Although only an exhibition, Paul Anderson and all the lifters competing at the weightlifting exhibition in Moscow on June 15, 1955 surely understood the magnitude of this first “cultural exchange” between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And, as detailed in the previous entry, with only a few years of experience under his belt, Anderson had made the U.S. team and sought to do his best both for himself, and for America.
So, like a proper heavyweight at the most important event of his life to date, Anderson laid on a couch that evening while awaiting his first press attempt of the night. Since Anderson and his teammates – Tommy Kono, Chuck Vinci, Stan Stanczyk, Joe Pitman, and Dave Sheppard – stepped on stage during opening ceremonies, Anderson did his best to save his energy. He saved it for quite awhile, actually, as the “rising bar” method was used for all weight classes, meaning the weight rose by 5 kilograms for each attempt, and each athlete would jump in whenever he wanted.
Anderson flexes at the World Championships in Munich a few months after his performance in Moscow.
All the other weightlifters attempted all of their lifts before Anderson even stirred. The last athlete on stage was Alexey Medvedev, the reigning Soviet heavyweight champion who was pitted against Anderson. Medvedev finished his presses at 325 pounds, which tied his personal best, and tied the Olympic record for heavyweights. It was no surprise, then, that the Soviet crowd buzzed after hearing that Bob Hoffman, the United States “coach,” called for a 25-kilogram weight jump. What stirred the crowd more was the man attempting the jump in weight had no international weightlifting experience. In other words, most in the crowd simply had not heard of Anderson.
According to Arkady Vorobyov, one of the Soviet weightlifters competing that evening, Anderson didn’t even warm up before his first attempt. “When [Anderson’s] turn came,” he said, “he got up from the couch with all the elegance of an elephant and went straight out onto the platform,” where he was met by reportedly 15,000 spectators at the outdoor Zelyony Theater in Gorky Park. At 5’9” and 340 pounds, Anderson was so stocky that he almost waddled to the bar as he swung his body with each step. He looked out of place compared to the slimmer weightlifters, but as Vorobyov explained, “[Anderson] performed his solo with complete calm. The bar, heavily loaded with weights, was raised and then lowered without a murmur of dissension.” Anderson easily cleaned his first attempt to his chest while in a relatively shallow squat position, and then pressed it overhead seemingly with little effort.
After his first successful press at 172.5 kilograms (380.29 pounds), Anderson called for 182.5 kilograms, or 402.41 pounds. Loading the bar took longer than usual, as organizers did not expect such a weight to be lifted so early in the evening, and the loaders were meticulous in reaching the correct weight. On his second attempt, Anderson easily cleaned the bar, waited for the judge’s clap, and began pressing the weight. Halfway into his press, however, the weight seemed to move forward out of the groove, and Anderson let the weight fall back to his chest, and then to the ground.
Anderson recounted in his autobiography, The Strongest Man in the World, that the bar was wet due to a drizzle, which caused his hand to slip. A number of other sources, such as weather data and film of the event, suggest that there was not actually any significant precipitation at the time. For instance, no one in the crowd was seen using umbrellas. Perhaps this discrepancy resulted from the many years between the event and his autobiography, or maybe Anderson simply couldn’t remember it happening any other way. He is surely not the only strongman to have missed a few details from an event. Whatever the reason, the fact remained that Anderson had only made his first lift.
On his third attempt, Anderson redeemed himself. He easily cleaned the 402.41 that bested him just a few minutes before, and this time, once he began pressing the weight, he didn’t stop until lockout. Although the film did not show the crowd throwing their hats or standing on their chairs like Anderson described in his memoir, Harry Paschall, managing editor of Strength & Health at the time, wrote, “The spectators were absolutely numb. You could see the stark amazement, admiration and awe in their stricken faces – you could just imagine them wondering where this American youth came from – why no Russian could cope with such power.”
Anderson presses 402.41 pounds to stun the crowd in Moscow.
Anderson punctuated his press with a 336-pound snatch, as well as a 425.25 pound-clean and press. He totaled 1164 pounds at the exhibition in Moscow, which was another all-time best for Anderson. Although many at the time referred to his lifts as world-records, they were actually all unofficial as the International Weightlifting Federation rules required at least three countries to compete at a meet for world-records to be set.
