In the early 20th century, Charles Rigoulot was a man of his time. The stocky Frenchman, a weightlifter, professional wrestler, circus attraction, and race-car driver, was once hailed as the Strongest Man in the World. He achieved worldwide fame in the 1920s by raising a 261-pound barbell above his head with only one arm. The moment he punched a Nazi and subsequently managed to break out of jail by bending the cell bars may have been his most heroic act.
In the year 1903, Charles Jean Rigoulot was born in Le Vesinet, France. He showed remarkable strength as, and as a young child, and started weight training.
He achieved 12 world records in the three years between 1923 and 1926. According to the website Old Time Strongman, at the age of 24, Rigoulot was 230 pounds, stood just under five feet eight inches tall, had a neck measurement of 18.5 inches, a chest measurement of 49 inches, a waist measurement of 37 inches, and a chest measurement of 49 inches. His biceps were 17.5 inches, while his thighs were 27.5 inches. Rigoulot unmistakably had the physique of the muscular, pumped-up strongman.
Rigoulot won the gold medal in men’s light-heavyweight at the Paris Olympics in 1924. Five lifts—the one-hand snatch, one-hand clean and jerk, military press, two-hand snatch, and two-hand clean and jerk—were combined to determine the standings. He opted to use vintage globe barbells rather than the then-new, still-in-use plate-loaded bars.
According to Sports-Reference.com, the Light-Heavyweight division’s matchup was among the tightest in the Olympic weightlifting competition, and the conclusion was highly anticipated. Leopold Friedrich, the reigning champion, and Fritz Hanenberger, the champion from 1923, were both narrowly beaten by Rigoulot. Hanenberger only managed to win silver after the judges invalidated his one-armed clean and jerk, much to the ire of the spectators.
Still utilizing globe barbells, Rigoulot established two world records in October 1928: a clean and jerk of 360 pounds, and a snatch of 282 pounds. In Paris in 1930, Rigoulot made history by becoming the first person to formally lift Louis Uni’s renowned Apollon Railway Wheels, a set of railroad wheels that weigh 366 pounds and are joined by an axle.
Rigoulot, regarded as the best one-arm snatcher in the world, created a clever training tool to keep his edge. With two shot-loaded globes at either end, his “Challenge Barbell” was more than 8 feet in length. According to the website Legendary Strength, the barbell was incredibly springy, which allowed Rigoulot to get better at his lifts.
Early in the 1930s, Rigoulot performed at a circus with his Strongman performance. And in 1937, Rigoulot changed gears once more by turning to racing. He took part in the endurance test 24 Hours of Le Mans, the oldest sports-car race still taking place today. Rigoulot won the 1937 Bol d’Or while operating a blue Chenard & Walcker race car.
During World War II, Rigoulot was a member of the French Resistance and got into trouble for punching a Nazi. He was detained, though not for very long. According to legend, he was able to escape by bending the cell bars. He might have even assisted other prisoners in escaping the Nazis.
Later in life, Rigoulot worked as a French distillery’s sports director. In 1962, a heart attack claimed his life.
But Rigoulot’s athleticism outlasted him. Between 1958 and 1961, his daughter Dany competed in figure skating and won three French Championships. Like her well-known father, she got into competition at a young age. In contrast to her gold-medal winning father, she competed in the 1960 Olympics and finished in 13th place. Nevertheless, having the Olympics run in your family is quite fantastic. Particularly when you utilize your skill to flee the Nazis!
- “Charles Rigoulot”. Olympedia. Retrieved 30 November 2021.
- Hamilton, E.L. (19 April 2018). “A French Olympic gold-medal-winning weightlifter used his strength to bend the bars of his cell and escape the Nazis”. The Vintage News. Retrieved 13 July 2019.^