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 (374� 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 (462� pounds). They both missed at 217.5 kilograms (479� 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.