On its best day Las Vegas is merely absurd. At its worst it is a sort of Disneyland for consenting adults, a sprawling monument to greed, free enterprise gone berserk, with a sports scene tending to the flash of heavyweight title fights and jai alai and winner-take-all tennis matches in which the winner doesn't. The polar opposite of human endeavor, it is certainly the last place one would expect to find 11 of the world's best amateur weight lifters. Yet there they were last week, checking into the indescribably garish lobby of the Aladdin Hotel at the southern end of the Strip, still blinking from the desert sun outside, another element of farce added to a scene that hardly needed more. Before long, bear-sized superheavyweights in blue sweat suits were dropping silver dollars into crashing slot machines, and gnomelike flyweights were gazing into the bowls of spinning roulette wheels while cocktail waitresses dressed as Middle Eastern carhops positioned their décolletages as near as possible to eye level.
Russia's three top superheavyweights, led by the incomparable (a Las Vegas adjective usually reserved for the likes of Shecky Greene) Vasily Alexeyev, and a company of eight other world-class lifters in five weight categories were in town to star in a made-for-television sporting event called the Record Makers Invitational. The format, chosen for its dramatic potential and adaptability to a small, unbalanced, arbitrarily chosen field, called for the athletes to pursue records rather than each other. The foreign stars were advertised as going after world records, while the three Americans in the field, superheavyweights Bruce Wilhelm and Tom Stock and middle heavyweight. Phil Grippaldi, none of whom is within striking distance of a world record, were to take aim at American marks. This smashing of records, at least those of the superheavies, was to be shown live Saturday afternoon on CBS' Sports Spectacular to a hoped-for audience of 30 million.
Top Rank, Inc., the closed-circuit TV specialists who will be recalled, without enthusiasm, for their part in the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon escapade and whose bread and butter is championship boxing, came up with the idea of Record Makers. It was also Top Rank that chose Las Vegas and the Aladdin Hotel as its venue, signed up the AAU's National Weight Lifting Committee to run the event, and then sold the package to CBS-TV for an amount that Mike Malitz, a partner in Top Rank, described as a "normal amount for a one-hour CBS Sports Spectacular. Six figures. Less than a quarter million and more than $100,000."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the ambiance, hopes were high, especially those of the AAU. To National Weight Lifting Committee Chairman Murray Levin of Gettysburg, Pa., the man who traveled to Moscow to persuade the Russians to come, it was the chance of a lifetime. "For 20 years our sport has been in a rut," he said one day early in the week as he sat with some of his fellow committeemen over lunch in the Genie Buffet. "This represents a new awakening. We want to glamorize weight lifting." His voice was occasionally drowned out by the Aladdin's public-address system announcing the latest winner of a keno jackpot, but he continued. "You have one chance. If you do it right, the doors will open up."
The doors to which Levin referred are the doors that lead to the offices of corporation presidents who might be interested in underwriting the U.S. amateur weight-lifting program. One interested party, he says, is Mack Trucks.
Levin left no stone unturned in his effort to do things right. For instance, he ordered new uniforms for the national committee—red blazers and red, white and blue striped ties. He chose national champions to serve as loaders and made sure that everybody who matters in American weight lifting was present and visible. He even chose the music. "At the opening ceremony," he said, "there will be dramatic music and the curtain will open and the whole committee will be on stage. I chose Mutiny on the Bounty. The 1962 version."
"I thought 2001 would be good," interjected Morris Weissbrott, an administrator in the New York City Department of Parks.
"This is better, Morris," said Levin. "Take my word for it."
So on Saturday morning there they all were, ranged about the vast stage of the 7,000-seat Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts, where only hours before the incomparable Gabe Kaplan and the incomparable Anne Murray had been knocking 'em dead—the committee in its red blazers, with Mutiny on the Bounty still ringing in its ears; CBS, cameras grinding, storing away footage to balance the other half of the show (the world's strongest man competition, wherein people were to run races with refrigerators on their backs); and Top Rank's publicist, in the best tradition of professional boxing, passing out copies of Alexeyev's measurements. All of them waiting to cash in, one way or another, on the efforts of a group of extraordinary athletes.
The only thing they had overlooked in their planning was the fact that great athletes do not necessarily produce world records on demand. By 2:50 p.m., when CBS stopped its cameras, not only had Vasily Alexeyev not produced a world record in the clean and jerk, he had not even attempted one. It had finally become clear that just about everything that could go wrong had done so, and everybody was trying to figure out whom to blame.
The first hint that all might not proceed according to schedule came on Wednesday when Alexeyev contracted a severe case of hives. Huge welts formed first across his upper arms and back, then spread to his forehead, thighs and, worst of all, his hands, causing them to swell to a degree that made it difficult to grip the bar. Early theorizing had it that Bruce Wilhelm's desiccated liver tablets were the culprits: Alexeyev had tried some for the first time, at Wilhelm's urging. Later that explanation was abandoned in favor of the "strange fruit" theory. Alexeyev had been eating a lot of pineapple, it was said, a fruit to which his system was not accustomed. By Saturday morning the desiccated liver-pineapple crisis had passed, but a new problem, more serious, had arisen. Sometime Thursday, during a brief and friendly tussle with Wilhelm over a copy of Iron Man magazine, Alexeyev had strained a weight-bearing tendon in his right wrist, the flexor carpi. On Friday he was injected with Americaine, an anesthetic agent, by a local orthopedist. When the day of the lifting arrived and the condition was unimproved, he took the advice of the U.S. team doctors and declined to lift. Dr. Richard Wright said later, "The injury had loosened the tendon from its attachment. If he had lifted he would have sheared the tendon and possibly ended his lifting career."
