Vasily Alekseyev was a real-life Hercules.
The greatest super-heavyweight weight lifter in history, Alekseyev was unbeatable from 1970 to 1978. The first man to clean and jerk over 500 pounds, he won Olympic gold in 1972 and ’76 and eight consecutive World Championships between 1970 and 1977, equaling the records of Americans John Davis and Tommy Kono. Alekseyev established 80 super-heavyweight world records and once stated that his goal was to set 100.
The premier sports hero of the USSR in the 1970s, Vasily Alekseyev’s renown was such that he sometimes received fan mail addressed to Alekseyev, the Kremlin. Standing 6’1” and weighing 350 or so in his prime, Alekseyev was weightlifting’s supreme figure. He appeared in American living rooms every Saturday afternoon. As Jim McKay voiced the human drama of athletic competition in the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the enormous Russian would hoist a massive barbell overhead. Alekseyev was utterly dominant. In a span of eight years, he won eight European titles, captured seven Soviet crowns and earned three Soviet Cups.
As a youngster, Vasily feared shaking a girl’s hand or pulling on a door handle, worried he might break them.
Alekseyev’s approach was to set his opening weight [of three lifts] just above his competitors’ third-lift weights, so he could wait in the back room while they grunted their way through their lifts. Then, when it was his turn, Vasily would win the competition on his first lift, then use the other two to better the world record. Competing at the height of the Cold War, Soviet leadership believed Alekseyev’s dominance and vigor reflected Communist superiority, and the mighty weight lifter received bonuses from the Soviet government for each world record he set. Ever crafty, Alekseyev broke each by the smallest of margins – often just over a pound – making it easier for him to set future records.
The first to lift 500 pounds and to total more than 1,323 pounds [600 kilograms], Alekseyev appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in April 1975 under the banner World’s Strongest Man. His combined total of 1,422 pounds [645 kg], set in 1972, can never be broken since one of the lifts [clean and press] has been eliminated. At the Montreal Olympics, Alekseyev lifted a world record 563 pounds in the clean and jerk, then hoisted a record 408 in the snatch. His combined total of 971 was 77 pounds more than East Germany’s Gerd Bonk, who won silver, and stood as the Olympic record until 1988.
Vasily Ivanovich Alekseyev was born January 7, 1942, in Ryazan, located along the Oka River in western Russia, about 120 southwest of Moscow. The son of a lumberjack, he started developing his strength by pushing logs into the water. Alekseyev worked initially as a miner, where he practiced weight lifting by detaching the heavy iron axle from a mining cart – steel wheels and all. At 18, he began training at the Voluntary Sports Society of the USSR, the government-run sports facility that churned out Olympians like bottles of Coke on a soft drink assembly line.
I never had a coach. I know my own possibilities best.
In 1966, Alekseyev moved to Shakhty and started to train under Rudolf Plyukfelder but did not rise to prominence until he developed his own training approach and dropped his coach. “Should I listen to the coaches who are worse than me in the sport?” asked Alekseyev. “Of course, I don’t listen to anyone. I do everything on my own.” He broke through with a bronze at the 1968 Soviet championships, then became the first to top the 500-pound mark at the World Championships in Columbus in 1970.
A true original, Alekseyev eschewed conventional training methods. He worked out more often and lifted more weight than his competitors. Vasily sometimes trained in the morning, other times deep into the night. He often lifted several times a day and other times not at all. Perhaps the most recognizable weight lifter in history, Alekseyev resembled a Russian bear. Bulky, slow and heavy-gaited, his head, legs, chest, and belly were massive.
On the morning of his gold medal performance in Munich, the 30-year-old Alekseyev ate 26 fried eggs and a steak for breakfast. He then went out and lifted 640 kilograms to set a new Olympic record. Like fellow countryman Aleksandr Karelin, who won 887 of 889 career Greco-Roman wrestling matches, and American hurdler Edwin Moses, who won 122 consecutive races over a ten-year stretch, Alekseyev was virtually unbeatable – and one of the greatest performers in Olympic history.
Alekseyev’s winning streak was broken when he injured his hip at the 1978 World Championships and did not medal. After recovering from the injury, he sought a third straight Olympic gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Games but failed in three attempts to snatch 397 pounds. After initially encouraging their longtime hero, the Russian fans whistled and jeered when Alekseyev could not continue. His competitive career ended with that stunning failure.
There is too much literature, too much music in life to spend time at television.
Despite his serious and rugged demeanor, Vasily was a gentle giant. His favorite hobby was reading, and he liked to garden, cook and sing. A talented carpenter, Alekseyev enjoyed billiards, table tennis and spoke some English, French and German.
Following the Moscow Games, Alekseyev worked as a weight lifting coach in Shakhty. He led the Soviet national weight lifting team from 1990 to 1992 and served as head coach of the Soviet unified team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where his athletes won ten medals, including five gold. Alekseyev received the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian honor in the former Soviet Union, in 1972. Two decades later, he was elected into the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame.
Fittingly, Vasily Alekseyev married a Russian woman named Olimpiada. The couple had two sons, one of whom placed fourth at the 1988 Soviet championships. Mr. Alekseyev traveled to Munich in early November 2011 to receive treatment for heart disease. The greatest super-heavyweight lifter of all time died in a German clinic November 25, 2011. He was 69.