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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TOURING RUSSIAN LIFTER BY MEL C. SIFF
Topic: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TOURING RUSSIAN LIFTER BY MEL C. SIFF (Read 1386 times)
Chris Ⓐ LeRoux
MS, CSCS, Exempt from USAW bureaucrats
Tread On Me At Dire Risk
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TOURING RUSSIAN LIFTER BY MEL C. SIFF
May 29, 2005, 01:57 PM »
Submitted By Dr. Richard Herrick
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TOURING RUSSIAN LIFTER
Mel C Siff PhD
THE SCENE IS SET
Some years ago, the legendary soviet dissident, Alexander Solzenitsyn, wrote a treatise on the plight of political prisoners in the USSR. Entitled "A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch", it painted for the West a dismal picture of what can befall a soviet who disagrees with the system. After the 1988 Australian Bicentennial World Superheavyweight championships, as a guest of the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association, I had the opportunity to share a day in the life of soviet lifters away from Mother Russia. Here, I was able to experience firsthand what it is like for a privileged class of Russian to tour overseas without the constant presence of infamous KGB agents. Free and easy, laid-back Australia was to be a transitory home for three of the currently greatest Russian lifters and their national coach, Medvedev, star of bygone Olympics. During the mid 1980s, Suleimanov was on an Australian tour with the Bulgarian team and the lure of freedom was so strong that he defected to the Turkish embassy. The USSR no doubt was acutely aware of this situation when it approved of the visit of Taranenko, Kurlovich and Zacharevitch to Australian pastures. Kurlovich, of course, along with Pisarenko, was the schoolteacher who was caught selling 20 000 Soviet "Dianabol" on our earlier tour to Canada. Yet, here he was, released from his suspension, to move freely around Australia with his two fellow lifters and only an overweight Medvedev to keep a watchful eye over him. Novels have been written about this sort of scenario, so I eagerly awaited spending a weekend living with them at the impressive Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. This rare opportunity for this South African arose after a lecture I had given to scientists, medical staff and coaches at the Institute a week before the Superheavyweight championships. Their weightlifting staff very kindly invited me back as a VIP guest to these championships, so I booked in at the Institut's guest 'hotel' ($30 a day, all meals included) for an extra few days on the off-chance of meeting the Soviets. And meet them I did!
LIVING BESIDE THE RUSSIANS
I was just ending off a training season on Sunday morning in the Institute's outstanding 13-platform lifting facility when I was invited to join all the overseas lifters for a tour of Canberra and district. A while earlier, I had spent my second breakfast alongside the soviet lifters in the self-service dining hall, but had experienced little more than stoic awareness. They could speak no English and I could speak few Russian words other than "da" (yes) and "nyet" (no). I know Medvedev recognized me from the two weeks we had spent in adjacent rooms at the Hotel Kapsis at the 1979 World Championships in Thessaloniki, northern Greece. Whether or not he knew I was South African, one of his ideological rivals, I do not know, but I wasn't going to push the point - after all, he is much bigger and meaner than I! During the two previous days, my impression of the soviets didn't differ much from what the average Westerner sees in Western Russian movies. Smiles on their faces seemed as rare as snow in the Sahara desert. These gigantic human behemoths lumbered mechanically from their private flat to the dining hall, drinking beers methodically and crushing the cans disdainfully into neat metallic relics which announced that "the Russians were here". Only the faint glimmer of a smile from Zac or the sudden quickening of the eyes at the passing of a pretty Aussie girl in a tiny mini-skirt revealed that something very human lurked inside these Soviet exports. At least the other foreign lifters who spoke equally little English interacted with their Australian hosts, who like South Africans, have a reputation for hospitality. I thought: maybe it just takes more time to thaw Soviet ice. And time is what our all-day bus tour would provide. Maybe then I would see Russians more like the phenomenal Vardanian who danced the night away with us at a Greek disco during the 1979 World championships in Thessaloniki. Maybe Vardanian dancing as no frivolous pastime. Possibly it was built into his training programme as a form of active rest to help him recover from the demands of intensive competition. It is an important principle among the Soviets that intensive (i.e. - near maximal load) training alternates with a wide variety of passive and active recuperation techniques, such as physiotherapy, massage, electrical stimulation, herbal tonics, low/high pressure (Kravchenko) chambers, therapeutic music, autogenics and visualization. They caution against the use of only one relaxation technique (e.g. massage), since the body rapidly adapts to relaxation, as well as, exercise techniques. Just as the dancer has a repertoire of hundreds of movements and rhythms, so the Soviet lifter has a similar programme of enormous variety.
