For a week they had lumbered up and down the streets of historic old Gettysburg in their furry warmup suits, looking slightly ursine, like the great brown bears of Mother Russia. They had come to the site of one of the biggest military graveyards in North America to fulfill the prophecy of Nikita Khrushchev, who 22 years earlier had promised, "We will bury you." Last week the national weight-lifting team of the U.S.S.R. did just that, interring 37 other member nations of the International Weightlifting Federation—including the U.S., which finished a woeful 13th—under a couple of hundred tons of iron, at this year's world championships.
The Soviet Union's impressive performance was no surprise. Its team had won eight of 10 weight classes at the European championships in June, and if there was anything remarkable at all about last week's competition, it was that the Cubans kept it fairly close for four days. Even after the Soviets' Yuri Vardanyan began to turn things around with his stunning performance in the 82.5-kilogram (181¾ pounds) class, Cuba led the team race by 50 points. Vardanyan set world records in the snatch (171 kilograms), clean and jerk (210.5 kilograms), and total (377.5 kilograms, or 832 pounds), and set the stage for the big Russian bears that were still to come.
The most imposing of these, of course, was super-heavyweight Vasily Alexeyev, the world's smallest alp. Alexeyev, with his great cowcatcher of a belly, is renowned as "the world's strongest man," the Incredible Hulk notwithstanding. Alexeyev spent most of the week hibernating in his hotel room, wearily greeting a steady procession of American journalists. On the occasions when he did venture out of his room, he maintained a fairly high public profile. When you stand 6'1" and weigh 352 pounds, there is no other kind. From time to time he was called upon to lift giggly schoolgirls, or juggle a few small foreign cars. He also made a couple of sneak attacks on an all-you-can-eat place, during which blissful interludes he would sometimes wax philosophical. "A great sportsman dies twice," he said one night over a platter of chicken, "and the first death is the more painful."
It couldn't be any more painful than what happened to Alexeyev late Sunday night. After finishing second in the snatch competition, he passed in the clean and jerk until the bar weights had reached 240 kilos (529 pounds). Had Alexeyev been successful on his first lift he would have won his ninth consecutive world championship.
October 15, 1978
But it was not the Red Bear's night. As he cleaned the murderous weight to his chest, a tendon popped somewhere deep in his huge right hip. The desperate Soviets tried several stalling maneuvers, hoping that Alexeyev would recover quickly, but in the end he was forced to withdraw from the competition. As a result, the winner of the superheavy-weight division was Jürgen Heuser of East Germany, a 25-year-old shipbuilder who lifted a total of 417.5 kilos (921 pounds). Heuser, who weighs 295 pounds, had finished second to Alexeyev in the European championships.
The massive Alexeyev may have worldwide renown, but in his own country he shares the limelight with the exquisitely proportioned David Rigert. "Rigert is a hero to the sporting public of the Soviet Union," says Soviet journalist Alexander Gavrilovets. "He is a great performer, perhaps the greatest ever. It is hard to say whether his popularity in the U.S.S.R. is greater than Alexeyev's but people feel that David's physique is more normal, more like their own, and therefore they are able to appreciate better what he does."
Rigert's body weight is 144 pounds less than Alexeyev's and yet the total weight of his best lifts is only 99¼ pounds less than Alexeyev's world-record 981 pounds (445 kilograms). Until last week's competition, Rigert had usually been lifting in the up-to-90-kilo (198¼ pounds) class, in which he holds three world records, but he recently decided that it was too difficult to make 90 kilos, so he moved up to the 100-kilo division.
That Rigert would become a celebrated weight lifter seemed unlikely when he was born 31 years ago of German parentage in Kazakhstan. David was one of seven children and evidently was the runt of the litter. He was so weak and sickly as a child that he was unable even to walk until he was five. Embarrassed by his physical condition, he began to run barefoot every day, through the bitter cold of winter. He first showed a talent for lifting weights at the school near the state farm where his family worked, and soon he was hitchhiking 30 miles every other day to a club where he could train seriously.
Even as he was discovering what he could make his body do, Rigert began to set impossible goals for himself. During his service in the army, he was known to his comrades as "Zero Man," the name of a Soviet cartoon character noted for ineptitude. Today Rigert still attempts unnecessarily hazardous lifts, with little regard for strategy. "Always there must be a challenge," he says.
"He is an adventurer," says Dmitri Ivanov, a former Soviet world-record holder and now a journalist. "He feels he must have each time a challenge. I believe it is irrational for him to try these great weights, but for David, it is necessary."
It was not until the 1970 world championships in Columbus, Ohio that Rigert emerged as a force on the international scene. Unhappily, that was also the year that Alexeyev burst into prominence, and while Rigert was taking the bronze medal in the 82.5-kilo class Alexeyev was winning his first gold. Rigert's dominance of his weight division has never been as absolute as Alexeyev's has. In a disastrous showing at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Rigert blew all three of his snatch attempts and failed to total. Following that defeat he was inconsolable, weeping openly and banging his head against a wall. In the eight years since Columbus, however, he has won six world titles and an Olympic gold medal, while Alexeyev has been world champion eight successive times. Rigert has set 58 world records during his career, Alexeyev 80. It is little wonder that Rigert and Alexeyev seldom speak, indeed scarcely acknowledge one another's existence.
It didn't help that Rigert spent 1977 at home, suspended as a result of being involved in an altercation while traveling in Armenia. The Soviet system of discipline is often harsh but apparently efficient: a year's suspension for the first infraction, a lifetime ban from competition after the second. Rigert returned from his forced sabbatical stronger and more eager than ever.
Lounging on a hotel bed last week with a thin cigar jutting from his expressive face, Rigert talked about the connection between muscles and mind. He has a cleft in his chin that doesn't quite reach to his tonsils, and a tight-lipped smile that goes down instead of up when he says something to amuse himself. Sometimes he fingers the gaudy blue ring tattoo above the knuckle on the ring finger of his left hand.
"The weight cannot be feared," he said. "It must fear you. Many lifters—many strong lifters—fear the weights. If the weights resist them, they yield to the resistance without a struggle. Big muscles, great strength, but no gold medals. Timidity is a great disadvantage in heavy athletics. When you are alone with a great weight, you must be very, very brave. Many men are brave when they are with other men, but timid when they are alone."
When the time finally came for him to be brave last week, Rigert never faltered. His only competition in the 100-kilogram class was his 21-year-old teammate Sergei Arakelov. Rigert came into the competition weighing 208 pounds, Arakelov 220, a disadvantage for Rigert except in the event of a tie, in which case the championship would go to the man with the lower body weight.
Arakelov snatched the bar successfully at 165 kilos (363 pounds); Rigert countered with 170 kilos (374¾ pounds). Then Arakelov succeeded at 172.5 kilos, and Rigert, instead of moving up to 175 kilos, made his second and third attempts at 177.5. Both times he failed, giving Arakelov a 2.5-kilogram edge as they entered the clean-and-jerk lifts.
Again both men were successful on their first attempts, jerking 210 kilograms (462¾ pounds). They both missed at 217.5 kilograms (479½ pounds), thus making the third lift decisive for both men. When Arakelov tried again with 217.5 kilograms and made it, Rigert was forced to lift 220 (485 pounds) to tie Arakelov in the total and win the title by virtue of being the lighter man. Preening like some 200-pound swan as he paced back and forth across the platform, Rigert spread his arms for a moment, then stepped to the bar and cleaned it easily to his chest. For five seconds he held the bar there, expelling the air from his lungs sharply upward so that each time he did it his hair rose and fell. Then, finally, he pumped the great weight over his head and held it there while a smile played with the corners of his mouth. He had won.