Charles Rigoulot was a man of his early 20th-century time. A weightlifter, a professional wrestler, a circus curiosity, and a race-car driver, at one point the stocky Frenchman was billed as the Strongest Man in the World. In the 1920s, he was world-renown for lifting a 261-pound barbell above his head—with one arm. But his most impressive feat of bravery may have been the time he punched a Nazi. And then escaped from prison by bending the bars of his cell.
Charles Jean Rigoulot was born in Le Vesinet, France, in 1903. He showed strength early, and began training with weights as a child.
In the three years between 1923 and 1926, he set 12 world records. Standing not quite five foot eight inches tall, Rigoulot weighed 230 pounds, had a chest measurement of 49 inches, a waist of 37 inches, and a neck of 18.5 inches when he was 24 years old, according to the blog Old Time Strongman. His thighs measured 27.5 inches and his biceps 17.5. Rigoulot definitely looked the part of the beefy, pumped-up strongman.
In the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Rigoulot won the gold medal in Men’s Light-Heavyweight. The standings were determined by combining the best scores of five lifts: one-hand snatch, one-hand clean and jerk, military press, two-hand snatch, and two-hand clean and jerk. He chose to use old-fashioned globe barbells over the then-new plate-loaded bars still in use today.
The Light-Heavyweight division was one of the closest contests in the Olympic weightlifting session, according to Sports-Reference.com, and an avid audience was invested in the outcome. Rigoulot narrowly edged out two prior World Champions, the defending champ Leopold Friedrich, and 1923 champ Fritz Hanenberger, who took silver only after his one-armed clean and jerk was ruled invalid by the judges, much to the anger of the crowd.
In October of 1928, Rigoulot set two world records, still using the globe barbells: a clean and jerk of 360 pounds and a snatch of 282 pounds. In Paris in 1930, Rigoulot became the first to officially lift Louis Uni’s famous Apollon Railway Wheels, a set of railway wheels connected by an axle and weighing 366 pounds.
Considered the best one-arm snatcher in the world, Rigoulot invented an ingenious training device to maintain his edge. His “Challenge Barbell” was over 8 feet long with two shot-loaded globes at each end. The barbell was extremely springy, according to the website Legendary Strength, which allowed Rigoulot to improve his lifts.
Amazing black-and-white footage of Rigoulot performing lifts exists on Youtube today.
In the early 1930s, Rigoulot took his Strongman act to the circus. And in 1937, Rigoulot shifted gears once again, competing as a race-car driver. He participated in the endurance challenge 24 Hours of Le Mans, which continues today as the world’s oldest active sports-car race. Driving a blue Chenard & Walcker race car, Rigoulot won the 1937 Bol d’Or.
As a member of the French Resistance during World War II, Rigoulot got himself in trouble when he punched a Nazi. He was imprisoned but not held for long. Legend has it that he managed to escape by bending the bars of his cell. He may have even helped other inmates flee the Nazis.
In his later years, Rigoulot became the sports director of a French distillery. He died of a heart attack in 1962.
Rigoulot’s athletic prowess survived him, however. His daughter, Dany, became a figure skater and won the French Championships three times between 1958 and 1961. Like her famous father, she started competing at an early age. She participated in the 1960 Olympics, but unlike her gold-medal-winning father, had to settle for 13th place. Still, it’s pretty cool to have the Olympics run in your family. Especially when you use your prowess to escape the Nazis!
E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City