OUR TRIP BEGINS
So, I boarded our tour bus. So did the Greeks, the Germans, the Czechs, the British and the Aussies. So did Medvedev. But not Taranenko and the Russian boys. Via an interpreter, they were arguing that they would rather drive by car to Melbourne. No city tour, no kangaroos, no Aussie hospitality, just a hot 12 hour car trip via an experience they were not even sure of. Someone muttered that the Aussies should hire them a car and set them off through the Nullabor Plains, about two thousand miles of hot, forlorn desert. We agreed. Medvedev just shrugged his shoulders in the bus. Aussies and East Germans began opening Fosters and Tooheys, the equivalent of American Coors, while Zac and co. sullenly brushed off the famous Aussie flies and pouted. Storm clouds brewed, someone convinced the Soviets that an all-day ride with 500 kg. of lifters jammed into a Ford compact wasn't much better than Siberia, and half an hour later everyone was on board. Zac and Kurly partially dulled the pain of going on the tour by joining East German lifter, Herr Schuster, for a beer or six. Medvedev filled one seat, Taranenko another and we were off on a tour of the meticulously planned capital of Australia, Canberra. All very silent. Totally bemused by the Russians, the two Greeks, coach Ioannes and lifter Pavlos, grinned contentedly while their Walkmans played anything but Zorba's dance. Beside me at the back of the 25- seater bus was Pakistani Australian, Eric Rosario, who became my frequent companion. Intense and talkative, he compensated for the Soviet silence. Suddenly, a fleet of Aussie Hells Angels drew alongside on their mean machines. Zac and Kurly sprang to their feet, animated and intrigued, obviously craving to take over a bike and race off into the Aussie outback. Medvedev and Taranenko, the elders of the team, did not stir. Sovietski personalities at least were beginning to show through. Yes, Soviet athletes are allowed to show individuality, as long as it does not subvert the aims of the State. In fact, one of the Soviet manuals stipulates the development of individuality from school age. It stresses that early specialization and stifling of personality in sport can be counterproductive. In other words, if a boy does not want to play football, baseball or rugby, then let him be - let him develop in a sport which really attracts him. Expose him to numerous sports, guide him by example, teach him technique and not maximum attempts, and only later in adolescence, let him specialize. Even then, recognize that no single technique suits everyone. Let him develop perfection of his particular style - let him emerge as an individual in sport, not a mere clone of his coach.
ON LAND AGAIN
First stop, the gigantic futuristic Parliament House built into a prominent hill. Greeted by a Soviet interpreter, we dash through the rain into the building for our guided tour. Medvedev lumbers up the granite stairs to examine the place for himself, the other three turn their backs on art and architecture, brave the rain and return to the bus. So, there stands a Soviet interpreter before a team of non-Soviets, looking lost and useless. No Soviets, no interpreting, the interpreter disappears and we tour the building alone. Zac and co. listen to a Western DJ on the bus radio. Medvedev emerges from the gift shop without a purchase and we are back on the bus. Suddenly it strikes me that none of the Soviets has brought a camera. It's my first trip to Oz and I am photographing friends and places to share memories with all at home. Maybe Western pictures may spread a visual virus back in the USSR. Next stop, Canberra's equivalent of the CNN Tower in Toronto or the Hillbrow Tower in Johannesburg. We dodge the hail, crowd into the elevator, Zac looks at me, raises his eyebrows in mock terror as we soar several hundred meters upwards and betrays the playful boy that could drive a Soviet coach to his vodka. Upstairs, he and Pavlos, the Greek light up a cigarette and disappoint the very anti-smoking Aussies and me. Yet Zac does not smoke again this weekend. That reminded me of the evening I spent with Yurik Vardanian and the Cuban champion, Urrutia, only to learn that Yurik smokes, yet was a great lifter and accomplished track athlete with a 10.6 second 100 meters to his credit.
