Certain athletes make such an impact on their sport that their names become synonymous with their sport. Basketball – Michael Jordan. Tennis – Roger Federer. Soccer – Pelé. Martial Arts – Bruce Lee. Boxing – Muhammad Ali. Swimming – Michael Phelps. Cycling – Lance Armstrong. Hockey – Wayne Gretzky. But in weightlifting, a sport in which the title of “Strongest Man in the World” is proclaimed, the name that always comes to mind is Vasily Alexeev.
The 1970 World Weightlifting Championships were Alexeev’s first world championships and his first competition in the United States (Columbus, Ohio). It was here that Alexeev captured the attention of the world, becoming the first man to clean and jerk 500 pounds (226.8 kilos). Alexeev’s best total in the three lifts that year was 612.5 (215 press, 170 snatch, 227.5 clean and jerk), and along the way he broke 26 world records that year. As it was reported that a Russian weightlifter would receive as much as $1,500 for a world record, Aleexev made some nice coin that year.
For the next seven years Aleexev continued his winning ways and financially rewarding assault on the record books. Let’s take a closer look.
Aleexev’s first major competition of the year was on February 14, and he got off to a great start by establishing world records in the Olympic press (222.5), snatch (177.5) and clean and jerk (230). In 1971 he broke a total of 27 records. At the world championships in Lima, Peru, Aleexev won, and he made two world records in the press and a world record in the clean and jerk. The Russian giant’s closest rival was Ken Patera of the US, who had cleaned the magical 500 pounds in a local competition in December 1969, a full nine months before Aleexev succeeded with the weight. At this competition, however, Patera totaled 42.5 kilos less than Aleexev. Further, earlier in the year Aleexev had snatched a world record 180 and his best total was 640, a 37.5-kilo increase over the previous year.
Aleexev becoming the first man to clean and jerk 500 pounds (227.5 kilos), a feat he accomplished at the 1970 World Championships.
Olympic year! The biggest challengers were Belgium’s Serge Reding, West Germany’s Rudy Mang, and Ken Patera. Reding and Patera failed to total, and Mang ended up 30 kilos behind Alexeev, who broke all the Olympic records.
After 1972 the Olympic press was eliminated from competition. There was much anticipation for the 1973 world championships, as Reding was making continual progress. A few weeks before the world championships he had snatched 182.5 kilos, becoming the first man to snatch 400 pounds (181.4 kilos); and he was a former world record holder in the clean and jerk. Mang was also making rapid progress, and in fact at the 1973 championships Mang out-snatched Alexeev 180 to 177.5; Reding was close behind with 175. Aleexev then took charge and clean and jerked 225 for the win, a relatively light weight for him, as earlier in the year he had clean and jerked 240 for a new world record, and Reding bombed. In one interview, Aleexev acknowledged that Reding was stronger than him (the Belgian had reportedly back squatted 400 kilos for 5 reps in the presence of witnesses) but that Reding had failed because he was too obsessed with trying to beat him. “That’s all he thought about,” says Aleexev. “He worried constantly and burned himself out before he even got to the platform.”
This was a great year for Aleexev. He won the 1974 World Championships easily over Redding, 425 to 390, but even more remarkable was that he broke 15 world records in nine tournaments! It’s been said that Aleexev didn’t perform maximal lifts in training, but with these types of results it was obvious he was getting a lot of heavy lifts in when it counted.
In 1975 Reding died, but Alexeev continued to be challenged by weightlifting greats. East Germany’s Gerd Bonk was a master of the clean and jerk, and Bulgaria’s Khristo Plachkov was a master of the snatch. As it turned out, at the 1975 World Championships Plachkov outdid Alexeev in the snatch, 190 to 187.5; and Bonk outdid him in the clean and jerk, 242.5 to 240. Alexeev managed to win by five kilos over Bonk, and by the end of the year Alexeev had made seven world records. However, the results of this tournament created a buzz that the Olympics might see the crowning of a new world’s strongest man.
On April 11 at the European Championships, Bonk created major news when he became the first to clean and jerk 250 kilos (by this time all Europe was metric, so 250 was considered a milestone achievement). In fact Bonk made 252.5 (along with a 180-kilo snatch), and he needed it, as Plachkov in that meet finished with lifts of 195 and 235. Plachkov also established a world record total of 442.5 in a meet in Sofia, Bulgaria, the following month. At the Olympics in July, Plachkov did not compete, but it might not have made any difference, as Aleexev was on fire. Aleexev established an Olympic record snatch with 185, and sealed the gold medal with a clean and jerk of 230 on his first attempt. Then he took a surprising jump to 255 to reclaim his world record. After the competition Aleexev said that he had intended to take 260 for a third attempt, but passed on it because he was too fatigued.
The major challenger for Aleexev in 1977 was teammate Aslanbek Yenaldiyev, who reportedly had squatted 1,000 pounds (445 kilos) and did a 247.5 clean and jerk the previous year. At the Worlds Yenaldiyev and East Germany’s Jürgen Heuser snatched 182.5 to Alexeev’s 185. But not to worry: Heuser finished the jerks at 237.5 and Yenaldiyev at 240; and Aleexev finished with 245 to win by 7.5 kilos. Later that year Aleexev reclaimed his total record from Plachkov with a best of 445, and he also broke the clean and jerk record twice with 255.5 and 256. As a comparison of how remarkable an athlete Aleexev was, consider that 34 years after the 1977 World Championships, the winner of the 2011 Worlds, Behdad Salimikordasiabi, clean and jerked 250. How many athletes can you name from more than three decades ago who could exceed the performances of today’s best?
Aleexev competed at the 1978 World Championships and seemed on his way to another easy victory; however, he injured his hip on his first clean and jerk attempt and could not complete the lift. He did not compete in 1979 but was selected to compete in the 1980 Olympics, at age 38. Reportedly he was capable of a 250 clean and jerk, but we will never know. Aleevev could not complete any of his snatches, bombing with 180, and Russian teammate Sultan Rakhmanov won easily with lifts of 192.5 and 237.5.
Over his lifetime Aleexev achieved Olympic gold twice, won five additional world championship titles, and broke 80 world records. He died on November 25, 2011, but his legacy as one of the world’s greatest weightlifters will continue for all time.
After securing the 1976 Olympic gold medal with a 230-kilo clean and jerk, Aleexev jumped 25 kilos on his second attempt to established a new world record.