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Passing the Bar : Former Olympic Champion Vardanian Lends Expertise to U.S. Weightlifters

October 15, 1995|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOORPARK — It takes a gentle push, a little prodding, before Yury Vardanian agrees to the request.

He rises from one of the workout benches in the cramped weightlifting room at Moorpark College, his red shirt and warmup pants a visual reminder of his days as a sports icon in the former Soviet Union, and strides to the barbell loaded with weight-plates.

Two-hundred-forty pounds worth of weight-plates.

"Now?" he asks in English, a language he still has not mastered, as a photographer gets ready to snap his picture.

Then, without doing as much as a pushup to stretch his muscles, Vardanian reaches down and with amazing speed hoists the barbell to the shoulder girdle above his chest. After a pause, he jerks the barbell over his head, his outstretched arms and legs perfectly still as the camera clicks away.

Vardanian, 39, smiles. These might not be the Olympic Games or World Championships he once ruled, and he is now a coach who hasn't lifted competitively in a decade, but showboating still gives him a rush.

A few feet away, Lance Vermeil, a Moorpark student and weightlifting champion trained by Vardanian, flashes an "I-told-you-so" look. He says Vardanian, who has lived in Glendale with his wife and three sons since 1991, is fiercely competitive.

"I bet him one time that he couldn't do five snatch pulls with 242 pounds and no warmups and the sixth had to be a full snatch [lift], and I lost a dinner on it," Vermeil said.

This time, the prize was only personal satisfaction.

*

Several years ago, no one doubted the ability of the man some call, pound-for-pound, the greatest weightlifter ever.

Even in his early days in the sport, before he became an international superstar, Vardanian was no pushover.

Born in Leninakan (now Gumri), Armenia, Vardanian became interested in weightlifting at age 8 by watching his uncle Sergei compete. He took up the sport five years later and won the 165-pound class at the junior world championships in 1975 and 1976, setting three world records in each competition.

"I always thought I would become a world champion, although I don't know why I felt that way," Vardanian said through an interpreter.

"As a kid, I was scared of airplanes. When my father used to take me to visit my aunt, it was only a one-hour flight, but I used to get scared and nauseous. But then I started thinking that I would have to fly a lot when I became world champion, so I got over the fear."

By the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Vardanian was on a different plateau than other lifters in the 181.5-pound weight class. The Games should have given Vardanian great international exposure, but the United States-led boycott took care of that.

Fueled somewhat by nationalistic pride and encouraged by his uncle, then an assistant coach for the Soviet team, Vardanian cranked it up a notch.

He swept the light-heavyweight division with 177.5 kilos (391 1/2 pounds) in the snatch, 222.5 (490 1/2) in the jerk and 400 (882) total, all world records. His total would have earned Vardanian a gold medal in either of the next two higher weight classes.

There were allegations in those Games that Soviet lifters had been using steroids to enhance their performance. Vardanian says he was clean but the rumors were not altogether unfounded.

"It's a fact that many weightlifters took banned substances," Vardanian said. "From what I know, the Soviet team took less than anybody else. But in competition they were always clean. The Soviet weightlifting federation never encouraged it. The athletes got the steroids in the black market. . . . The International Weightlifting Federation then started doing random testing even at training camps.

"Anybody should be able to tell by looking at me that I never took [steroids]. My weight didn't drop a lot [after the Olympics] and I was able to have kids. You should be able to tell by the aftermath. That speaks for itself."

*

After the Olympics, Vardanian was practically worshiped in the Soviet Union.

"He was a god," said Yury Boroda, a Ukrainian-born former weightlifter who grew up in the Los Angeles area and was the 1989 U.S. junior national champion in the middleweight division. "I used to read about him. After I met him, I found out he's as good a person as he is a sportsman."

Vardanian didn't have the opportunity to defend his Olympic title in Los Angeles in 1984 because the Soviets and other Eastern-bloc nations bypassed the games in retribution for the U.S.-led boycott four years earlier. But Vardanian nevertheless served notice that he was still the force among light-heavyweights.

In September, 1984, at the Friendship Games in Bulgaria, Vardanian set a world record with combined lifts of 405 kilos (893 pounds), 50 kilos more than Romanian Petre Becheru's gold medal effort at the Olympics a month earlier. With that display, his social and political status improved even more at home as he reaped the benefits of trumpeting, with his athletic prowess, the virtues of communism.

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