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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 (181� 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.
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 J�rgen 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 99� 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 (198� 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."