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He was regarded as the strongest man in the world, and Vasily
Alexeyev let no one forget it. From 1970, when at 28 he won his
first world championship and became the first man to lift more
than 500 pounds in the clean and jerk, until the Moscow Games 10
years later, the Soviet superheavyweight set 80 world records
and won two Olympic gold medals. Then, as happens to all strong
men, age and infirmity drained him of his immense power.

In his prime Alexeyev was a forbidding figure, 6'1" and weighing
nearly 350 pounds, scowling and blue-jowled. He would stride
ponderously to the platform, stand before the barbell with eyes
tightly closed, as if in a trance, and then with astonishing
speed hoist the great weights overhead. As spectators gasped, he
would lower the weights and imperiously take his leave. He was,
in every sense, a presence. (The superheavyweight competition
will be held today at the Georgia World Congress Center.)

But Alexeyev was also capable of great gregariousness. He and
his wife, appropriately named Olimpiada, enjoyed entertaining in
their fine home in the mining city of Shakhty. He was an avid
reader, Jack London being, as with many Soviets at the time, a
particular passion. He spent hours in his flower garden.

Alexeyev attributed much of his strength to his early training
as a woodcutter, working alongside his lumberjack father. He
didn't begin lifting until he was 21, and seven years passed
before he won that first world championship. However, he became
the sport's most recognizable figure after he won his first
superheavyweight gold at the 1972 Munich Games, setting an
Olympic record of 1,411 total pounds in the three lifts--press,
snatch and jerk. He reached the pinnacle at the 1976 Montreal
Games, when the competition was confined to two lifts. He was
confronted there by East Germany's Gerd Bonk, who, 10 years
younger at 24, had already broken Alexeyev's clean-and-jerk
record with a lift of 557 pounds.

In Montreal, Alexeyev waited patiently in the warmup room until
Bonk completed his efforts in the snatch with a lift of 375
pounds. Then, arrogantly, Alexeyev began by lifting his own
Olympic record of 386 pounds and subsequently increased the
weight until he had lifted 408. In the clean and jerk Bonk
bettered Alexeyev's Olympic record of 507 pounds with his final
lift of 518. Alexeyev had already clinched the gold with total
lifts of 915 pounds to Bonk's 893, but spurred by the challenge
he ordered new weights added to the bar to bring it up to 562
pounds--a world record if he could lift it.

The crowd cheered the great champion's stately march to the
platform. Alexeyev fell into his momentary trance. Then, with a
mighty grunt, he hoisted the barbell to his shoulders, pausing
there for the final push. He first staggered backward and then
to one side as he raised the weights overhead. As the crowd
thundered its approval, he held the barbell steady before
dropping it triumphantly to the floor.

He would add another half pound to his record in the coming
months, before suddenly falling on hard times. At the '78 world
championships he popped a tendon in his right hip while
attempting to clean-and-jerk 529 pounds and was forced to
withdraw. He virtually dropped from sight after that until the
1980 Moscow Games. At that time Alexeyev was 38, grossly
overweight and not entirely recovered from his injury, but he
desperately wanted to win a third Olympic gold in his own country.

It was not to be. Three times he failed at 397 pounds in the
snatch and was quickly eliminated. This time he walked off to
the jeers of the home crowd. But he had lost none of his
bravado. "I am an old and very strong horse," he said. "This is
not the end."

But it was.

COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Alexeyev got his second gold medal--and a world record--with his lift of 562 pounds. [Vasily Alexeyev lifting weights]