History of Olympic Weightlifting
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Interview with Kaarlo Kangasniemi, March 2008
by Arthur Chidlovski
It's always a special privilege to speak to the legends of Olympic weightlifting. Kaarlo Kangasniemi won not only gold medals at the Olympics and top international championships, he won a true admiration of the fans of the Iron Game for his pure strength, determination and unmatched physique.
Kangasniemi is the only Finnish Olympic weightlifter to win gold medal at the Summer Olympics. For his heroic performance on weightlifting platform, Kangasniemi was awarded the Best Sportsman of Finland twice - in 1968 and in 1969. He competed in three Summer Olympic Games in 1964, 1968 and 1972 and, by all means, is a true legend of Finnish sports. In 2008, he received the Award of All-Time Best Sportsman of Satakunta.
With all his titles and achievements, Kaarlo speaks very easy and straight without any political correctness about hardly transparent topics. "You can ask me any questions you have in your mind", said Kangasniemi when we asked him about the interview for the Lift Up.
You might view the profile and video footage of Kaarlo Kangasniemi @ Lift Up or scroll down to see Kaarlo Kangasniemi' Gallery. If you have questions, comments or want to share your memories, please Interact with Kaarlo Kangasniemi.
We would like to extend our special thanks to Boris Severov, Tampere, Finland for helping with Russian-Finnish translation.
Almost forty years ago, on October 17, 1968, in the 90 kg weight class, Olympic gold medal went to a relatively unknown athlete from Finland, 27-year old Kaarlo Kangasniemi. The list of contenders included such famous lifters as Jaan Talts, Geza Toth, Marek Golab, Louis Martin... It was really a sensational victory! How was it in Mexico City?
I reached an exceptional shape right before the Olympics in Mexico City. In training, I was able to press 180kg for several times. My snatch was exceptionally good at the time - I was able to power snatch 150kgx2 and had enough strength to snatch 165 kg. The coach was trying to force me to open only with the 150 kg snatch. Actually, he said that I should begin even with the 145kg. I really got mad at him and walked away angry as a bear. I told him right away that I am not going to lose the competition without a real fight.
I looked at Jaan Talts and noticed that he was "burning like a candle" and I also knew how nervous Bosse Johansson can get by the previous competitions. Bosse kept complaining how bad the food was and that he had a diarrhea. At that moment, I realized that I really could grab the victory like a ripe fruit from a tree.
I had to enforce the victory with the first attempt in the clean-and-jerk. The second attempt just sealed the fact that I got the Olympic gold!
There is an archival footage of that evening - Kaarlo Kangasniemi performs a brilliant snatch lift and sets up a new world record with a 158 kg snatch. Camera pans right and we see a Finnish fan waving a national flag in the audience. What did your victory mean for your homeland? How did fellow Finns greet you when you returned home?
In Finland, it was considered that by winning the only Olympic gold medal for the nation, I saved the face of the whole Finnish delegation. They even compared me with the Ancient Greek Hercules. I was just a custodian in high school and, of course, all students were proud of me because the school got an Olympic champion.
We drove to Pori in a huge black representative car with the mayor of the city and the head of city sports. Of course, my wife and children, Leena and Ari were also in the car. When we arrived to Pori, there were thousands of people greeting us in front of the City Hall because I was the only Finn who won Olympic Games.
How did you get involved in weightlifting? Did you compete in other sports prior to Olympic weightlifting? Do you remember your first contest?
There were eight brothers in our family and all of us were into sports. We always competed between each other who was better in this or that sport. We played different games, competed in track-and-field, cycling. In winter time, we did skiing and skating. Sometimes, while at rest, we played cards, smoked a bit and even tried alcohol.
My brother Kauko and me walked to school in Pori. It was only a 50-kilometers walk round way. Oh, we also had some boxing gear and we organized tough boxing matches and played Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay who later became known as Muhammad Ali.
My first competition was in Pori and the result was 262.5 kg in the 67.5 kg class. It was in 1957. When I won, it certainly inspired me for more. I was 6 when I for the first time began to lift weights, hand-made dumbbells.
The most important part for me was to realize that only hard training can make a champion out of you. It really doesn't matter what sport you are into.
To be an Olympic weightlifting champion - is it genetic or it all comes through training. Were there strong people in your family?
My father was a blacksmith. He was awfully strong. He could do pull-ups hanging from a bar on one finger for several times. My brothers and myself always admired this and tried to do it ourselves.
There is a story how my father amazed everybody with his strength when he served in the army. There was a huge 300-kg anchor sitting next to their barracks. Huge soldiers were trying to lift it up unsuccessfully. The newbie Kangasniemi approached them and asked permission if he could join them. All of them started to laugh.
"Big guys can't do it, who are you here to compete with them?"
Joha Kangasniemi reached for the anchor andů lifted it up.
The soldiers got silent.
"Where are you from, soldier?"
"I am from the Satakunna region, village of Lassila where strength grows in the woods!"
There were 8 brothers and 3 sisters in our family and all of us were lifting free weight along with doing other sports. Five brothers were able to win Championship of Finland. Kauko and me won world championships and set world records. Three sisters were also very strong although they were not tall.
