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In the Shadows of the Medals

Interview with LEONID TARANENKO, August 2002
By Elmira Horovets, Belarus PressBall
Translation by Arthur Chidlovski

Time can be measured not only in hours and seconds. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his Cat's Cradle novel that "when I was younger - two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 liters of liquor ago..." Legendary weightlifter, Olympic champion and multiple World and European champion, holder of 19 official world records, Leonid Taranenko can also begin his life story with "that was 50 kilos ago..." Even today, humor and irony help him to travel in time with the help of the weight measurement.

 

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A CHARACTER FROM A QUIZ

Leonid, it is well known that you did several come-backs to the sport - almost like Michael Jordan...

In terms of injuries, basketball can't be compared to Olympic weightlifting. Our sport is in the top 10 overall in this. The runner mostly competes in a vertical position. The lifter gets injured in all dimensions which is if not 10 times then 9.5 times more. I decided to quit for the first time in 1993. Not only I was tired of injuries, I was trembling when I thought about lifting weights. My body condition was awful - bad joints, spine... I went to India as a coach consultant. After being in that country, I all of a sudden began to feel young and healthy and decided to come back to the competition platform. Belarus didn't have a superheavyweight at the time and they needed one. To make a long story short, feeling young faded away quickly. After training on my own, my bodyweight went from 150 kilos to 117 kilos, I felt great but it lasted for 2-3 months. Then I began to gain weight again and old pains came back too. It all ended in a pityful finale at the Olympics in Atlanta. I don't really want to bring it up.

Do you have to deal with this subject up alot?

Yeah... there are quiet a few fellows who remind me about this. A friend of mine recently told me that the BA radio station had a quiz and the listeners were asked, "What famous sportsman went to the 1996 Summer Olympics as a tourist?" No one knew the answer. Then the host gave them a hint - "it was a weightlifter" and they got an answer. All of a sudden, I became popular among young generation.

Did you protest?

What for? If they are not interested in anything but some superficial knowledge, if they didn't become professionals, I can't help. I got buckets of dirt in 1996. No journalist did a homework. They just labeled me as Taranenko decided to get a free ride abroad, to see America. As if I haven't been in USA dozen times. I was accused of being fake and a parasite as if I didn't serve the homeland since 1975, bringing back gold and silver medals. They forgot the past. I wasn't even asked if it was true.

Had they asked, what would have you answered?

I was in a good shape that year. Although I showed a mediocre result, I won a gold medal at the European championship. But the goal was the Olympics. At the same time, there was a strong anti-doping campaign and our sports officials were concerned. And I thought that I could show decent results without this external help. But I ran out of gas. I began to prepare for the Olympics in the mid 1995, my body got worn out after forcing myself into the high intensity training. I started to get injured, muscles simply got torn apart. I kept complaining to our doctor Semenyakov - "Andrey, it a shame - so much strength is being wasted". "What do you expect, buddy," he replied. "Look into the DOB part of your passport". So, with the pseudo struggle against anabolics, we threw away even restoratives, stimulants which could have helped me at the time. I was 40 at the time. I needed those - otherwise, I couldn't compete with the youngsters.

Was it more difficult to part from the sport for the second time?

It wasn't that much about leaving the sport, but getting back to normal life. In a year, I gained my 150 kilos back and had to lose it again. Luckily, friends set up a vacation in Spain after Atlanta.

Who showed you moral support at that time?

I didn't need one. Because generally friends remained friends like it was before. They knew the real reason of my flop. They knew about my health issues and read those articles skeptically. I don't want to pretend that I was suffering and that I showed superhero strength in that battle. My wife Vika was near me all the time. Our 15th Anniversary is coming and I can't complain about the lack of support.

Have you been together since 1987?

Yes. I was considered beautiful at the time. Although, then I moved to the superheavy class and looked like a hangover type.

SPACE EXPLORATION DAY IN INDIA

As far as I know, you have two college degrees.

Besides, physical culture degree, I earned a degree from the agricultural university. My major was electromechanical engineering.

Was it the reason of your trip to agricultural India?