THE RUSSIANS MEET AN AUSSIE FARM
Breathtaking view or not, the Soviets are restless again and we are on the bus once more, listening to Western music, Zac and the East Germans tapping their feet in silent approval. We leave the city behind, Zac and Kurly up front opening beers and chatting right behind the driver, a real Australian outbacker who negotiates the storm like a pro. Medvedev and Taranenko sit on their separate seats like Sphinxes. Kilometers later and we're on a muddy farm road which reminds me of the South African rural centre-humped tracks we used to dodge when my late parents drove my sister and I on holiday to visit my grandmother and farm cousins. Suddenly I'm homesick, but the soviets are wide-eyed alert, because this bus is spinning wheels and doing informal folk dances all over the road. I smile to think of this South African and three of the most famous Soviet lifters pushing up daisies together on an anonymous Australian farm. Kurly doesn't smile. At least if we bog down in the mud, we have some of the world's strongest men aboard to push. I smile again, so do the relieved Soviets - we're at our destination - a real Australian sheep farm with real farmer, wife and children beaming us a warm greeting in the rain. Now, farms have a special place in soviet life - they are the heart of all the USSR represents. Rough, tough, basic and abundant in time-tested foods. Born to rely on basics, the soviets have no access to sophisticated modern gyms or equipment. In the Rocky films, we are led to believe that the soviets train with computerized technology, while Rocky trains with crude, hand-fashioned devices born on the farm. The exact opposite is true - the soviets rely almost entirely on free weights and home-built basic machines, while the Americans are lost without their executive machines. The Americans use even more steroids than the soviets, yet their results are invariably inferior. Soviets extol the virtues of natural herbal tonics, some of which like the Siberian ginseng (eleutherococus) have been used as a recovery agent for centuries on the farms, something like a soviet herbal tea. The Americans respond with amino acid tales; the soviets stress proper combinations of ancient foodstuffs and regular recuperation techniques. Both probably still use steroids, but guess what? Aminos and all, the Americans still remain inferior. Don't believe the myth that the soviets have better drugs - I have seen bottles of drugs they sell and the chemical formulae are the same as those used the West, but generally less advanced. A bigger competitive population, coupled with a tougher and more disciplined lifestyle, superior mental and physical training, and extensive national organization are all major factors which underlie soviet dominance in international sport. Even where Westerners dominate, one often tends to find the use of so-called Russian training "secrets", such as periodization and plyometrics.
THE ICE BEGINS TO THAW
Over billy-tea and biscuits we learn that this farm is a popular tourist attraction run by superbly hospitable David and Pennie Mitchell who frequently entertain visiting Heads of State in a setting which recalls the Australia of a century ago. The soviets begin to loosen up over beer and "crunchies" while the main meal, a huge in-door sheep barbeque cooks to perfection in the background. Zac and Taranenko admire the hand-knitted woollen jerseys on sale there for some $100, but that's too many roubles even for a South African, and nothing fits the mighty soviets, so the jerseys remain to tempt some future American tourists. A huge house spider crawls out to greet the Soviets, who leap away to confirm what we know about Soviet lifters - they are big and very fast! My practical joking weakness can no longer remain diplomatically suppressed and I cannot resist leaving a toy rubber spider on Zac's food-filled plate to elicit an even more vigorous response. Everyone roars with laughter - the Soviets do have fears! - so do I - I don't reveal who owns the toy! The rain ceases and our happy Greek, Pavlos, goes outside to learn his first cricket skills from the little boys. He frustrates them with his cross batting style, but he and they are delighted to cross cultural barriers with their improvised language. Later the lads are sitting all over Pavlos, regaling him with complicated stories which he does not understand; yet he smiles all the time. Do I detect a wistful glance from Taranenko? Maybe he, too, would like to open up more easily. Children really are the universal bridges of communication - maybe all ambassadors should travel with their children.
