Olympic Weightlifter Yuri Vlasov article by Marty Gallagher

Yuri Vlasov - The Zeus of Soviet Supermen

Olympic Weightlifter Yuri Vlasov

Rome Olympics 1960: the real Ivan Drago was 25-year old Yuri Vlasov. He wins the gold medal and becomes the first man to crash the 200-kilo (440-pounds) barrier. 2nd place was taken by Jim Bradford, the second man in history to clean and press 400-pounds. My mentor, Hugh Cassidy, trained with the mighty Bradford as a young man. Norbert “Ski” Schmansky took a distant 3rd place. Yuri was proclaimed the greatest athlete of the 1960 Olympic Games.

In 1956 Joesph Stalin died. His successor, Nikita Krushchev, was a politcal commisar who fought at Stalingrad, the pivitol battle of World War II. Between September of 1941 and February of 1942 (six months) 405,000 Russians and 155,000 Germans were killed in a city the size of Portland, Oregon. By way of comparison, a total 402,000 American soldiers were killed in all of World War II. During the war, four Russians soldiers were killed for every one German killed. By wars end, 8,000,000 Russian soldiers died killing 2,000,000 Nazis.

Nikita Krushchev was a short, squat, powerhouse of a man, purposefully uncouth, he was a war hero and in his heart, a peasant, a rural rube, a Russian hillbilly. He took pride in being wild and unpredicible. He once famously took off a shoe and banged it repeatedy on his tabletop at the United Nations, this to emphasize a disagreement he had with US ambassador Adlai Stevenson during a formal gathering of the UN General Assembly.

Krushchev was a weightlifting fanatic: he asked to meet another rural rube, a Tennesse hillbilly named Paul Anderson, this after the 360-pound Anderson shattered the world record in the press with a 402-pound effort, done outdoors at Gorky Park in front of 4,000 Muscovites. Nikita brought Paul to his Dacha to drink vodka as Paul drank one of his thirteen daily quarts of whole milk. The Soviet Premier was an Anderson fanboy. He insisted the Soviet Union create their own Paul Andersons . The Russians called Paul The Wonder of Nature.

A Russian Manhattan Project was launched to create the world’s strongest man: the realization of their efforts came to fruition in 1960 when a 25-year old Soviet Military officer, Yuri Vlasov, handily vanquished two American challengers at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Vlasov crashed the 200-kilo barrier to become the world’s strongest man. He was also named Outstanding Athlete of the Olympic Games. Nikita Krushchev was ecstatic: the good-looking youngster was 6-1, weighed a fantasticly muscled 275-pounds and looked as if central casting had picked him. Plus, he was smart as hell.  

At the birth of the Big Red Machine, there was Yuri Vlasov. Born in 1935, Yuri was born into the Soviet elite: his father had been the Russian ambassador to Burma. His dad, Pytor, had been a Russian spy during WWII, stationed in Shanghai and tasked to keep an eye on China, particularly Manchuria, where the Russians had fought the Japanesse. Yuri Vlasov’s mother was of Cossack heritage.  Both parents were highly educated. Young Yuri was packed off to an elite military school (from ages 11 to 18) after Vlasov was selected to attend the prestigious Soviet Air Force Academy in Moscow. He graduated with honors.

The future world’s strongest man did not touch a barbell until he was 20-years-old. Five years later he was a multi-time world champion and an Olympic champion. Other than Hockey, Russians mostly avoid team sports, favoring individual contests. Football, rugby, big man team sports, never took hold in the Russian psyche. Big men were confined to wrestling, field events, and weightlifting. Like chess, Olympic weightlifting (overhead press, snatch, clean and jerk) resontated with Russian men.

Starting in the mid-1950s, it became a national priority that Soviet and Iron curtain athletes dominate international athletic competitions. By crushing western athletes from Europe, Canada, America, Australia, Japan and the rest of the free world on the athletic field, the superiority of communism over decadent capitalism would be demonstated. Socialism would be shown to produce superior men and women, and this was to be proven athletically.  

The Russians, East Germans, Poles, Hungarians, all the Iron Curtain countries, threw the full weight of their governments behind athletic efforts. For the first time in human history, governments provided funding to further athletic accomplishments. The communist bureacracies combined cutting-edge medicine and science with elite coaching.  

Elementary schools were searched for genetic standouts. The athetically gifted would be funneled to elite coaches in their neighborhoods. If the selected excelled at the regional level, they would qualify to compete at the national level. Doing well in a national competition would win the young athlete an invite to live and train with the national team. The best of the best were selected to compete at the world championships. From 1955 until 1995, it was harder to win a spot on the Russian national team than it was to win the world championship.

