Black Market Business

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 30, 2016 0 comments

If there is one individual who truly knows the inner workings of the York Barbell Company when those of us of “an older age” were at our frenzied peak of interest in the lifting game, it is Jan Dellinger.

Working at a number of different employment positions at “The Barbell,” Jan was privy to inside information and all of the scandalous stuff that the typical lifter would never know. Acquainted with a few of the big time York lifters and having the motivation to either hitchhike or drive the 440 mile round trip on a Saturday perhaps gave me a bit more insight than those who had to rely on Strength And Health or Muscular Development magazines for their York Team information, but Jan “knew,” he was part of the inner circle. Thus whenever I reference York in my lifting related commentary, I rely on his terrific memory to confirm facts, or to fill in the blanks. Relative to the Polish lifting shoes noted in the last blog/column, Jan wrote:

Dr. Ken:

     Read your latest article on Titan. As always, rekindles a lot of fond memories. As to the route Polish lifting shoes “traveled” to get in the hands of York Barbell, your take on it may have been correct. When I got to York, Russian lifting shoes were the rage, despite the sometimes slippery soles. My intuition as to how they showed up for sale at York was one of the Russian coaches or actual officials came by a relatively small cache of shoes, realized that American lifters were in awe of the Soviet superstars, and would buy said shoes if made available.

     While this limited supply of Soviet shoes could have been shipped from the Motherland, it is more likely that they came back with someone like Smitty after a trip to a Worlds overseas. The other possible scenario was that some of the better Soviet lifters brought a few pairs apiece when they came to this country for a Record Makers or major lifting event. When the Soviets were in Gettysburg in the mid and later ’70s, some of them were selling and signing their competition lifting belts and shoes at serious prices after the lifting was over, so they could take some cash back to Russia. They may have been world famous names in lifting, but you could tell they, as a group, didn’t have much of a worldly nature.

    As to the Polish shoes you mentioned, I suspect the late Morris Weissbrot could have been prominent in a limited supply making its way to the store room at York Barbell.  As noted, the Poles were The Bomb in the 1960s-’70s lifting world. Morris, in particular, thanks to his Polish extraction, was in to their methods big time, and getting around himself in lifting, was tight with their officials. I’m fairly sure Morris took several trips over to Europe to attend international lifting clinics and meetings, which gave him the chance to hobnob with the Euros. In particular, the Poles. 

Jan

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An undated but old photo of the author flanked on the left by son Sol, Atomic Athletic’s Roger Lapointe, and on the right by the venerable Jan Dellinger

When I traveled to Munich with the 1982 USA World Powerlifting Team, a number of lifters and officials had one or two additional pieces of luggage bursting with blue jeans, a very hot and valuable commodity.

In the age of the Internet and on-line purchasing ability, our younger readers may not know that there was extremely limited distribution of American blue jeans or dungarees to foreign countries. These were highly prized, especially in the Eastern European countries then under the rule of the Soviet Union.

Thus when foreign lifters competed in the United States, they would return to their home countries absolutely loaded up with denim jeans that they perhaps purchased for $15.00 per pair here, but could then sell for over $100.00 each upon their return home. When U.S. lifters toured, they often brought American goods and especially clothing with them. These items could be sold to our foreign competitors at an obscene profit.

Conversely, the coveted Soviet and Eastern Bloc lifting belts, shoes, singlets, and barbell sets, even when these were of inferior quality to our own, held a mystique that made them prized and profitable if brought back into the United States. Specific to the aforementioned trip to Munich in ’82, there were overbooking problems by the airline for the departure from JFK Airport in New York, indicating that over the past twenty-five years, little has changed in the airline industry.

Passengers were asked if they would like to voluntarily relinquish their seats and be rewarded with a flight leaving the following day for Germany, and the addition of a voucher for a free flight to Europe. In “the old days” when airport security and the necessity for reams of paperwork were not necessary to board a plane, one could walk into the airport, approach the ticket and baggage checking desk, and exchange an existing ticket for cash. We compared the possibility of arriving one day late in Munich with the advantage of having a few hundred dollars in additional spending money in our pockets.

