America's 1976 Olympic weightlifting medallist Lee James has died at the age of 69 ©Lee James

The American Olympic medallist Lee James, one of his nation’s top weightlifters in the 1970s, has died aged 69.

James was 22 when he won silver behind the great David Rigert from the Soviet Union at 90 kilograms in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and was forced to retire from the sport only two years later because of serious knee problems.

He was twice a national champion, held an American snatch record for 20 years, and won gold at the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City at 82.5kg before moving up to 90kg for the Olympics.

James was one of the most hard-working and successful weightlifters in the United States during his short career and is credited with inspiring many young athletes in the sport.

"He was a very likeable and respected man, a solid citizen who served in the military, a good family man - the blond, blue-eyed all-American athlete whose lifetime best performance came in the Olympic Games," said Jim Schmitz, the renowned coach who was in charge of the US team at the 1980, 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games.

James was the only athlete from the Americas to win a medal at Montreal 1976, and the only non-European to finish in the first two places; of the nine gold medals, seven went to Soviet lifters and two to Bulgarians.

He owed much to his coach Dick "Smitty" Smith in both preparation and execution.

In an interview with the sports history writer Mark Morthier three years ago, James, from Albany in Georgia, revealed that Smith was unconventional in his training methods.

"For instance, he didn’t want me resting too long between sets," James said.

"The reason for that is if you fail to succeed on your first or second attempt, and you elect to attempt that same weight again, you are only allowed two minutes to get back out there and try it again."

Lee James was just 22 when he won the Olympic silver medal in the 90kg category at Montreal 1976 ©USA Weightlifting
Lee James was just 22 when he won the Olympic silver medal in the 90kg category at Montreal 1976 ©USA Weightlifting

That is what happened at Montreal 1976, where the action was quickfire in the years before the 10-minute break between was introduced between the snatch and clean and jerk.

James was second to last finisher in the snatch, and was out quite early in the clean and jerk for an attempt at 190kg, which he missed. He was soon up again and this time he made it.

He might not have won the silver medal but for his coach’s intervention on his third attempt, he said.

The team’s head coach, Tommy Kono, wanted James to take 195kg but Smith persuaded Kono that a career-best 197.5kg was needed to keep James in medal contention.

James said, "The last thing I remember that day is 'Smitty' saying to me as I walked out to the platform, 'If you miss it, you’ll not only lose your chance for a medal, but I’ll be in big trouble with coach Kono.'’

"I felt confident that I could lift it, and thankfully, I did."

Rigert was too good for everybody else and would finish 20kg clear but James had a long wait while Swiss and Bulgarian rivals tried - and failed - to better his total of 362.5kg.

James was a religious man, and said, "I always believed that God had a destiny in mind for me.

"I always prayed for the strength to push harder and harder.

"I felt incredibly blessed to have won the silver medal."

James' friend and 1970s team-mate Mark Cameron said, “He was the most disciplined, hardest working athlete I have ever known.

"Lee was hard working and successful after his competitive career, was a good husband, great grandpa and a sincerely God-loving man.

"His death is truly sad."

James was forced to give up lifting when surgery failed to fix his knees, and later took up karate, cave diving, scuba diving and CrossFit.

James said he was bitter for a good while after his forced retirement in 1978 but told Morthier, "I am glad to say that I look back now and I think that perhaps it was for the best.

"President Jimmy Carter ruined a lot of people’s Olympic dreams in 1980 with that boycott, and I know I would have pushed myself extremely hard to be the best at those Olympics, only to be told we’re not going."

James had been helped early in his career when the US Army allowed him to move to York in Pennsylvania where he trained at Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell club.

A Hoffman Foundation scholarship paid for him to attend college while training.

James worked in insurance for years and described himself in retirement as "a keen handyman."

He is believed to have died from a head injury after falling from a roof in Raleigh in North Carolina, where he lived with his wife Lori.

James had two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.

USA Weightlifting chief executive Matt Sicchio said, "Lee James’ life story includes an important and inspiring weightlifting thread.

"The fact that he represented our great nation both in the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division and on the 1976 US Olympic weightlifting team at such a young age, and then went on to raise a family and have a successful career in business, is remarkable.

"Lee’s legacy will live on not only through the medals he won but through the example he set with his dedication and perseverance.

"Our thoughts are with his family, friends and the members of the weightlifting community he inspired along the way."