How an American Weightlifter Tore Down the Iron Curtain
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Paul Anderson, at age 22, made Soviet audiences gasp as he smashed records before their eyes.
The audience chuckled as the 340-pound man — his bulbous frame protruding awkwardly from his skin-tight suit — trundled onstage, up to the bar loaded with 380.29 pounds of weight. Easily hoisting it over his head, the rotund 22-year-old then asked contest officials to load a total of 402.41 pounds, an amount that exceeded the world record by more than 20 pounds. A steady drizzle soaked the crowd at Moscow’s Gorky Park, where few were aware they were moments away from witnessing history.
The big-boned competitor squat-cleaned the bar up to his shoulders, then struggled to press it further when his arms gave out. Undeterred, he tried again. This time, he confidently thrust the bar upward and locked his arms firmly. No one was laughing anymore. In fact, a correspondent from The New York Times wrote, “Muscovites had a new sports hero — an American.” And just like that, the Soviet Union was given its first taste of American athletic supremacy.
Decades before the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team upset its Soviet counterpart, there was Paul Anderson. With his remarkable lift during that June 1955 competition — the first friendly between the two superpowers — he shocked America’s new Cold War adversary and became an instant symbol of American physical prowess. “It was like Rocky IV before there was Rocky IV,” says Dominic Morais, an assistant professor specializing in sports administration and history at Trinity University in Texas.
The immediate postwar era was a time of major change for most nations. As Europe rebuilt itself from the ashes of wartime devastation, the Soviet Union consolidated its grip over the continent’s eastern flank. In the U.S., the Eisenhower administration was mulling ways to broadcast American supremacy in as many ways as possible. The international standoff between capitalism and communism was only just gathering steam.
For the victors on the western side of the Atlantic, it also happened to mark a period of what historian John Fair calls “the golden age of American weightlifting.” The niche sport benefited from the generosity of York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman, an early tycoon who virtually single-handedly funded weightlifting’s growth between 1945 and 1960. He sponsored national championships and sent athletes around the world to Olympics and other competitions. One of those lucky competitors was Anderson.
Born in northern Georgia in 1932, Anderson was a small-town boy who was plagued with health problems — his kidney bothered him throughout his entire life, and kidney disease eventually caused his death at age 61. He showed few signs he’d balloon into a massive strongman. But by his senior year in high school, his football teammates were shocked at how fast he was growing. Anderson’s gridiron skills won him a scholarship to Furman University but he soon quit, writing in his 1975 autobiography The World’s Strongest Man, “School was a drag.” Short on cash and motivation, he fell in with a crowd of weightlifters and built a home gym from junkyard scraps. He soon began competing in events up and down the eastern U.S. during the early 1950s, stunning observers with his several-hundred-pound presses, snatches and clean-and-jerks.
Meanwhile, the idea for a U.S.-–Soviet sporting friendly was hashed out between Soviet and State Department officials, part of a cultural exchange program launched by the White House in 1954. While it was followed by several stops in the Middle East, the Moscow leg was the clear highlight of the trip. When the six-man American team presented itself at Gorky Park on that fateful day, Anderson, who’d been a last-minute replacement for an injured teammate, easily stood out from the rest. “His legs were enormous — they were like tree trunks,” said Fair, a professor of history at Georgia College & State University. “Nobody could believe the size of this guy.”
Georgia’s governor declared July 5 Paul Anderson Day in his state, and the mayor of Atlanta presented the young athlete with keys to the city.
The rest of the show that evening seemed secondary to Anderson’s impressive feat. Nevermind that he didn’t technically establish a new world record (bilateral sporting friendlies didn’t count for that). Nor did it seem important that the competition was tied between the Soviets and Americans. Local spectators were reportedly stunned by Anderson’s accomplishment. “Men stood shouting on chairs,” he later wrote, “some tossing hats into the air.” That part’s difficult to verify, especially since no such activity was featured in the newsreel footage. But there’s no question of the historic significance of Anderson’s triumphant lift. “If I was in the crowd,” said Morais, who co-authored a 2013 academic paper on the event, “I would think to myself, ‘I’m seeing history being made.’”
Upon his return home, Anderson was greeted as an American hero. Georgia’s governor declared July 5 Paul Anderson Day in his state, and the mayor of Atlanta presented the young athlete with keys to the city. Several lawmakers publicly praised his feat, while then-Vice President Richard Nixon reportedly took a personal liking to Anderson and helped arrange another goodwill trip, this time to Iraq and South Asia, later that same year.
The luster didn’t last long though. After he won the U.S. a gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Anderson went pro as American weightlifting began its gradual descent into financial woe amid a dearth of government funding. Back home in Georgia, he started the Paul Anderson Youth Home, a Christian center for troubled teens that’s still around but has been criticized for allegedly espousing anti-LGBT views.
Meanwhile, Eastern bloc countries were building up their respective teams with enthusiastic support from their rulers in Moscow. That legacy is still felt today: The vast majority of Olympic weightlifting record holders from the latter half of the 20th century were either Soviet or Bulgarian.
But fans of American weightlifting, pining for their sport’s heyday, will always have June 1955 — and Paul Anderson.