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The author at the 1982 World PL Championship, aligning multiple World Champion and Titan Support Systems athlete Mike Bridges the day before a record setting performance

Founder and editor of Powerlifting USA Magazine Mike Lambert had stayed with my family for a few days prior to the flight, visiting from his home in California. My former St. Louis based training partner Jay Rosciglione, our 148 pound class representative, and the great Mike Bridges were sitting with us and we discussed returning to my residence as it was but fifteen minutes from JFK, and then flying out the following day as a group of four.

A member of our U.S. contingent came over and stated that he “needed to stay with his luggage.” Not wishing to risk being separated from what appeared to be an excessive amount of baggage, he was clear in stating that no matter what, he needed to remain behind. “With all of these passengers overbooked, I can’t risk having my bags go out before I do, or left behind so I’ll say with my bags.” This made things a bit easier for us to leave but I was alarmed and the tension level of the four of us was immediately elevated.

Anabolic steroids were not yet a “class distinguished” illegal grouping of drugs but a legal, medical doctor’s prescription was needed to possess them and I was concerned that he was perhaps transporting anabolic steroids or other prescription or illegal drugs to sell to foreign lifters whose access was not as extensive as those lifters in the United States. I was also thinking, “Geez, if he is carrying drugs, those big-ass suitcases are holding an awful lot of drugs!” Being very concerned that the entire U.S. team would be delayed, questioned, investigated, and the incident proven to be an embarrassing footnote to our trip, I privately asked if he was bringing drugs to the World Championships. His denial was strong and quick, “Are you nuts? I would never do that. I have about $1000.00 worth of blue jeans and denim work shirts and I’ve already arranged to sell half of the load for about $10,000.00!”

In some ways more valuable than drugs and certainly safer to transport other than what I was sure might have been some violation of tariff laws, our team member did in fact remain behind to protect his luggage and safely arrived twenty-four hours after we did. Any lifting items that were “foreign” to U.S. powerlifters were a major attraction because they were “exotic” and there was among many, myself included, the belief that these items would truly elevate one’s powerlifting total.

Russian and Eastern Bloc Olympic Weightlifting countries were still leading the world but their powerlifting was substandard. For those with an interest of world history, the economic decline of the Soviet Union and its associated nations led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 21, 1991 and the establishment of independent Soviet republics.

Throughout the 1980s, the country and by extension, most of the Communist controlled Eastern Bloc, had suffered from internal problems related to politics and economics that could not be overcome. Most of the goods that were produced which included lifting related attire, belts, shoes, and barbells were far outmatched by those being produced in other countries. Still, the allure of wearing a “real Russian lifting belt,” even if it was a narrow and thin Olympic lifting belt and not the more effective 10 cm powerlifting belt, was considered to be a real boost to one’s training. Conversely, if one were to stand in the corner of the hotel lobby of the 1984 World Championships for example, it seemed as if every foreign lifter had saved a year’s worth of rent and food money in order to buy American made lifting suits, belts, and tee shirts.

Of course, many items were resold in their homeland which more than made up their expenditure and allowed for profit but the foreign lifters must have laughed at the willingness of U.S. competitors to pay top dollar for what they knew was junk relative to what they were purchasing at the TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS table.

It took many years for the “exotic” label to wear off with American lifters. Collectors and competitors who sought a memento or special item to mark their participation in an important contest might wish to acquire a foreign singlet, country tee shirt, sweat suit, or piece of equipment from a major meet. This would obviously be understandable and I can recall wearing official Australian World Powerlifting Team garb for years. I had the pleasure of preparing the

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Proving that motivation is wherever it can be found, Dr. Ken trains in one of his World Championships tee shirts

training programs for Australian Olympic Team, and World Powerlifting Team member Ray Rigby who can safely be described as “legendary” within the context of Australia’s lifting history.

Years of friendship and taking the responsibility of directing his progress provided our family the bonus of being decked out in a lot of their team attire, all of which was worn until worn out by numerous trips through the washing machine and dryer. I don’t know if I trained “better” wearing Australian team issue, but I was certainly reminded of Ray’s big lifts and the frenzied, all out efforts of the Australian team when I did wear their shirts and sweats.

I have been too long and too far removed from the active international powerlifting scene to know if the degree of black market involvement exists at the level it once did. However, it is obviously a sign of distinction and for many, a psychological boost, to wear and “represent” in the attire that marks championships.