The last superheavyweight lifter to make a successful comeback was Samson. They just don't do it. The training is too intense, the muscles must be in a constant state of awareness. They don't just retire to a dacha in the Ukraine and grow flowers and two years later say, "Ah well, at one time I was the greatest, and now it's time to return."
John Davis, the great American lifter of the '50s, tried it and failed. So did Leonid Zhabotinsky, the huge, blond muscleman who won two Olympics (1964, 1968). And, sadly, so did Vasily Ivanovich Alekseyev, the great Russian bear, the strongest man in history.
The end came for Alekseyev last Wednesday night, in a gray concrete hall called the Izmailovo Palace of Sport. Three times he attempted 397 pounds in the snatch, the first of the two lifts in Olympic competition. It was a weight he had bettered by 11 pounds when he set his Olympic record of 408 pounds in Montreal. But three times Alekseyev tried and three times he failed to get the weight above his head, and he was eliminated from the competition.
The wire service reports said the crowd watched in "stunned silence," but this isn't true. It was silent for his first try, but Moscow fans don't stay quiet for long. When Alekseyev lost control of the bar after raising it only three feet on his last attempt, they whistled and hooted at him, and one official turned to a photographer and said, "Ah well, he'll make a lot of sausages."
At 38, Alekseyev didn't look like an Olympic champion or even a former Olympic champion. He looked like a very fat man in his mid-40s, massive but sagging on top, enormous through the belly, disproportionately thin in the legs. He was in doughy contrast to the tightly muscled 300-pounders he would be competing against—huge, well-proportioned men whose only sign of overweight was in the stomach.
Soviet officials were quick to retire him. Eduard Bravko, the coach of Sultan Rakhmanov, the gold medalist, said, "Alekseyev is leaving the arena for good. He is going to become a coach. A famous weightlifter doesn't always realize he has reached the end of his capabilities. It's nice to be an optimist, but he must be a realist, too." Next day the Soviet press reported that Alekseyev's career was over.
It was news to Alekseyev. An hour after his competition, he stood at the entrance to the warmup room and talked about the "technical problems" that had hampered his lifting. His eyes were red from the half hour he had just spent in a sauna. He didn't seem upset, subdued maybe but not defeated. "How do you feel, Vasily Ivanovich?" an official asked him, and he said, "Wonderful."
He had walked off the platform amid the jeers and whistles in that slow, rumbling stride of his, watched the competition for a while and then retired to the sauna and shower. One of the trainers who constantly flutter around the super-heavyweight lifters like tickbirds on a rhino was wringing his hands. "You should have started at a lower weight, Vasily Ivanovich," he said. "You should have been sure to have gotten something on the board." The clean and jerk is the better of Alekseyev's two lifts, and a representative performance there possibly could have gotten him a medal.
"No," Alekseyev said, shaking his head. "I came here to win the gold medal. I felt strong tonight. I'm happy about that. Technically, I wasn't right. I knew there was something wrong after the first lift. Something was wrong with the top pull, the face of the lift. The first part was all right. Maybe I didn't have enough training. I would have liked a little more time. I will go back and train and my next appearance will probably be in a month."
Alekseyev paused and looked at the long faces around him. On his first two lifts, he'd managed to get the bar to his shoulders, but fell backward when he tried to lift it higher. On his last, he never got it anywhere.
"Look," he said, "I had the strength. That's the important thing. I was ready for this championship. If I could have gotten the weight in the snatch, I could have done 250 kilos [five more than Rakhmanov lifted in winning]. I am not finished."
For two years Alekseyev has been a man of mystery. In 1978 he was going for his ninth straight world championship, at Gettysburg, Pa., but in his first try in the clean and jerk he made a halfhearted attempt and then limped off, holding his hip. He didn't talk to the press afterward, and the speculation that came out of Gettysburg that night was that the world had seen the last of Alekseyev. For eight years he had been unbeaten. He had dominated the weightlifting world as no man ever had. He had set 82 records. John Good-body, a weightlifting expert from England, wrote that no athlete in any sport could match Alekseyev's achievements. He was 3½ times stronger than the average man, and what athlete could say he was 3½ times more proficient than the rest of the world? A runner? A swimmer? A shot or discus man? Not likely.
Alekseyev had moved to an apartment near Moscow, but after the Gettysburg disaster he went back to his house in Shakhty, a small coal-mining town 800 miles to the southwest of the Soviet capital. His training became a very private affair—if he was training at all. No one was quite sure. He was supposed to compete in the 1979 world championships in Thessaloniki, Greece, and the other lifters looked nervously over their shoulders waiting for the giant shadow to fall, but Alekseyev never showed up.
He hadn't competed in 1980. He was supposed to have qualified in a March 9 competition in Podolsk, U.S.S.R. but none of the reports of the event the next day carried his name.
"He told me, 'What do I need that for?' " said Aleksandr Gavrilovets, the chief of the International Sports Writers Commission of Weight Lifting. "He said, 'You know my training methods. I can achieve the qualifying weight anytime I want.' But he still had to come in with some kind of qualification before the Games, so a few days before the Olympics he strode into the Izmailovo Sport Palace, lifted the qualifying weight rather easily and left the hall. He was enormous. He weighed 379 pounds, which would have made him the heaviest man ever to step on the platform. He said, 'I will be lighter for the competition.' "
On Wednesday he weighed in at 357 pounds, and when he walked out onto the platform, rubbing his hands in front of him, his heavy brows drawn together, the crowd let out a cheer, broken by occasional shouts of "My s toboi!" (We're with you!). Twelve minutes later he was finished, and the crowd found another idol to cheer, the 6'2", 321-pound Rakhmanov, the 1979 world champion. Flat-faced, slightly Oriental looking, he is the product of a Ukrainian mother and a father from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan.
After Rakhmanov had won his gold medal, tying Alekseyev's Olympic record of 440 kilos (970 pounds), he was asked how it felt seeing a great champion hooted out of the arena. "I was sad," he said, "but I don't think it was a tragedy. It was sort of an accident—no, not even an accident, an incident. It happens with weightlifters. Sport is sport."
"I didn't hear the whistles. I didn't hear anything out there," Alekseyev said. "The important thing is that now I am back."
"Back to show the people who whistled at you?" he was asked. Alekseyev drew himself up to his full height and paused before answering. "Alekseyev," he said, "will show himself."