Ed Coan noted that, at the peak of their domination, the Big Red Machine (as the Soviet sport conglomerate were aptly named) treated athletes “like patients.” At the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, the Russian docked a massive hospital ship near the Games and blood cleansed dirty athletes prior to competing. They also substituted athletes at the last second, based on pre-competition drug screening done on the ship. Performance enhancing drugs were administered to all national level athletes for decades.             

Yuri Vlasov was King of the strength world from 1959 until 1964: he won four world championships and was a six-time European champion. Yuri won an Olympic gold and silver medal. He set thirty-four world records and at the peak of his popularity Vlasov was frequently included in international delegations receiving visiting foreign leaders. He attended Kremlin meet-and-greats with Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, Nasser and Mao. Vlasov was a brilliant man. After retiring, Leonid Brezhnev offered him a position as his personal adviser on China. Yuri Andropov, KGB chief and short-time Soviet premier, advised and edited Yuri’s book, The Vladimirov diaries: Yenan, China, 1942–1945. The tale involved Soviet intelligence and was based on Yuri’s father’s escapades during his time in wartime China.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, seven-time Mr. Olympia, considered Vlasov as a major motivation for his career as a bodybuilder. They first met at the 1961 World Championships in Vienna when Schwarzenegger was 14. In 1988, while filming Red Heat in Moscow, Schwarzenegger insisted on meeting Vlasov, who by then had fallen out of grace with the Soviet leaders. He gave him his photograph signed "To my Idol Yuri Vlasov”

During his competive years, Vlasov was involved in titanic athletic battles. Yuri Vlasov was heavily favored to cruise to victory at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. The Russians sent two superheavyweight lifters, the second being the jovial young giant, Leonoid Zhabotinsky. The 6-4 340-pound blond giant stayed close to Yuri through the press and snatch. Vlasov held the world record in the clean and jerk and was, by far, the more seasoned competitor.

On his 2nd attempt clean and jerk, Zhabotinsky injured his right thigh and had to be helped from the platform. Vlasov made his 2nd attempt to take the lead. With Leonoid out of the competition, Vlasov took a stab at elevating his world record on his 3rd attempt clean and jerk. The weight was 479. He barely missed. No matter, he was the Olympic champion.

Wait a minute! – Zhabotinsky had faked the injury on the 2nd attempt! He came roaring out of the backstage warmup area to attempt a world record of 479-pounds. This would give him the gold medal. Vlasov was shocked and pissed at this “trick,” by a teammate no less. Zhabotinsky made the lift and became the Olympic champion. Yuri lost his weightlifting mojo. He had a lot of options and was being pushed and pulled in many directions. Vlasov announced his retirement immediately after the 1964 Olympics. Vlasov set his last world record in May of 1967 when he pressed 440-pounds, becoming the first man to exceed 200-kilos in the press, for which he received 850 rubles.

Around the same time, he also retired from the Soviet Army, where he worked as a sports instructor. He held the rank of captain. After retiring from competition, Yuri Vlasov’s life became complicated. A child of the elite, he was cast out when his writings began expressing his yearnings for a freer society. Towards the end the old USSR, only his celebrity kept him out of the gulag. When the USSR broke apart, Vlasov became a leading voice.

Vlasov became a professional writer and journalist years before his retirement from competitions – his short stories were published by Soviet newspapers starting in 1959. In 1961 he won a prize for best sport story of the year from the Union of Soviet Writers. In 1962 Vlasov became a special correspondent for the major Soviet newspaper, Izvestiya. In 1964 he published his first book, a collection of short stories, Overcoming Yourself. After retiring, Vlasov dedicated himself to writing. He published 15 novels, most notably the Flaming Cross trilogy (1991–93) about life during and after the Russian Revolution. He has ten short story collections and in 1973 he edited and published his father's diaries, The Vladimirov diaries: Yinan, China, 1942–1945.

One of the most amazing athletic feats in his entire career occurred when, at age 69 (no typo) he clean & jerked 402-pounds weighing 239. 402-pounds would be an outstanding DEADLIFT for a 69-year-old. I can think of no more outstanding feat for a man that age except perhaps some of Karl Norberg’s feats.

In the 1990s, Vlasov got involved in politics and besmirched his image when his campaign for Soviet president veered into undisguised antisemitism. He died at age 86. He was the first true Soviet athletic superstar. He was a remarkable young athlete, his meteoric career spanned six short years. He left an indelible mark.

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About the Author - Marty Gallagher
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher Biography for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.