Both my father and mother were born in Russia, There was no Finland as a country at that time. My father was born in 1896 and my mother was born in 1901. Relatives of my uncle live in St. Petersburg, Russia and in its suburbs. Hey, you can ask me whatever you want, whatever is in your mind!
What were your all-time best results in the press, snatch, clean and jerk, back squat and front squat? Did you have a favorite lift type in competitions?
My best results in the 90 kg weight class were press - 180 kg, snatch - 162.5 kg, clean-and-jerk - 196 kg. In the 82.5 kg class, my personal best were press - 165 kg, snatch - 157.5 kg and clean-and-jerk 190 kg.
In terms of squats, I did 250x5 back squats and 230x5 front squat in the 82.5 kg class.
I had a mediocre technique. My favorite lift was Olympic press.
Before your Olympic victory, Finnish athletes were mostly known for their talent in dynamic lifts - the snatch and clean-and-jerk . So, your success in the snatch was to some extent predictable but you had an absolutely phenomenal Olympic press. How did you manage to achieve this?
I did a lot of training of the press lift. Almost 50 percent of my training was press lifts from various positions. I managed to learn the rhythm of press lift when I was young and worked a lot on the strength of triceps.
Judging by pure strength, I should have pressed 195 kg, snatched 175 kg and cj'd 220 kg. It's a pity that my lifting techniques were bad.
You competed against legends of Olympic weightlifting. Jaan Talts, Geza Toth, Bo Johansson, Gyozo Veres, Norbert Ozimek, Vasily Kolotov, David Rigertů It was a true elite of world lifting. Whom did you consider your most serious opponents? Can you tell us about these lifters on and off the platform?
Vasily Kolotov was a natural born talent from the Ural mountains. I considered him a good friend. He had a good fighting spirit. He visited Finland and I always loved to see him. Jaan Talts visited my home and we actually talk quiet often. David Rigert was superb and won over everybody on the platform in his times. We had tough fights on the platform with Johansson during the Sweden vs. Finland matches.
For those who followed the Finnish Olympic weightlifting of the 1960s and 1970s, it was amazing to watch the rivalry between two families - the Kangasniemi brothers and Kajlajarvi brothers. It was absolutey unique to see two families showing absolutely fantastic world class results.
It is very true, there was a serious competition between us and the Kajlajarvi brothers. We outnumbered them - there were only four of them. The Kailajarvi brothers never revealed their training secrets. When we were in their area in Pirkkala, we asked them about their training methodology and they answered us that they run in the swamps with backpacks on the shoulders. The rumor said it was a big secret. I remember the brothers and me decided back than that there will be a day when brothers Kajlajarvi will ask us about our training methods. It happened exactly like that. We never shared methodology with them because it was considered a big secret.
What would be your version of All-Time Best Top 5 athletes in the world?
You participated in the three Summer Olympic Games. Besides 1968 Olympics, you competed in Tokyo in 1964 and in Munich in 1972. What are you memories of the Olympics in 1964 and in 1972? Why did you changed the weight class from middle heavyweight class to light heavyweight class in Munich?
To me, the Olympics in Tokyo were a success because I showed my best results at the time. I set up records of the Northern countries and Finland and I got a special prize, golden watch. That's how I got my nickname ""Kulta-Kalle"" (Golden Kalle).
As for the Olympics in Munich, I had a shoulder surgery not too long before the tournament, my bodyweight went down. I didn't have enough time to heal the shoulder. It was too close to the Games.
Do you remember your last competitions?
The last competitions took place in Colliwood, Canada where I won masters'world championship and set a masters' clean and jerk world record. The time difference was 21 years. In between, I had a back surgery, fibers surgery and many other illnesses. I got up like a Roman slave in ancient history.
What did you do after retiring from competitive weightlifting?
I worked as a coach and trainer in various sports - some sports games and also individual sports. I was teaching athletes the strength exercises and some stretching exercises.
If possible, what was the most memorable moment in your career and the most unpleasant moment?
There is nothing that can outweigh winning the Olympics. The difficult moment was when I wasn't able to move for many months and people were saying that Kalle will never be able to move on his own.
It's a serious subject in today's sport - usage of anabolics and doping substances in weightlifting and in sports overall. The stars of sports are being questioned by the committees in the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. Some end up behind the bars in jail. What is your opinion about usage of steroids in sports?
In Finnish sports, pharmacy science was used full strength beginning with 1967. It goes on today too. And it will go on. In my opinion, it's the way to do things because the testers can't bullet proof test it. Lie detector would have been the worst solution for this problem. If you ask me, everybody could have used pharmacology under the supervision of the doctors.
I don't think that Marion Jones should return her gold medals because everybody else was under the influence of the pharmaceutical substances. Tell Jones that Kalle from Finland will go to serve time for her in jail. I got plenty of time for this.
In my opinion, athletes should have freedom of choice. One shouldn't take it away from them.
Thank you very much for your answers and for unforgettable moments on the platform you gave to so many fans of the iron game.
Photos courtesy of Mr. Kaarlo Kangasniemi and his personal archives.
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