The previous piece on Anderson hinted at the geopolitical implications of the event, and, to be sure, Anderson’s press was more than simply one lift. At the time, the press was considered to be different than the other two “quick lifts” in weightlifting, as it was the standard in measuring the true raw strength of an athlete. Moreover, the heavyweight class was regarded as the absolute strongest class. Thus, with the Cold War already 10 years old by that time, the Anderson versus Medvedev matchup took on significant meaning: Anderson’s success demonstrated that American manhood, and by extension, the American way of life, was superior to Communism.
A number of periodicals in the United States echoed this message. Time magazine reported that Anderson was a “giant of a capitalist fairy tale…Anderson toyed with the big bar bells and set two world-records in the process.” Stewart Alsop, whose article appeared in The Washington Post and Times Herald, wrote, “The most conspicuous American weight lifter was a prophet without honor in his own country…The Russians had won, but Mr. Anderson had saved the national face by breaking all known records.” Also acknowledged that the lifting in Moscow was about “the world balance of power and the frightening difference between social systems.”
Back home in Georgia, people were ready to celebrate Anderson’s achievements. The governor had declared July 5th “Paul Anderson Day” in Georgia, and dignitaries and a motorcade awaited his arrival in Atlanta. Due to Anderson’s overseas flight arriving six hours late, however, he missed this grand ceremony. Nevertheless, Anderson also garnered mentions in Congress, which suggests that the U.S. Government looked favorably upon his accomplishments in furthering American propaganda efforts in the fight against communism.
Perhaps the most interesting results of Anderson’s performance was the effect he had on the Soviet people. Based on newspaper reports, Soviet women were nominating Anderson as their “Pinup Boy of 1955,” and Soviet Sport devoted an entire page of its 8-page Saturday edition to the United States weightlifting team. Dorothy Johnson, Anderson’s sister, recalled that during the World Championships in Munich, Germany, held a few months after the Moscow exhibition, the Soviet and American teams slipped away and socialized. She said, “At that time Paul was eating honey and when the Russians came they were all eating honey and that shows that they thought a lot of him.”
Finally, as a testament to the legacy that Anderson left on the Soviets, Bob Hise, who founded the American Weightlifting Association, said in the documentary The Strongest Man in Recorded History: A Documentary on the Life of Paul Anderson, that during the 1975 World Weightlifting Championships in Moscow, the rink in which it was held was surrounded by a corridor filled with outstanding weightlifters. If numbers meant anything, according to Hise, Anderson was clearly their idol, as there were 144 pictures of him in that corridor.
Overall, the Moscow exhibition was not as popular or significant as other “cultural exchanges” such as the track and field meets between the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1950s until the 1980s. However, Paul Anderson lifting the Iron Curtain was important for a number of reasons. First, the Moscow Weightlifting Exhibition was a very significant event in sports history, as it was the first time Americans were invited to the Soviet Union for a cultural exchange since the Cold War began. Moreover, at a time when a symbolic battle was being waged between two of the world’s most powerful countries, Anderson’s strength helped land a powerful blow for the American way of life. From being regarded a hero, to helping popularize the sport of weightlifting through all his press coverage, for at least a brief moment in time, it seems one Soviet official was correct when he called Paul Anderson “Mr. America.”
Russ Crawford. 2008. The Use of Sports to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1945-1963. (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press).
Dominic G. Morais and Jan Todd. 2013. “Lifting the Iron Curtain: Paul Anderson and the Cold War’s First International Sport Exchange.” Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture 12(2): 3–16.
Harry B. Paschall. January 1956. “Strongest Man Who Ever Lived.” Iron Man,
“Peaceful Penetration-US Weightlifters Find Velvet Carpet in Russia.” June 19, 1955. The Spencer Sunday Times (Spencer, Iowa): 10.
The Strongest Man in Recorded History: A Documentary on the Life of Paul Anderson. 1992. VHS. Coleman Video Productions.
Arkady Vorobyov. October 1995. “Paul Anderson’s Moscow Triumph.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 4(2).