Obituary: Leonid Zhabotinsky
Weightlifter who inspired a young Arnold Schwarzenegger
Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30
Leonid Zhabotinsky, who has died aged 77, was a Ukrainian weightlifter who won gold medals in two Olympics and set 19 world records in the super heavyweight class.
Affectionately nicknamed "The Big Zhabo" by his fans, Zhabotinsky lived up to the moniker in both bulk and personality.
Detractors called him "Zhaba", the Russian for toad. Yet his crudeness masked a determination to win at any cost, and in 1963 he proved his ability by setting a new world record for the snatch - lifting 363lb over his head in one continuous motion.
The 1964 Tokyo Games saw him compete against his Soviet team-mate Yuri Vlasov, who was as studious as Zhabotinsky was lazy. During training with the Soviet national team six months before the Games, Zhabotinsky's personal habits so infuriated Vlasov that he retreated to work on his technique alone at Moscow's Central Army Sports Club.
Come the day of the contest, on October 18, Vlasov seemed well ahead in the clean and jerk lift - where the athlete hefts the barbell to rest on the shoulders before thrusting it overhead.
Zhabotinsky, meanwhile, made a great show of struggling with the weight. He dropped it on the second attempt, and hugged Vlasov as though to congratulate him. Then, with a casual wink to his coach, he broke his own record on the third and final lift, hefting a total of 479.5lb.
Zhabotinsky turned in a similar performance four years later, taking gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. There it was his showmanship in the opening ceremony that drew most attention.
In the role of flag bearer for the Soviet Union, Zhabotinsky did the entire lap with the gold hammer-and-sickle banner grasped in one hand - "as if it were a toothpick," noted one writer.
It also impressed Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than 30 years later, in his official capacity as the new governor of California, he invited his idol to America. "At the Mexico Olympiad I supported my countrymen, but worried a lot about you," he told Zhabotinsky.
Born in the village of Uspenska, Ukraine, on January 28 1938, Leonid Ivanovich Zhabotinsky began competing in various sports, encouraged by his father Ivan, an amateur athlete. He won a bronze medal in shot-put at the 1954 Ukrainian SSR Championship, and was placed third three years later in the weightlifting contest.
By the end of the 1960s, however, the strains of competing at an international level had taken their toll. Zhabotinsky underwent major back surgery in 1969 and retreated from the sport for four years. He set his final world record in 1974 at the Moscow Championship of the Soviet Army, with a snatch lift of 408.9lb.
Leonid Zhabotinsky is survived by his wife Raisa, and by two sons, both professional weightlifters. He died on January 24.