History of Olympic Weightlifting
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Interview with Gennady Bessonov, October 2006
by Arthur Chidlovski
The phenomenon of Olympic weightlifting in Shakhty, Russia is unprecedented. Small town of coal miners and descendants of Don's cossacks in the South of Russia produced more Olympic and world champions than much bigger and better established cities in world geography. The town was listed in the Guiness Book of Records for its sports achievements. Hundreds of Olympic champs wannabe's simply dreamed about being accepted by the gurus of Olympic weightlifting in training gyms of Shakhty. Vasily Alexeev, David Rigert, Alexey Vakhonin, Rudolph Plukfelder, Gennady Bessonov, Nikolay Koleshikov, Viktor Tregubov and many others - they all came from this place and they all amazed the world with Olympic and world titles and records.
With all these in mind, it is a pure pleasure and honor to talk to one of the greatest lifters of the glorious past, Gennady Bessonov about his life in sports, about Olympic weightlifting and legendary lifters he trained with. It's been over 20 years since his last competition but fans and experts of Olympic weightlifting remember him very well today. Time can't erase warm memories of his remarkable lifts and victories in this sport.
You might view the profile and video footage of Gennady Bessonov @ Lift Up or scroll down to see Gennady Bessonov' Gallery. We would like to extend our special thanks to Pavel Vitkovski in making this interview arrangements and to Movladi Abdoulaev and Geoff Fleming for helping to prepare this material. The version in Russian can be seen here.
Lets start with the end of your career - your last competitions. As far as I know, you left competitive sports relatively early - at 29. Vasily Alexeev only began to get close to his first world records at this age. So, when was the last time you stepped on the competition platform? What tournament was it? Who were your main competitors and do you have any special memories of the event?
My last international tournament took place in 1982 in Hungary at the Panonia Cup in Tatabania where I won the first place. My main opponent was Olympic champion from Hungary Peter Baczako. I competed with a progressing back and hip injuries. During 1983 season, I also won medals at various national tournaments.
How did your life turn when you left competitions? It's not a big secret that transition from elite sports to normal life has been a very painful process for many remarkable athletes. What are you up to today?
In 1983, I began to serve in the Internal Affairs forces (police) of the USSR in Shakhty, Rostov Region. In 1987, I was accepted to the National Internal Affairs Academy. I graduated in 1991. From 1994 to 2005, I worked as a Chief of Police Department of the district in Rostov region. In 2005, I retired from Internal Affairs service at the rank of police colonel. Currently, I work for the City Administration in Shakhty, Russia.
In December 2002, the head of our district Administration Mr. E.P. Lugantsev organized a special celebration dedicated to the 25th Anniversary of my first gold medal at the world championship in Stutgart, Germany. Many of my friends, legendary athletes attended the celebration including Vasily Alexeev, David Rigert, Nikolay Kolesnikov. Viktor Tregubov, the Head Coach of 1976-1979 Team USSR Igor Kudyukov... We also invited my friend Yurik Vardanyan who now lives in USA. Unfortunately, for understandable reasons, he couldn't make it and we talked over the phone.
How did you get into Olympic weightlifting?
In school, like all my classmates, I was involved in many sports - played soccer, volleyball, track and field. Due all this activities, I had a great basic physical foundation. Compared to the others, I was very strong physically. Our school gym teacher Soloviev was a former weightlifter and he noticed that I had a potential. My first steps in lifting are connected with this person. When I was in the 10th grade, I set our school record in clean and jerk. I did 100 kg with the bodyweight of 62 kg. My first competitions were held on December 5, 1969. It was the Championship of Shakhty and I took one of the last places.
What were your personal bests in snatch, cj, back and front squat?
My personal record in snatch was 181.5 kg. It was the world record in 1981. My best results in cj was 225 kg, back squat - 290kg x5 and front squat - 230 kg.
You were awarded the title of Honored Citizen of the Town of Shakhty. It is a small place in Rostov district and it had a world wide fame for Olympic weightlifters. Olympic, World and European Champions like David Rigert, Vasily Alexeev, Gennady Bessonov, Rudolph Plukfelder, Alexey Vakhonin, Viktor Tregubov - they all came from Shakhty. What's the secret here?
There is just one secret here - a great desire and a huge responsibility and commitment. It all led to high sports results, to the top of the medal stand. We were training hard all year long, showed progress all the time, moved only up and forward. Like all champions from our town, I was totally dedicated to this sport.
If possible, can you tell us about the famous athletes from your town. How were they on and off the competitions?
Alexey Vakhonin enjoyed a great deal of respect among lifters. Fans loved him as a great athlete. He was successful in anything he did. No one could be compared to him when he was on the competition platform, he fought for every kilo. He was able to give all he had to win. Take a look at the 1964 Olympics. His main competitor, Hungarian [Foldi] clean-and-jerked 137.5 kg and left the platform like he already had a champion title. Alexey still had one attempt left. In order to win, he had to cj 142.5 kg which was 3 kg above the world record by Chinese lifter. Alexey managed to lift it beautifully. After the down signal was given by the official, Alexey showed a great feat for fans - he raised one leg, shifted the gravity on the other one and stayed like this for a few seconds.
