Yurik Vardanyan - The greatest weightlifter of all time?
Pictured above, Yurik Vardanyan hardly looks like the greatest weightlifter of all time: the medals are a clue.
Looking in the athletic rearview mirror, something very remarkable was occurring in the 1980's. In nearly every individual sport, athletes were setting marks that have not been exceeded to this day, or if they have been exceeded they have been barely exceeded or infinitesimally exceeded: Flo Jo’s 100-meter dash record, Randy Barnes shot put feats, Tarrenenko’s clean and jerk, Krastev’s snatch, in every athletic arena, humanity reached the outer limits of athletic possibilities. Since then, performance in every sport has leveled off.
For a lot of reasons, human performance crested in the 1980's. A lot of it had to do with state and government sponsorship of athletes, a lot of it had to do with breakthroughs in training, recovery, nutrition and performance enhancing drugs. Since the 80's world records (not all) have been improved on, but by baby steps. And with none of the great athletic leaps forward, the kind we experienced on a regularly reoccurring basis back in the 60's, 70's and 80's, when the cold war still raged.
One 80's giant was Yurik Vardanyan. He was born in 1956 in Gyumri, Armenia. Yurik began weight training in 1970 at age 14 under the guidance of his uncle, Sergey Vardanyan. The youngster displayed incredible quickness and took to the intricate techniques of the snatch and clean & jerk with great ease. Blessed with fluidity and speed, the muscle-less 130-pound teen began training with regularity. His progress was astonishing.
The Soviet Union was and is a hotbed of Olympic weightlifting. Armenia had excellent coaches and Yuri’s uncle was himself a topflight lifter. After six years of woodshedding Yurik entered his first major competition, the 1977 USSR national championship. At the time, it was harder to win the Soviet national title and make the USSR national team than it was to win the world championship. The depth of Russian talent was so deep that winning the world championships was a cakewalk compared to winning the USSR nationals.
Yuri, a nobody from nowhere, won the USSR nationals in the 165-pound class in his debut. At the time, the 5-foot 7-inch Vardanyan weighed a light and lean 160-pounds. The 20-year old looked more like a high school gymnast then the light-heavyweight weightlifting champion of the USSR.
After the nationals, Yurik Vardanyan made the Soviet squad. He then won the European championships, the toughest regional title in the world. To complete the Triple Crown, the 21-year old slaughtered the best in the world to win the first of seven world championships. He set his first world records and rose from obscurity to international fame inside of a year.
Yuri relocated to Moscow and began training with the Soviet national team. They were provided terrific living quarters (relatively speaking,) staffs of expert coaches, medical doctors, masseuses, excellent food and performance enhancing drugs. Iron Curtain athletes were treated like patients: there was no consultations with the athletes; the athletes took what they were given and without question. The KGB presence was real; insolence or rebellion meant banishment or imprisonment without trial.
With the change in environment, Vardanyan thrived. Yurik had an auspicious debut at the 1977 world championships. The 21-year old weighed 160-pounds. He snatched 342 for his first world record and followed with a 424-pound clean & jerk, his second world record. His two-lift total created a third world record. Yurik stayed a 165-pound lifter for the next two years. He set six world records in twenty months.
A still growing man-boy, Yurik Vardanyan campaigned in 1978 as an underweight 181-pound class lifter. His debut in the new weight class came in March of 1978 in Moscow. He set three world records, including a 463-pound clean & jerk. At the 1978 world championships held in Gettysburg, Yurik went wild, setting four world records. He began a habit of setting world records on 2nd attempts and exceeding his newly set record on his 3rd. He snatched 376 and clean & jerked 466-pounds.
At the banquet afterwards, the 22-year old sat down at a grand piano and flawlessly played intricate classical pieces by Bach and Mozart. He was brainy and sophisticated, reserved, characterized by his smoldering competitive intenseness. His quiet reserve made for an interesting contrast with the old swashbucklers on the Russian team, superstars like David Rigert and Vasily Alexeev notorious bad boys, hard partying/heavy drinking fighters, curfew breakers.