Not at all. Although I respect Indian laborers working in a hard climatic conditions, I got interested in women's weightlifting. In India, women began lifting much earlier. First time when I came to India was in 1994 and they already had their 8th national championship. Sport for women over there is their way to move up in society. Becoming a champion is way to blur the cast gaps that exist in the country since ancient times. The first experience with the national women's team in India was successful - a year after my arrival one of my students won word title and the other one got a silver medal and broke a world record. In 1999, I couldn't resist to try it again in anticipation of the Olympics. As a result, Karnam Malleswari won the bronze medal at the Olympics and became the first woman in the history of India to do that. To say that she became a national hero, "pride of India" is to say nothing. I was an eyewitness of the national celebration. I don't remember how they celebrated Gagarin's space flight - I only saw it on TV. In Karnam's home state, the level of excitement was pretty close. Crowds of people greeted her on the street, threw flowers to her. I was in the convertible car with main object of admiration.

Was this a moment of glory for you?

I was a mercenary and tried to keep a low profile. Indians also didn't want to bring a foreign coach into the spotlight. I have to thank my champion student - she insisted that I should be present at the celebrations. That was very nice of her.

Do you feel sorry that you spend so much time on foreign students rather than make a champion from some Belarus' girl?

By the way, I began to work in Bangalore and it is a "sister city" of Minsk. There is even a Misk Plazza over there. There was no women's weightlifting in Belarus in 1993-1994. Even now, it's not being taken seriously - although we have a national team and a new head coach has been appointed. Overall, there are no geographical boundaries for a professional coach. When you see a talent, you forget about everything. It happens very seldom. Body type, speed, flexibility, coordination - those are all requirements for Olympic weightlifting. The main component of talent is ability to work hard. After the childbirth, my student played a video tape where she lost her chance to win the gold medal in clean-and-jerk and decided to compete in Athens. When he was dying, her father told her that he would like to see her holding a gold medal and it lived in her. Recently, I went back to India - Karnam is not in the best shape. But she is very goal oriented and has a men's character... Sometimes, I compare her to myself and it's amazing - there are two absolutely identical personalities born in two different parts of the planet. I see myself in her.

TRUCKS THAT GO BACK AND FORTH

When you retired from sports, did you feel that something was lost forever?

I won't give you anything interesting with my answer. I don't want to make it up. That won't be true. I'll tell you up front - I miss the work that I enjoy. I don't have an opportunity to do something I can do. I had to learn another craft - I won't wish something like that even to people I don't like.

Without revealing commercial secrets, can you briefly describe what you are doing now. What is your new job about?

It's about driving heavy long distance trucks.

"Fast, inexpensive, reliable..." You job is similar to what you used to do - heavy lifting. Why don't you like it?

Deep inside, I am a very introvert person, I like to be alone. Now I have to deal with so many people. It empties me psychologically. I have to deal with these "energetic vampires" all day long. In the old times, I was training for over six hours a day and I am used to be with myself. Concentration is very important in our sport. My brother Yury had a great talent for weightlifting - he was fast and had better flexibility than me. But he couldn't concentrate on himself. He was training in the gym and kept looking at the watch. It's like start at five, do what you are supposed to do by seven and be in time with your date. That means that the guy really trained hard but he didn't pass the training through his consciousness. It doesn't give you too much of an effect. I was very focused - that's why I achieved something without extraordinary physical talent.

We have a very distinct partnership with my coach Ivan Logvinovitch. He was preparing the training process. I was doing a quality fulfillment of what he preplanned. In those times, as you might remember, there were shortages in the stores. One of the main tasks for the coach was to get things from the stores. We were lucky we had people that helped us. By the way, Logvinovitch is not a professional coach. He is an engineer. He has a PhD. In all my life, I never met more enthusiastically dedicated people like him. Even now, he is coaching and giving money to his students to get some extra calories. Today, of course, one can blame the coach that I over stayed in weightlifting. Sometimes, it gets me - I spent so many years on the competition platform. I won the Olympics in 1980 and it lasted up to 1996. Now I think I should have move on into other business as soon as I reached certain level.

