Dave Stubbs

Sports Feature/Olympics Writer
The Gazette, Montreal

Russia's Modest Superman
Lifting legend fills big boots of countryman

The image is a courtesy of Phil Carpenter (The Gazette, Montreal)


Andrei ChemerkinYou first notice two things about Andrei Ivanovich Chemerkin, and both of them are his hands. They're the size of hams, and they're large enough to choke the spirit out of his competitors when he lumbers onto the weightlifting stage. He rubs these hands together absently, kneading his knuckles and his palms and his fingers, as though it's here that his very remarkable strength is centered.

But that's not the case, because Chemerkin's hands have much help. They're attached to two enormous arms, which join his body at the humongous shoulders sloping from his thick neck. His prodigious belly strains at the white T-shirt that has the word "Russia" emblazoned over both his heart and his broad back.

It's a ridiculously large shirt, tucked into nylon track pants pulled over mighty legs that support the heaviest Olympic barbells lifted by a man, ever.

And now he is rubbing his palms as he considers the title he's earned and defends every time he grips the bar with his chalky fists.

"The world's strongest man," Chemerkin says. "It's a good name. Sometimes it helps me, sometimes it doesn't. But I do not mention it."

He will forgive us if we do, because sitting before us is a four-time superheavyweight world champion and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic gold medalist.

He is the latest off the assembly line of magnificent Russian strongmen, and he's the favourite to win again in Sydney. At the Olympics, he expects an immovable object of steel and iron will be little match for his irresistible force, and when the big weight goes up, driven skyward by his colossal hands, he will be triumphant once more.

Andrei Ivanovich Chemerkin has brought his 175 kilograms - 386 pounds - to Montreal for this weekend's third world championship for university and collegiate weightlifters. It is his first trip to this city, which has a storied link to the great former Soviet weightlifters of the past. 

The legendary Vasili Alexeev won his second Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games, his power dwarfed only by his charisma. Alexeev had been lionized a year earlier in a Sports Illustrated feature, in which he proclaimed himself the world's greatest weightlifter - and the finest gardener, cook, carpenter, singer and billiards player in the U.S.S.R. 

In 1984, the Belorussian Aleksandr Kurlovich, en route to Toronto, was arrested at Mirabel airport and charged with importing anabolic steroids. He pleaded guilty, was fined $450, and was suspended two years by the Soviet federation, returning in time to
win the 1987 world championship. Kurlovich went on to become the 1988 and 1992 Olympic superheavyweight champion. 

The names Alexeev and Kurlovich, and former Olympic gold medalists Yuri Vlassov, Leonid Zhabotinsky and Sultan Rakhmanov, live in the consciousness of Chemerkin, and of every Russian weightlifting fan. 

Certainly, Alexeev is a czar beyond challenge, the superman from the steppes who set 80 world records during an unparalleled career of 22 world championships. But where the others are remembered fondly in their homeland, Chemerkin is worshipped. 

"I am merely continuing their business," the 28-year-old says modestly, through an interpreter. "I merely follow their tradition." 

As if walking in the footsteps of these giants is a normal day's work; as if pressing 262.5 kg overhead - nearly 579 pounds - is a modest task. 

Andrei was the second of Ivan and Faina Chemerkin's three very large babies. He came into the world at 5.7 kg (12 1/2 pounds), slightly heavier than his older brother, Dmitry, but less than the 6 kg (more than 13 pounds) weighed by his younger sister, Vera. 

He played soccer and paddled a canoe as a child, but changes in coaching and his own massive physique soon took him into the gym, where at 15 he began lifting weights in Solnechnodolsk, a tiny village nestled between the Black and Caspian seas in Russia's Stavropol region. 

"I remember my first competition, for two reasons," Chemerkin recalls. "I didn't win, and someone stole my watch and my new jacket." 

He won the junior world championship only four years after hoisting his first barbell, still in his teens yet with nearly 128 kg (283 pounds) on his six-foot frame. A second junior world title followed in 1992, and he won a silver and two bronze medals at his first senior worlds in Melbourne in '93. 

Chemerkin married the following year, and in 1995, seven months before the Olympics, his girth expanding by the hour, he advertised he was the man to beat by winning his first senior world title in China. But he would face a stiff challenge from Germany's Ronny Weller at Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Centre, packed by a crowd of 5,000 raucous Americans. 

Weller lifted a world-record 255 kg (562 pounds) in his final clean-and-jerk, in which an athlete snaps the bar to the shoulders, pauses, then pushes it overhead. Thinking the gold was his, the German celebrated by hurling his boots into the crowd. 

"I didn't see that," Chemerkin said later. "All I was thinking about was the medal. Even if (Weller) had gotten himself fully undressed on the stage, I wouldn't have been shocked." 