The 23-year old was part of a Soviet youth movement that included Piserenko, Tarenenko and Zacharavich. In 1979 he asserted complete world dominance, setting twelve world records in nine months. He pushed the 181-pound class snatch record up to a sci-fi like 387-pounds. By way of comparison, America’s greatest superheavyweight powerlifter, the massively muscular 320-pound Ken Patera, set the American superheavyweight record in the snatch in 1972 at 386-pounds. At the time, Ken’s snatch was the 2nd best superheavyweight snatch in the world.
Yurik Vardanyan increased his clean & jerk record to 473. He had been breaking his own world records for two years now. In the light-heavyweight class no one else was even on the same planet. By 1980 Vardanyan, now 24, was weighing a full 185-pounds. His powers were fully unfolding; he was lean, long-legged, narrow-waisted and darkly handsome, he was also unassailable. In July of 1980, he lifted in Moscow. He set his first world record as a middle-heavyweight, a 491-pound clean & jerk.
He then dropped back down to the 181 ¾ pound class limit. and on July 26th, 1980 at the Moscow Olympic Games, Yurik did the impossible by posting a combined total of 400-kilos, 881-pounds, via a 391-pound snatch and a 490-pound clean & jerk.
His Olympic performance was so dominant that his 400-kilo total would have won the 198, 220 and 242-pound class gold medal at those same Olympic Games. To this day, lifters in heavier weight classes cannot equal the 180-pound Armenian’s performance on that day. After shattering the 400-kilo barrier, Vardanyan let his bodyweight drift upward. He campaigned as a middle-heavyweight and posted a world record 402-pound snatch and a world record 493-pound clean & jerk. The world records he exceeded were considered unbreakable, held by Soviet superstar David Rigert.
In September of 1981, Vardanyan returned to the 181-pound class. He never looked better, he was mature now, but he had lost none of his trademark quickness. His techniques were textbook, his snatches appeared to levitate by magic. He posted yet another world record snatch: an incredible 180-kilo, 393-pound effort. He backed this up with a 491-pound world record clean & jerk. This created yet another total record, of course.
Over the course of Yurik’s incredible career he set 41 world records, 15 in the snatch, 15 in the clean and jerk, 11 in the total. Is this not the epitome of balanced lifting?
For the 1983 lifting season, Yurik Vardanyan campaigned as a middle heavyweight. He dominated, naturally, posting a mind-blowing 190-kilo 418-pound snatch. In the clean & jerk he hoisted equally mind-blowing 502-pound clean & jerk. Most every expert considers David Rigert the greatest 198-er of all time - yet Rigert never exceeded Yurik’s lifts, done as a small middle-heavyweight.
1984 was Yurik’s final competitive year. He campaigned at 181-pounds and set snatch and clean and jerk records that were, and remain, lightyears ahead of the rest of the world. In September of 1984, in Varna, Yurik Vardanyan weighing 180 pounds snatched 397. Three minutes later he snatched a mind-melting 402 pounds. This is my nominee for greatest single Olympic lift of all-time.
It was a big deal when in 1964 Rudolph Pluyfelder became the first light-heavyweight to clean and jerk 400. Now, 20-years later, Yurik snatches 400?! Insane. That same day Yurik backed up the 402-pound snatch with a 493-pound clean & jerk. No athlete in history either in the old 181-pound class or the new 184-pound class has ever matched his snatch or clean and jerk. I am out of superlatives.
A strong case could be made that Yurik Vardanyan is the greatest Olympic weightlifter of all time. To this day, his powers seem mysterious and otherworldly. Thirty-five years after his retirement, the best lifters in the world, men far more muscled and impressive looking than Yurik, cannot match his pure excellence. To this day he remains one of the most iconic and charismatic and mysterious lifters of all-time. Do yourself a favor and pull up Yurik Vardanyan on YouTube. There are plenty of weightlifting snippets of this “wonder of nature” athlete. Yurik died at age 63, far too young for such a talented, multifaceted man.
About the Author
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 here.