Rudolph Plukfelder was a very well balanced person. He was very detail oriented, everything he did was well organized, every step he made was pre-planned, every lift he did was pre-calculated. He trained without mistakes, without sloppiness. Every lift attempt he made was strict and clean. Because of a well prepared tactical competition plan, he won the Olympics in 1964. Outside the platform, Plukfelder was a very modest man. He was totally driven by the sports. When he retired from competitions, he became a coach and was able to achieve phenomenal results. He is the only person in the world who managed to prepare three Olympic champions - Alexey Vakhonin, David Rigert and Nikolay Koleshikov.
You competed for the national team in the 1970s. It was a legendary team. Can you tell us about your first competition for Team CCCP. Even today, fans of this sports still ask questions - how did they train back then, how were the athletes selected in the training camps, how were the decisions made on who will actually represent the national team at the Worlds and Olympics... What was your experience with this?
My first competition for the national team was on August 31, 1974. I competed for the juniors at Olympic Hopes part of the Friendship Cup in Romania. I won the first place in the 82.5 kg class with 137.5kg + 182.5kg. For the senior national team, my debut took place on September 22, 1979 at the World and European Championship in Stutgart, West Germany. I lifted in the light heavyweight and took the first place with 352kg total (157.5+195). I was awarded with 6 gold medals.
The national team trained according to the detailed plan. The training camps were pre-scheduled for the year ahead. We almost had no time off for resting. Decisions on athletes' selections for the worlds were made based on our preparedness in the last day before the competitions, without injuries. The choices in all weightclasses were up to three athletes who showed equally strong results.
Your results on the international arena are unique. You won World Championships, European Championships. On the other had, no gold medals at the national USSR Championships. Did it mean that it was more difficult win the national championship than intenational tournament?
It is true that I won the Worlds and Europeans twice but never won the USSR title. That was the way it was planned by my coach. Had I won the USSR Championship, it would have been extremely difficult to keep my shape on the peak level. This was the way I had an opportunity to build it up and reach the peak at the Worlds.
What was the role of your coach Viktor Dorokhin in your remarkable successes in sports? There are various type of coaches. There are dictators and there are teachers. There are athletes' friends and there are the ones that distance themselves from athletes. What was Dorokhin's style?
I am not sure what group Dorokhin belongs to. He was very demanding to himself. He was totally dedicated to his work. He is still like this. His working hours were not limited by the end of my training sessions. After each session, he conducted its analysis and discussions. He always asked me how I felt, showed his concern that I will not overtrain. On the hand, he liked when all his plans were done fully. He didn't like distractions for me during training. At the same time, he didn't allow himself to be distracted, he was fully involved in training process. His training plans were not dogmatic. He often made corrections - for example, he could re-schedule the training from morining to evening or the other way around. His coaching fanaticism allowed him to prepare 2 honored masters of sports (Tregubov and me), 4 international class masters of sports and 55 masters of sports of USSR and Russia.
It is known that Vasily Alexeev trained alone, with the closed doors. The only one who was allowed to the gym when Alexeev trained was Bessonov. That's what North American journalists wrote back then. It seemed that the only one who had access to the secrets of Alexeev was Bessonov. Is it true? If so, can you reveal some of the secrets of Vasily?
It is true. I was probably one of few who could enter the gym during his training. The key in his training was that he knew his weaknesses and constantly worked on those. His training sessions never repeated themselves. But main focus was on strengthening of the back muscles. He did it not with big weights but doing high reps on lower weights. Quiet often, we trained together on the river beach, on the sand. His opinion was that this kind of training strengthens the balance because everything was done in motion, on the move - moving sand, river, tilted bank of the river. After each lift, we were did swims for a few meters in the river.
In addition, instead of lifting weights, we often did various throws. As a rule of thumb, after having this type of summer training, we increased on personal bests in the fall and never had injuries which was very important. In many ways, I was catching his confidence in winning over the opponents.
Back in those years, there were rumors among us, young lifters, that the athletes were being paid 1,500 roubles per world record. Of course, we kept counting how many records were set by athletes and it summed up into that Alexeev and Rigert were very wealthy people. Is it true? Were world champs and record breakers wealthy people?
There were no big privileges for setting the world record or winning the world title for us. There were some payments by the state but those didn't really allow us to be considered "wealthy". I didn't have too many world records. For each of my records, I was paid 750 roubles. Needless to say, all athletes that won Worlds, Europeans or Olympics were awarded with 2 or 3 bedroom apartments. And every member of Team CCCP was receiving decent state stipend - up to 400 roubles. That allowed to live "normally" but, in no way, it made us wealthy.
In 1978, Plukfelder mentioned in one of his interviews that Aslanbek Yenaldiev did back squats with 455kg. It was a sensational statement because it was much above the world record in powerlifting. Only recently, American athlete was able to squat a heavier weight. Is it true about Yenaldiev?
Yes, Rudolph Plukfelder gave this interview. I didn't see how Aslanbek Yenaldiev back squatted 455 kg with my own eyes but my coach Dorokhin was an eyewitness how Yenadiev did back squat with 460 kg. It was in our place in Shakhty, during the training session. One correction, it wasn't in 1978 but in 1976.
To be continued...
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