He was an African American, largely unfeted in Washington in the 1950s. He had to take unpaid leave from the Library of Congress to compete on the world stage. “Nah, they just ignored it,” he told Washington Post journalist David Maraniss, author of the book “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World.” “I come back to my job and that is it. That was par for the course then.”
Mr. Bradford said he was a 15-year-old “butterball” attending Washington’s Armstrong High School when he took up weights after seeing inspiring stories in a weightlifting magazine. “I was a natural slob, a regular 5 by 5,” he once told The Post.
With a set of dumbbells, he began working out in his second-floor bedroom. But one night, the dumbbells rolled off his bed and crashed to the floor, sending plaster cascading down on his parents, who were sitting in the living room below.
Thereafter he did his weightlifting at a nearby gymnasium. He developed a certain technique that demonstrated his brute strength. “He lifted the bar with virtually no split of the legs on the way up, only bending his back as he lifted over his head,” Maraniss wrote. This unorthodox approach developed “not from his prowess but from a fear of dropping the weights during his practices at the Y. . . . He knew he would get kicked out if he dropped the barbells and scarred the floor.”
By 1950, Mr. Bradford was good enough to win the Amateur Athletic Union junior championship. “Those weights are my friends,” he later said. “They tell me they want to be lifted.” He was soon being tutored by Bob Hoffman, an entrepreneur and coach who owned a company that manufactured Olympic-style weightlifting equipment.
At the 1952 Games, Mr. Bradford came in second to American John Davis in the heavyweight category. Four years later, following Army service, he qualified for the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, but did not go, choosing instead to stay home with his pregnant wife. Povich reported that Mr. Bradford’s wife didn’t want him traipsing all over the world for no remuneration.
But he vied again in 1960, with the Olympic team purportedly aiming to knock the Soviets down a peg in athletic revenge after the Russian triumph in space with the 1957 Sputnik satellite launch.
By the time he got to Rome, Mr. Bradford was considered one of the world’s best weightlifters in the press competition, in which the barbell is lifted from the floor to the chest and then smoothly over the head. The other two categories in which all contenders competed at the time were the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, each of which was a variation of the same movement but required different positioning of the legs and feet.
During the three-part event, Mr. Bradford finished second to Russian heavyweight Yuri Vlasov, whose combined weight lifted was 1,1821
2 pounds, a world record. Mr. Bradford lifted 1,1271
At one point, it appeared that Mr. Bradford had won the Olympic gold when the judges disqualified Vlasov for an improper procedure in one of his lifts. That disqualification was overturned on an appeal.
Mr. Bradford said he was crushed by the ruling, which he realized would cost him the gold. Maraniss said the disappointment was what drove him from competitive weightlifting.
Nevertheless, he and his Soviet counterpart were friendly with each other. In 1961, Mr. Bradford accepted Vlasov’s offer to visit the Soviet Union for a weightlifting tour. They traveled in a specially built Russian automobile, originally intended as a gift to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose planned trip to the Soviet Union had been canceled in the wake of the shooting down of spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960.
In his travels, Mr. Bradford discovered a vast difference between the way world-class athletes were treated in the Soviet Union and in the United States. Vlasov “asked me how much did my government pay me for weightlifting. I said they didn’t pay me anything,” he told Maraniss.
Vlasov said he “couldn’t believe I had to work,” when Mr. Bradford told him that after the Rome Olympics he returned to his $56-a-week job at the Library of Congress and was struggling to pay his mortgage. In the Soviet Union, Vlasov said he paid no rent for his apartment and his wife got free food at a special grocery store. He was also made a captain in the Red Army.
The Soviets, perhaps sensing a propaganda coup, made overtures to Mr. Bradford to stay.
“I knew they were in a sense trying to pump me,” he said. “I could feel this undercurrent of defection.”
But his Army experience fighting communists in the Korean War and the limited personal freedoms in Russia were enough to make him go back to the United States, despite its racial injustices.
“Say what you want,” Mr. Bradford told Maraniss. “I still think this is the greatest country on Earth, with all its problems.” (Vlasov won the silver at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, had a minor career as a writer and had dismal results when he ran for the presidency in 1996 on a hard-core nationalist platform.)
James Edward Bradford was born Nov. 1, 1928, in Washington and was a lifelong resident of the District. He graduated from Armstrong High School in 1946 and from Howard University in 1974. He received a master’s degree in library science from the old Federal City College in 1976 and a master’s degree in management and supervision from a Washington program of Central Michigan University in 1979. About eight years ago, he retired from the Library of Congress, where he was a past chapter president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Grace Robertson Bradford, who lives with a daughter in Silver Spring; three children, James E. Bradford Jr. of Washington, Sharleen B. Kavetski of Silver Spring and Jo Bradford of Williamsport, Md.; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Mr. Bradford died at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring of congestive heart failure, Jo Bradford said.
In the Olympic Village at the 1960 Games in Rome, Mr. Bradford was asked why he had not called in sick instead of taking unpaid leave to compete.
“Wouldn’t that be great!” he told The Post. “What would they think back at the library about a guy on sick leave the day he sets a new record for the weightlift at the Olympics?”