What business? Mechanical engineering?

No. I had many offers and invitations at the time. I lost those chances when I kept struggling for the records. It was very interesting - to break records, to win competitions, but in terms of financial rewards, it wasn't that good. Everything is relative, of course. In the 1990s, Vasily Alexeev was appointed as a head coach of the national team. Our sports salaries were from 2 to 5 thousand dollars at the time. Alexeev was upset: "Look, you are shoveling the money! I got 5 pounds in England for the world record." It's about 10 dollars. But the expenses in my time were higher too. Anyway, if I have a chance to do it again, I wouldn't spend my best years in the sports.

But you have to accept - you get glued to the TV when you see the old footage... Besides, recently your countrymen began to earn medals again.

Of course. It's very exciting. Gena Olishchuk and Sasha Anishchenko began lifting when I was still competing. I am proud of them and I am happy for them because I know that it's a hard work and it's not that easy. Especially, with the pressure from anti-doping services. In my times, one could use medications that were on the one hand prohibited, on the other hand not. The times span for doping tests varied too. So, it was somehow easier. Today, the control is very strict. The guys got lucky that they got a good coach - Victor Shershukov. He is dedicated to the weightlifting and earned their success. He finally got lucky - got two world class athletes.

WHO NEEDS LAST YEAR SNOW

You coached the national team two years after the Olympics in Atlanta, didn't you?

Yes. I got a team where four best athletes were disqualified. As a result, Belorussian team was under the microscopic attention of international federation. As a head coach, I couldn't brag with great achievements. Why? It's difficult to explain. There is a difference between the coach who used to be an outstanding competitive athlete and the one who wasn't. On the one hand, it's very important to get the weight in the first attempt. It makes your task easier and you still have two other attempts and it's very progressive. On the other hand, athlete needs to know that he is considered a clutch lifter. Then he is ready to do impossible things. But if your initiative is killed from the very start, it's hard to expect further heroics from him. For example, the lifter wants to begin the clean-and-jerk with 210 kilos and you tell him - no, start with 190. He gets paralyzed by this - you can't expect further heroics from him. When I was a head coach, I couldn't take this chance away from lifters - the chance to improve their results. Because the weight he was ready for didn't mean much - what's the difference if he gets the place in the second dozen or bombs out. There was no difference for the team standings. So, these experiments often ended in bomb-out's and the sports officials were not happy with that.

Still, these disagreements and misunderstandings could have been somehow settled but there was a financial reason, wasn't it?

True. My salary of 20 dollars wasn't enough even to fill up a gas tank. Forget about supporting the family. I was overwhelmed with things not related to my main job. There is no reason to work hard if you are not being reimbursed for that. I began lifting in 1972. I was selected for the national team in 1975. I had this experience and I had to listen to some clerk in the Ministry of Sports: "What? Underpaid? Then go and coach beginners..." When you are supervised by amateurs, you begin to compare it to the Soviet times. Whatever is being said, but before sports was run by educated professional people. OK - the chairman was usually some communist bureaucrat but his team, his consultants were not lower than a world champion. It was a top class leadership.

Hm... what are you trying to say?

No. I am not dreaming about getting these posts. I am just upset. Decent salary is a sign of respect from the state. What can you say if your sports pension is $ 45 per month. You worked hard all your life for the glory of your country and here is what you get. Something is wrong here.

How about sports parades - did you get invitation to showcase your medals?

A while ago, I was getting invitations. Now I think they unlisted me... Maybe someone accused me from leaving the homeland and working abroad. While I was away, I was kicked out from the National Olympic Committee. I think bureaucrats that know the sport by the newspaper articles don't need champs. They think I am in the past.. From all the medals I have the biggest in the gold one for the Olympics in Moscow. Sometimes, houseguests ask to see my medals and I don't even know where I put them. To me, it's an old part of my life, I try not to think about it. I look at it as it is a last year snow.

 

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Video Gallery

Videos and Gallery of Leonid Taranenko is available in his section of the Hall of Fame @ Lift Up.

 

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