AN AUSSIE FEAST FOR ALL
The feast is ready and there is enough to feed an army. The fact that I'm a vegetarian means that there's even more meat for the soviet lifters, but they are not the mammoth eaters we thing they might be. They eat well, but nothing like our bodybuilders and powerlifters. We learn that they don't take artificial supplements - they grow big and strong on normal meals. Back home they do not even have regular access to many vegetables or fruit. Steroids? No one is saying, especially as some soviet officials such as former weightlifting legend, Yuri Vlasov, are campaigning vigorously against drug abuse. Special herbs, Siberian ginseng, schizandra, some vitamin supplements, regular sports massage, yes. Amino acid capsules, protein powders, fructose, no. Twenty years before then, some of them used creatine, but little more was heard of it until very recently in the West. Carefully planned training programmes and highly skilled coaches and not special diets seem to be the common denominator for the soviets. Some of our powerlifters may be comparable with them in half-squats and slow dead-lifts, but their speed and overall power is far less. The soviets call this quality strength-speed (not speed-strength, for that is a different type of power concerning movement against minimal loads) and demand that it should be producible without wraps or even belts over full range of joint movement. Yet, amidst this emphasis on speed, the soviets regard slow and static training as a vital part of their strengthening programmes, since the starting strength for all movements happens under isometric conditions, as does a great measure of stabilization. We keep records of weight, sets and repetitions - they do the same, but they sometimes also may record the time taken for each set and rest period between sets. They have special formulae to calculate the effect of time or density of loading (loading per unit time) on overall physical response, sometimes based on changes in heart rate. Sometimes these equations take account of the distance through which the bar moves in each repetition to enable them to compute? physical work capacity?. My study of soviet sport over the past 20 years has taught me how much we can learn from them, even if ideologically we are poles apart. Yet many of our coaches think that they know everything there is to know about coaching. Our splendid Australian farm meal eventually ends and were all off to the sheep-shearing shed to try our hands at shearing. The press reporters ask the Soviets to pose with Aussie bush hats and overcoasts while they sheara sheep. Even the dignified and stoic
Medvedev obliges, but Kurlovich says nyet - he refuses to look like an Aussie farm boy and once again his self-centered attitude dampens spirits somewhat. Anyway, the Press is delighted to have Zac, Taranenko and Medvedev looking like outsized Aussies in their borrowed outfits and were off outside to see a pair of highly skilled sheepdogs herding the sheep in a magnificent display of precision. Zac and Kurly would rather listen to Western DJs on the bus radio or ride an Aussie motorbike - the farm heritage has washed out of their veins ages ago.
RUSKIES MEET THE 'ROOS
At least they?re more enthusiastic when all of us crowd onto a primitive trailer pulled by a 4-wheel drive chasing bounding kangaroos (?roos?) over rugged countryside in the light rain and
cold. All of us are fascinated by these powerful and graceful creatures leaping effortlessly over fences and dongas (a South African word for depressions or undulations in the ground). Their reliance on jumping with the aid of stored elastic energy in their hind limbs and tails naturally prompts the lifters to talk about plyometrics or rebounding/leaping routines used widely by Soviet athletes to improve speed-strength. This vigorous type of training involves leaps onto boxes, leaps off boxes followed by rebounds upwards, hop-step-jumps,
medicine-ball catching and numerous other inventive drills that USA footballers are also beginning to use extensively. A serious problem with speed-strength and plyometric training is that steroid-users often do not have the tendon and connective tissue capacity to cope with explosive loading. That may well be why a significant number of athletes have experienced ruptures at the muscle-tendon interfaces of the knee, shoulder and ankle. The Kangaroos leap off among the trees - some of them even climb the trees - darkness descends and we drive back to the farmhouse. We say our wistfulgood-byes to our wonderful host and hostess, and I notice that even the soviets have begun to warm to the Aussies openness.
THE DAY DRAWS TO AN END
Back on the bus, I reflect on how different my experience of the Soviets would have been if I could speak Russian - yet I am grateful for my long friendship with Michael Yessis of the USA whose translations of the top soviet sport journals coupled with regular visits to his home in California have given me invaluable insight into the soviet sporting mind. My few days in Australia spent with these soviet legends added greater depth to this insight and as the bus wearily trundles into the Institute of sport in Canberra, I reaffirm my desire to see the Soviet Union personally one day. I wonder what a day in the life of this South African in the USSR might bring?
At the time of writing, the USSR was a vehement opponent of South Africa and no visits between citizens of either country were permitted, so the possibility of such a visit was a futile dream. Little was I to know that the Iron Curtain was to fall a few years later and that I would not only manage to visit Russia twice, but that I would have one of its most eminent sports scientists (Dr Verkhoshansky) stay with me in South Africa. I was even less aware that this would lead to my co-authoring the strength training textbook, Supertraining, with Dr Verkhoshansky. Interestingly, during my visits to Russia, Dr Medvedev was most friendly and welcoming and there were many smiling Russians who overflowed with hospitality and openness (glasnost) about their so-called training? secrets?.
"Show me the government that does not infringe upon anyone's rights, and I will no longer call myself an anarchist." ~Jacob Halbrooks
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TOURING RUSSIAN LIFTER BY MEL C. SIFF
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