The Russian was up last, and with dramatic flair he added another 5 kg to the bar. His stunning lift of 260 kg (573 pounds) gave him the gold, and he was elated but for one thing - the sports beverage he drank in doping control turned his tongue and his teeth
blue. Not only did the drink taste like anti-freeze, he complained, it spoiled his victory photos. 

Chemerkin returned home to a welcome worthy of a hero, which he was. His region gave him a cottage as a token of its appreciation, along with a cheque for $100,000 U.S. He used the money to furnish his house, clothe his two young sons, and purchase two cars: a 1992 Mercedes he bought in Germany - "It's cost me a terrible amount in repairs," he grumbles - and a Lada. 

"It's a newer model," Chemerkin says, realizing people can't imagine him in a car barely larger than himself. "I love to drive it when I hunt." 

His popularity soared at home, almost frighteningly so. He was awarded the Medal of Courage in 1997 by then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and he became a policeman. Recently, he was promoted in the force, though he's not full-time because of training and competition demands. 

He even tried his hand at politics the year after the Olympics, running for a seat in the Petrovski District parliament. He finished second in the election, earning 25 per cent of the vote, and says he could have done better. 

"I did not campaign well," Chemerkin admits of the election lead-up. On voting day, he was in Thailand winning his second world title and establishing a world record of 262.5 kg (nearly 579 pounds) in the jerk. With his single-movement, overhead snatch-lift of 200 kg (441 pounds), his gold-medal total was a staggering 462.5 kg, or more than 1,019 pounds. 

(It's this snatch-lift that Chemerkin's critics say will keep him from putting his records beyond reach for a generation. His circumference, they say, will soon prevent him from getting the bar past his gut, though he's proud to say he's dropped 6 kg since last November.) 

He won the worlds again in 1998 and 1999, and remains untouched since 1995 in his sport's premier event, held annually except for the Olympic year. Including snatch, jerk and the total, he's won seven world championships. 

"It's harder to stay there than it was to get there," Chemerkin says. "The dream of everyone is to defeat me and to cover my records. There is great prestige in this. 

"Some countries spend a lot of money in an attempt to do it," he adds grimly, speaking directly of Iran, whose excellent superheavyweight, Hossein Rezazadeh, is coached by a Bulgarian, and the nation of Qatar, which essentially has purchased an entire team of foreigners. "They buy coaches and sportsmen, they change citizenship. 

"Is this sport? No, it is not." 

Russia's Vasili Alexeev, weightlifter and part-time philosopher, once said, "I lift as well as I lift because it cannot be avoided." 

Andrei Ivanovich Chemerkin listens to the observation, and after a moment says he's not quite as profound about his own path through life. 

"Everything I do to be a successful sportsman helps me to be who I am," he says. "Every day, I am preparing for my future. There are many things I can do, but I have chosen now to do this. You cannot be 100-per-cent successful in everything you do in life, but everyone should try to do what they do best." 

The attention at home is either suffocating or silly. Last year, his father, Ivan, won the Best Father of 1999 contest for no other reason than having sired the world's strongest man. 

Chemerkin's wife, Olga, manages the household and the couple's two sons and baby daughter while he's away, which is most of the time. 

"Sometimes, I'd like to take a quiet walk with my children, but in Russia this is impossible because I am too famous," he says. "I prefer to be with my wife and children, but I cannot. I will not be disrespectful to those who support me, but sometimes I tire of it."

Chemerkin tires, too, of missing Olga's "professional" cooking. He watches what he eats, which obviously he does in astonishing quantities, reducing cholesterol intake while gorging on protein and avoiding sweets. There is significant muscle beneath his
generous girdle of padding, for bulk alone will not push 262.5 kg over one's head. 

He has a delicious sense of humour - lifting a bar of 65 kg (143 pounds) for a photographer this week, he grunted loudly and begged for help. And he even pokes fun at the inconvenience of his mass. Assigned a tiny shower at the 1998 world championships in Finland, he said he managed to stay fresh by washing himself "piece by piece." 

Chemerkin is uncertain what lies beyond Sydney. He might continue lifting, he might leave Russia altogether. For now, he's studying at two universities and hopes to become a lawyer. 

But then, he's not even looking past tomorrow, when at 5 p.m. he'll lumber onto the stage at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal and push a sagging barbell through the gravity he does not respect. 

A 10-minute interview has become an hour when he looks at a naked wrist that surely no watch would fit; he unlinks his fingers, slaps the table and pulls himself to his feet, extending his paw in a firm but friendly farewell. 

"In Montreal, I wish to give pleasure to those who will come to see me perform," Andrei Ivanovich Chemerkin says, a smile lighting his open, happy face. "I wish only to give them satisfaction from my work." 

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