April 10–Politically, the United States and Russia have long had their differences, but a little more than 35 years ago, the Russians and Americans were able to get along on at least one stage.
And that stage was in Allentown.
On March 26, 1983, Allen High’s Phys Ed Center, now called J. Milo Sewards Gym, was the epicenter of the weightlifting world.
Mack Trucks, then a sponsor of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, joined with the Allentown School District to bring together many of world’s best weightlifters in a meet called Record Makers IV.
With the U.S. boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the Russians reciprocating four years later by skipping the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the event in Allentown was a rare opportunity to bring the two countries together along with the best lifters from a variety of nations.
“It was a magical three days,” said Rick Troxell, a former Olympic-style weightlifting participant and weightlifting historian who is now a personal trainer with a business in Quakertown.
“It was a big deal,” said Mark Kappes, a Catasauqua High grad who won multiple national titles and fought through a dislocated elbow to finish third at the U.S. Nationals and just missed qualifying for the 1988 Olympic team. “You had the best weightlifters on the planet coming to Allentown when normally events were held in places like Las Vegas.”
“I was there as a spectator and it was a special event, something we’ll never see again here,” said Whitehall’s Don Kuhns, a local powerlifting enthusiast and competitor. “It was a day that aficionados of the sport will never forget.”
Allentown was a hotbed for weightlifting in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Allentown’s YMCA was a singular mecca where the likes of Bob Bartholomew, Kappes’ uncle and a member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, trained.
Gerald “Jeff” Moyer was also a national champion and a member of the 1967 Pan-Am Games team. Moyer was also a French teacher and the strength coach at Allen.
“This event doesn’t happen without Jeff Moyer, plain and simple,” Troxell said. “He had been at the world championships himself in 1967 and knew what it took to host an event of this magnitude. He had the wherewithal, the know-how, he knew what it took to get weightlifters here and make them comfortable.
“He had a friend named John Blasco, an executive at Mack Trucks and a weightlifting enthusiast who wanted to promote the sport and put a spotlight on Mack Trucks. This was designed as a salute to Mack Trucks.”
Moyer died in 2009 and Blasco 15 years earlier, so they are no longer here to reconstruct how everything came together.
Troxell has an idea.
“Somewhere along the line, Jeff and John had a conversation about hosting a world-class meet in Allentown and Mack Trucks would be the sponsor,” Troxell said. “They probably went to the U.S. Weightlifting Federation and said that Allen had a facility that could host an event like this. The year before, there was a U.S.-Canada meet at Allen, an international meet, so there was experience in hosting something like this.”
Troxell said Moyer really wanted to host the U.S. Olympic trials at Allen in 1988. The success of the 1983 event would be his calling card.
The event was successful by numerous measurements. For one, the event attracted 1,768 fans, much more than a normal weightlifting event would have generated in that era.
“It was something he really wanted to achieve,” Troxell said. “The U.S. Federation was impressed by how he ran the 1983 meet and he got pretty far in the bidding process for the Olympic trials. I helped him round up sponsors here in the Lehigh Valley. We had the financial backing. Jeff met with the federation in Chicago, but at the very end, Jeff and Allentown lost out to Miami. That was too bad.”
Promotional appearance at Hess’s
As a way to attract people to Allen for two days, a promotional appearance was arranged in the sporting goods section of Hess’s Department Store on Hamilton Street in downtown Allentown. A prominent ad in The Morning Call caught a lot of eyes.
“They [the foreign competitors] loved looking at the models walking up and down in Hess’s,” said Troxell, who was a menswear buyer for the store at the time. “We took them to eat at the Patio restaurant, but they only seemed to picking at their food. The Patio had some of the best food in the area back then. We figured out that two days later, these big guys had to make weight in order to compete. So, they couldn’t eat.”
Kuhns went to Hess’s specifically to catch a glimpse of some of the world’s best weightlifters.
“I thought they would be sitting behind a table signing autographs,” Kuhns said. “Instead they were just standing there in a roped-off area about 15 feet by 15 feet in the sporting goods section. It was almost disrespectful. There was Yanko Rusev from Bulgaria, a five-time world champ and two-time Olympic champ, and kids were just pointing at him.”
“We didn’t know what to do with them at Hess’s,” Troxell admitted. “You had to deal with a language barrier. It’s tough to say if they understood what Hess’s was all about.”
Visit to the bank
While not involved with the actual running of the meet, Troxell helped out through his job at Hess’s.
“Victor Sots, a Russian, wanted some American money to buy things at Hess’s, so I had to take him to the bank which was right behind Hess’s,” Troxell said. “It was just me and him going out the 9th Street door without any security.
“We got into the bank and I am not sure how we did it, but we got Sots some cash. Later on, it struck me that these guys were known to defect. And I had to wonder what would I have done that day if Sots turned to me and said ‘I want to defect’ What would I have done? I really don’t know. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out that day.”
Three years later, Nam Suleimanov, a 15-year-old Bulgaria who set one of the three world records at the Allen High meet, defected to Turkey.
Behind closed doors
Kappes worked as a loader at the meet and because he had international experience himself, he got to hang out with the competitors at the George Washington Lodge by Route 22 on MacArthur Road, located in the spot currently occupied by Home Depot.
“The Russians were big social drinkers and they loved their Russian vodka,” Kappes said. “They would chain-smoke American cigarettes and drink and have a great time. They would trade equipment for cigarettes. They were just regular guys who loved to socialize. The Bulgarians kept to themselves and were all business. The Russians were work hard, play hard. The Bulgarians just wanted to work harder.”
It was a unique opportunity for Kappes to see what kind of people were behind the so-called Iron Curtain.
“Remember this is during the Cold War,” he said. “Our countries couldn’t get together at the Olympics because of the boycotts, so this was a chance to bring us together. The political rhetoric was that we hated the Russians and they hated us. But in the sporting world, we were friends and had a great time together.”
Antoli Pisarenko, a Russian super heavyweight, was sort of the Babe Ruth of weightlifting at the time of the meet and he didn’t disappoint. He lifted more than any man in history that day in Allentown with a clean and jerk of 574 pounds — 300 more pounds than he weighed.
The 5-foot, 123-pound Suleimanov set a world record with a lift of 352 and a half pounds.
The crowd knew that they had seen something special and roared with delight.
“It was just an impressive event; one of the best we’ve ever had around here,” Kuhns said. “I’ll never forget it.”
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