Thirty-four years after Vasili Alexeyev became the first
weightlifter to clean-and-jerk 500 pounds, the man who pumped the
iron that added to the aura of the Iron Curtain still claims he
doesn't understand why he was portrayed in the U.S. as the symbol
of the power--and the threat--of the Soviet Union.
"In 1985, as the cold war icebergs were melting, I was watching
an American TV documentary about the Soviet Union," Alexeyev said
recently, sitting in the trophy room of his home in the Russian
city of Shakhty, 600 miles south of Moscow. "Suddenly, they
showed me, and the announcer said, 'At a time when the Soviet
Union was lagging behind the United States in space exploration,
the Russians responded with Vasili Alexeyev.' I was shocked at
how highly America thought of me."
The two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion,
who still describes himself as "the Number 1 sports legend in the
history of the Soviet Union," was being coy. Each of Alexeyev's
80 world records in the superheavyweight division has been
surpassed (his record for setting the most world records still
stands), but, at 62, his ego remains as imperial as ever.
In 1975, between his Olympic triumphs at Munich (1972) and
Montreal ('76), an SI cover story praised Alexeyev's "kingly
chest and belly, broader than any barrel, bass drum or office
safe in common use today." Back then, Shakhty was a booming
coal-mining city, and Alexeyev was officially listed--and very
well paid, by Soviet standards--as a "mining engineer." Now, like
the U.S.S.R., the Shakhty mines are no longer operating.
"Everything is in ruins," he says.
Alexeyev, who swears that he never used performance-enhancing
drugs, was 38 when the Olympics came to Moscow in 1980, and he
competed for the last time. However, he failed to complete a lift
and complained, unconvincingly, that Soviet officials had
poisoned him with "a strange drink that made me act like a stupid
sheep." He was unemployed for eight years and then spent four
years as national team coach, guiding the lifters representing
the Unified Team of Independent States--the banner under which
the former Soviet nations competed at the 1992 Games--to five
gold medals in Barcelona. He remains the nominal vice president
of the Russian Weightlifting Federation, but won't be on hand to
assist his country's lifters in Athens.
Not surprisingly, Alexeyev's planet-sized abdomen and rain-forest
eyebrows remain proudly intact, as does his 42-year marriage. He
continues to work out avidly in the training cabin he built
behind his house and is introducing his two grandsons--one of
them named Vasili Alexeyev--to the sport that made his name
synonymous with Soviet strength. "I think kids should be forced
to do sports," he says. "I tell them, 'You may not be champions,
but you do have to be strong!'"
A two-time gold medalist as a superheavyweight, Alexeyev, 62,
still pumps iron at home in Shakhty, Russia.