Soviet Weight Lifters Vlasov and Zhabotinksy: An Olympian Psych Out in Tokyo

Vlasov looking downcast whle Zhabotinsky basks in golden glory.
Vlasov looking downcast whle Zhabotinsky basks in golden glory.

“The Strongest Man in the World” – that is the unofficial title given to the gold medalist of the +90kg weight lifting competition, where men lift total weights that measure over half a ton.

In 1964, it came down to two massive men from the Soviet Union – Yury Vlasov and Leonid Zhabotinsky.

Vlasov was the champion, winning gold in Rome and becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular people. According to the book Rome 1960 by David Maraniss, Pravda described him in 1960 as a man not only possessing superior strength, but brains as well. “He is a young man, very cultured, very well read,” Pravda boasted of the engineering student. “Vlasov is the best example of the harmonical physical and mental development of the Soviet athletes.” Vlasov was expected to succeed in Tokyo as well.

Zhabotinsky was a 2-meter, 160-kilogram giant, who had never won head-to-head against Vlasov prior to Tokyo. While Vlasov, who wore glasses during his competitions had a reserved, scholarly look, Zhabotinsky was boisterous, and perceived to be crude in manners, according to this analysis of the weightlifters from 1964.

As American champion Norbert Schemansky faded, it came down to a battle between Vlasov and Zhabotinsky. In the second to final attempt in the clean-and-jerk finals, Zhabotinsky failed his second attempt, and according to this explanation, actually went up to Vlasov and conceded defeat. So when Vlasov made his third attempt, he went for a world record at 217.5 kg thinking that it didn’t matter whether he got it or not, thinking Zhabotinsky had emotionally given up. But since Zhabotinsky had the last attempt, and knew his second “failed” attempt was a ruse, he did his best, broke the world record at 217.5 kg, and won the gold medal.

This is reportedly how Vlasov felt at the time: “When Vlasov realized that he had been the victim of a dishonest trick, he was furious. ‘I was choked with tears,’ he later wrote. ‘I flung the silver medal through the window… I had always revered the purity, the impartiality of contests of strength. That night, I understood that there is a kind of strength that has nothing to do with justice.'”

The video is grainy and the audio is in Russian (I think), but if you know the story, it’s compelling drama.