Weighty Diplomacy : Powerlifter Doug Pettit Listens and Learns During His Own Moscow Summit

Times Staff Writer

Doug Pettit never imagined he would be so impressed with a garage filled with dumbbells.

Pettit, the 1986 California powerlifting champion (275-pound class), trains in a friend’s garage in El Cajon that is both functional and novel. When the sun shines into the garage, it is even bright.

It’s homey, but Pettit never envisioned it as plush.

That is, until he recently visited the weight rooms at the prestigious National Institute of Physical Education and Sports Science in Moscow.


Pettit said there was no comparison between his friend’s home weight center and the gym where many of the top Soviet lifters train in Moscow.

“This (his friend’s garage) is well-stocked compared to their training site,” said Pettit, who eyed the weights lined up against the wall.

As a member of the National Strength Coaches Assn. and a nationally ranked powerlifter (32nd in his weight division), Pettit was one of 24 U.S. and Canadian athletes, coaches and professors invited to study Soviet strength training and conditioning methods.

This is the same Doug Pettit who was an offensive lineman for the San Diego Sharks from 1980-82 in the defunct semi-professional California Football League and is the strength trainer for the San Diego City College football team.


From May 31 through June 14, Pettit was part of a group that attended lectures at a special fitness camp at the National Institute of Physical Education and Sports Science in Moscow. He says it was the first time Americans were invited to participate in this type of program in the Soviet Union.

And it was an eye-opening experience for Pettit.

“I’ve seen better weight rooms in junior high schools than what they have,” Pettit said. “It’s incredible what they’ve achieved with what they have.”

Or rather what they don’t have.


“They (Soviet coaches) are anti-machines over there,” Pettit said. “Their studies have shown that machines don’t do the work. They have very strenuous workouts using free weights.”

There were some machines in the Soviet gyms, but they weren’t the type Pettit is used to using.

“The Universal-type machines used in the Soviet Union, which are built in Czechoslovakia, looked gaudy,” Pettit said.

The Soviets are not proponents of weight machines, but their athletes and coaches have nothing against acquiring material goods.


A Russian coach offered an American coach the equivalent of $4,000 for a videocassette camera to use for filming training sessions, according to Pettit. American jeans and T-shirts were traded for vodka and “Goodwill Games” memorabilia, but Pettit said the coaches never worked out a deal on the transaction for the videocassette camera.

“There is a thriving black market over there,” Pettit said. “Capitalism is alive and well in the Soviet Union.”

While the Soviet athletes and coaches were bartering goods with their visitors from the West, Pettit was exchanging ideas with the Soviet coaches and professors.

Well, sort of.


“Their athletes weren’t really interested in our training techniques,” Pettit said. “They know what to do . . .

“They are very scientific about their process. They get Ph.Ds in the snatch and the clean and jerk. They break sports down into intricacies. They explore technical, emotional and psychological aspects of that sport. To accumulate all their data, they use their people as guinea pigs.”

Lectures were given from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. daily in a small classroom which had only one 3-by-3 window open. Combined with 90-degree temperatures and 80% humidity, Pettit said it got very stuffy in the classroom.

“It was cramped, there was no air conditioning, no water fountains and the audio visual aides were poor,” Pettit said.


But the lectures were informative. Pettit, who hopes to move up in the national rankings this year, plans to implement some of the Soviet training methods into his schedule.

“Our training has been somewhat haphazard compared to what they do,” Pettit said. “Now I think I can be more scientific.”

One change involves getting massages four to six hours after a workout instead of the next day, as he used to do.

Pettit picked up a number of pointers from the lectures, but said that the Soviet professors and coaches were only willing to impart a certain amount of information.


“They gave us the basics during the lectures,” Pettit said. “But they weren’t going to tell us everything. They were surprised we were so eager to learn. They thought we’d be like a tour group.”

Instead, the Soviet speakers, most of whom lectured through translators, found the Americans and Canadians to be very inquisitive. Sometimes more inquisitive than they would have liked.

“Sometimes when someone would ask a question,” Pettit said, “they (Soviet lecturers) would shoot us glances as if to say, ‘How did they find out about that?’ ”

When the visitors broached the subject of anabolic steroids, the atmosphere in the room became as stifling as the heat.


“They (Soviet lecturers) really promoted that they don’t promote steroids,” Pettit said. “They try to dispell the stigma that their athletes are artificially made.

“But when you get their athletes off to the side, they’ll tell you the truth. The younger athletes aren’t allowed steroids. But the other athletes are built to (a) certain peak, and then they kick in the anabolics. Their officials denied it, but their athletes told us. Some tried to trade them to us.”

But Pettit didn’t accept. Still, the subject of steroids--drugs that some believe enhance athletic performance--is as sensitive in the U.S. as it is in the Soviet Union.

To relax, the visitors were taken to the symphony, ballet and on sightseeing tours during the evenings.


“I was very impressed with the friendliness of the people,” Pettit said. “They were very gracious.”

Pettit and his colleagues were treated as special guests, but their accommodations at the Sport Hotel in Moscow were not exactly of the five-star variety.

“We thought it would be one of the nice hotels,” Pettit said. “That’s the catch. There was mortar falling out from the bricks.”

But that didn’t stop Pettit and some friends from inviting a group of Soviet women to a party in their room at the Sport Hotel.


“We had rock and roll (music) and we bought 10 cases of beer from the U.S. Embassy and put them on ice,” Pettit said.

Pettit said it wasn’t unusual to see a lot of Soviet women hanging around the Sport Hotel.

“They want to marry Americans who will take them out of the country,” he said.

There were no marriages on the trip. And there also wasn’t a lot of food.


Mention food, and Pettit proudly points to his stomach. He lost 15 pounds during his two-week stay in the Soviet Union.

“I was always hungry,” Pettit said. “There was nowhere to eat after 6 at night.”

And there wasn’t enough for Pettit to eat before 6.

After eating sausage, cheese and warm water for breakfast for days on end, Pettit and some of his friends persuaded the kitchen staff at his hotel to prepare a special order of oatmeal. Meat and potatoes for lunch and ice cream (anytime) were Pettit’s favorite dishes. His least favorite food was what he called a “gooey molasses type of drink.” It consisted of boiled pumpernickel bread, and was said to be packed with protein.


When the hunger pains really set in, Pettit and his friends headed to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to get “real” burgers, cold beer and soft drinks.

“If we go to war with Russia,” Pettit said, “drop a Burger King in the center of Moscow and everyone will defect.”