in the scenario were Khristo Plachkov of Bulgaria, 23 years old, 317 pounds, and Gerd Bonk of East Germany, 24, 333. Bonk, the bronze medalist four years ago, had won the European championship in April, breaking Alexeyev's world record in the clean and jerk with a lift of 252.5 kilograms (557 pounds). In May, Plachkov totaled 442.5 kilograms (976 pounds) to surpass Alexeyev's remaining record. But the mining engineer and rose fancier from Ryazan was unperturbed during the days leading up to last week's competition. Whenever his Olympic coach, Rudolf Plukfelder, was asked, "Where is Alexeyev?" he would answer, "At a lake. Fishing."
The fact is, Alexeyev did have very impressive daily workouts. His wife, wonderfully named Olimpiada, was bored, but his competitors were intent observers. Intent and concerned, Bonk, a mechanic from Karl-Marx-Stadt who as a youth once asked Alexeyev for his autograph, said, "My back is still hurting from an injury. All I can hope for is a silver medal." Plachkov was absolutely demoralized. He failed to lift well in training and his coach, Ivan Abadjiev, decided to pull him out of the competition. "Plachkov has a bad knee and an upset stomach," he said. "He might embarrass himself and his country."
With Plachkov out, the anticipated showdown among the top three super-heavyweights never came to pass. As for the Alexeyev-Bonk duel, the Russian Merited Master of Sport intoned before the competition in a voice that rolled like distant thunder, "Bonk could not even beat me if I were 50 years old."
Their confrontation came at the end of a nine-day competition in nine weight classes. The U.S., which had not won an Olympic weightlifting medal since 1968, got a surprise silver when Lee James, a 22-year-old middle heavyweight from Manchester, Pa., lifted personal records in the snatch, the clean and jerk and total of 362.5 kilograms (794 pounds).
August 8, 1976
Each of the 11 superheavyweight competitors had three lifts in both the snatch and the clean and jerk, and while they took their turns at increasing weights, sweating and grunting, Alexeyev stayed in the back room. Finally, after Bonk had settled for 375 pounds in the snatch, Alexeyev chose to open with 386 pounds, his 1972 Olympic record. He won with 408 pounds, a new Olympic record.
Next came the clean and jerk, Alexeyev's best event. Again he waited until the weight had gone up—to 230 kilograms (507 pounds), which had clinched the gold medal for him four years ago. Bonk bettered this on his last try with a lift of 518 pounds. At this point, Alexeyev already had the gold medal in his pocket. His total was 415 kilograms (915 pounds), while Bonk's added up to 405 (893 pounds). New weights were added to the bar, and the scoreboard indicated that Alexeyev would try for a new world mark of 255 kilograms (562 pounds). The crowd broke into wild cheers as Alexeyev strode imperiously onto the stage. He stood against the wall, staring at the bar as if it were a beast to be tamed. Then he slowly approached it, closed his eyes momentarily, gripped the bar and, with a great "Arrrgh," hoisted it onto his shoulders and from there above his head, staggering backward and to the side, his formidable belly quivering, until he stood motionless, triumphant, again the strongest man on earth.
Later he was asked whether he would have won had Plachkov competed. "Everything would still be in the same place even if Mr. Plachkov had been there," he rumbled. "Maybe now my wife will show more respect." Bruce Wilhelm, a 31-year-old teacher from Sunnyvale, Calif., who finished fifth, said, "Any time you compete against Alexeyev you know you cannot win."
The following day Alexeyev reigned at a banquet given by the International Weightlifting Federation. Resplendent in brown pants, a green shirt, a maroon tie and a maroon blazer, he received a second gold medal, because the Olympic competition had also counted as a world championship. He celebrated his victory with Russian brandy from a paper cup and posed for photographers with a mighty arm around pretty, miniskirted Patty Bayless, Wilhelm's girl friend.
Olimpiada surveyed the scene with a stern face. "Is this just a bore for you?" asked Patty. "Da," said Olimpiada. Then she admonished her husband, "Why don't you button your coat? Everybody else's is buttoned." Frowning, Alexeyev glanced at his belly. Choosing to remain unbuttoned, he went off to embrace Wilhelm. "Do svydanya [see you] in Moscow," said Wilhelm. "Do svydanya." said Alexeyev.