Alexeyev is 35 now. He has set 82 world records during his 17-year career, in the snatch, the clean and jerk and the total. He has been world champion eight times, Olympic gold medalist both in Munich and Montreal, and he recently set the world record for the clean and jerk and the total (the record for the snatch was taken from him by Christo Plachkov of Bulgaria in 1976). Alexeyev might reasonably be ready to retire, but with the Moscow Olympics approaching, he defers the decision. "I will be 39 then," he said last Friday, through his local interpreter for the week, a Las Vegas resident named Mara Dixon. "The body pays the price of the years. Perhaps the body will endure, perhaps not. We will see."
Although various components of the celebrated 354-pound body took a beating last week, the U.S.S.R.'s contract with the AAU called for Alexeyev to lift, and lift he did. With one hand. Olympic-style weight lifting is made up of only two events now, the snatch and the clean and jerk, but once upon a time there were five, including a one-handed snatch. Alexeyev announced that he would attempt to equal his personal best of 231½ pounds. He started at 198½, the bar in his hand looking about as heavy as a broomstick. He smiled his small cat smile at the audience and bowed slightly. Alexeyev has two public expressions—that little smile and the blackest scowl of which the human physiognomy is capable. He exhibited the scowl one day last week after a workout as he rested his belly against the cool, slanted glass of a Baskin-Robbins refrigerator case. He had just polished off a Moa Moa Punch, and the girl behind the counter was urging him to try a sample spoonful of Pralines 'N Cream. He obliged, decided it was not the flavor of the month as far as he was concerned, and scowled his disapproval, blackly but good naturedly.
After toying with 198½ in the first one-handed snatch, Alexeyev upped the weight to 220½ pounds and again raised it easily. But 231½ proved too much, and he dropped the bar with a crash.
Another disappointment, from every point of view, was the failure of the two smaller Russians, flyweight Alexander Voronin and middleweight Yuri Vardanyan, to make the weight for their respective classes. Each weighed in one pound over the maximum at 9 a.m. Saturday and each therefore had to lift in the next heavier class, eliminating all hope of a world record.
Vardanyan is a 21-year-old, 5'7", 165-pound Armenian with the smooth face of a choirboy and a disposition to match. He holds the world middleweight records for the clean and jerk (413¼) and the total (733 pounds), and he is a Master of Sport, International Class. Vardanyan was the most conspicuous consumer of the Soviet delegation, buying, among other things, a $230 stereo set, but he was also the artist. Backstage, after the lifting Saturday, he sat down at a stray piano and for half an hour played Russian songs in complete peace while a sea of chattering people swirled about him.
Voronin is 26 and comes from Siberia. He is listed as 4'8" tall, but seems even smaller, though his tiny frame is sturdy. If he had made the weight and had been competing as a flyweight as expected, his 242-pound snatch would have been the only world record of the Record Makers Invitational. He holds all three world records in the division and he won the gold medal in his class at the Montreal Olympics.
Language barriers made questions difficult. Although Alexeyev had an interpreter of his own, the rest of the Soviet lifters had to make do with monosyllables or nothing at all, and speculation as to why such disciplined athletes as Voronin and Vardanyan should have missed their weights ran up the aisles of the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts and spilled out into the Genie Buffet. Cynics felt that the two might be avoiding the drug test that would have followed immediately on the heels of a world record. By missing their weights and lifting in the next class, they eliminated the possibility of a world record and, therefore, of a drug test. Another theory was that the Russians, with considerable justification, were not taking this event so seriously as to disrupt their training schedules with world-record attempts from which it would take several weeks to recover.
But Lee James, a young lifter from Pennsylvania who was serving as a loader, gave no credence to either rumor. He said he had seen both Vardanyan and Voronin in the sauna early Saturday morning, still trying to get the weight off, and it is known that they had taken the trouble to borrow a doctor's scale. Along with many others, he thought that the carnival atmosphere of the event and its "unusual" setting had more to do with the poor showings than anything else.
What the Soviet team really thought will probably never be known. Enormous 28-year-old Aslanbek Ivanovich Enaldiev, the 342-pound possible successor to Alexeyev's throne, dutifully wore an I LOVE NEVADA button on the blue expanse of his sweat suit wherever he went. And maybe he did, but he had a very bad day Saturday, which his coach attributed to his biorhythmic schedule being out of sync.
The third Soviet superheavyweight was the gloriously named 307-pound Sultan Rachmanov, 27, who lives with his wife and two children in Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine now but was born near Tashkent in Uzbek. Rachmanov fared better than Enaldiev, but even he did not attempt to equal his U.S.S.R. record in the snatch.
With a little luck, weight lifting will survive its glamorization. The dignity of its athletes will probably see it through. And perhaps, in the future, the Las Vegas experience will give the sport's leaders pause if tempted again to sell its soul for a six-figure mess of pottage.