How a set of athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics were immortalised on Voyager space mission

‘Do not return without a victory!’

As the golden disc team was hastily collating their picture album of humanity, they couldn’t escape the politics of the day; the late 1970s represented the mid-point of the Cold War. It is a testament to the integrity of their mission statement that these American scientists and researchers included such a prominent image of a Soviet icon, Borzov.

As he was making his final selections, Lomberg felt that the presence of Rigby and Borzov, an American and Soviet featured so prominently in adjacent images, provided an element of balance and fairness.

However, given how bitterly competitive the two programs were during the space race, he has often wondered if the Soviets would have extended America the same courtesy — had the Golden Record been compiled behind The Iron Curtain.

To any alien life form in the distant future, such a detail will be utterly irrelevant but the gesture wasn’t lost on Borzov himself; he remembers how Communist Party members tried to motivate the Soviet team in 1972, saying “It’s a golden jubilee, 50 years since the formation of the Soviet Union! You’re going into the enemy’s lair! Do not return without a victory!”

He’d already traveled the world and explained, “We knew better than them how Americans actually behaved. I remember what was nice — a hot dog and a glass of Coca-Cola. We didn’t need that kind of rhetoric instilled in us before our departure.”

“We knew better than them how Americans actually behaved. I remember what was nice — a hot dog and a glass of Coca-Cola. We didn’t need that kind of rhetoric instilled in us before our departure.”

Valeriy Borzov

Borzov was vaguely aware that his image was associated with the Voyager project, but only because some local journalists wrote about it several years later. And until CNN contacted him, he’d never seen the picture.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t particularly like it, exclaiming, “It’s not the best photo!”

“Firstly, the running position is not the best. The starting position is when the muscles are visible and there is a certain posture where you can see power and character — this is some sort of frame between moments.” He went on, “I don’t like such photographs and this is one of the preliminary races, a work-in-progress, not the historical one. It’s not the final shot.”

Nonetheless, he has wondered why he was chosen. Without prompting, he volunteers that he ran as a clean athlete, without resorting to the doping techniques that marred much of the Soviet athletic program. “I wasn’t inflated,” he said, noting that you can tell the difference between “a running cockerel and a broiler chicken.”

Maybe he was chosen for his running style, which — in his words — could be described as “classic, light and with great power and intelligence.” Or maybe it was his all-around character, his “unification of power, sportiness, physical qualities, intellectual, psychological and other gentleman-like qualities.”

Borzov is now learning the truth about how and why he was sent to the stars and his reaction is humble and earthly: “To be told that you are flying outside of our civilization would be a kick to a sane person. But the most important thing is that it’s a compliment from the Americans. That deserves both praise and gratitude.”

“This is something that obviously really touched me, and this is something that cannot be measured.”

‘Blown away’

Of all the Voyager athletes, it’s clear that Rigby has the greatest understanding of the project; it’s something that she has spent a fair amount of time thinking about.

Like Roberts, she wishes that she’d been asked, but only so that she could have watched the launch and enjoyed it in the moment. “I would have said yes anyway,” she added quickly.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I don’t often mention it and I don’t know why I don’t, because besides being born, having children and dying, it is the most profound thing I can imagine in a person’s life because you get to be a representative of humanity.

“It’s like an adventure that you’ve been put on and you just go, ‘Wow, why me?’”

After retiring from her gymnastics career in 1972, Rigby has spent much of the rest of her life performing on stage. It’s somehow fitting that she became well known for playing Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s fictional character — the boy who could fly amongst the stars.

She draws on that character to try and find the words: “It’s a dream, like Peter Pan says, this great adventure that you will never know what ultimately happens.”

Where are they now? Four sprinters and a gymnast reflect on this “great adventure”


In their own way, all five athletes had post-Olympic careers that provided guiding lights in the lives of others. Rigby went on to star in musical theater and now teaches children with special needs; Roberts taught PE for more than four decades; Moorosi worked with the Lesotho department of Education and Sport; Su became a professor of health management in Taiwan; Borzov was a minister and lawmaker.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“It’s just not something that you can wrap your mind around,” she continued. “But your heart can and your imagination can, and it gives you a tingly feeling.”

While the Voyager athletes were chosen to help teach other worlds about our own, many of them ultimately found that profession down here on Earth.

Roberts taught PE for more than four decades; for a period of time after the Olympics, Moorosi worked with the Lesotho government in their department of Education and Sport, and Su became a professor of health management in Taiwan. Borzov was a minister and a lawmaker, and all, in their own way, were pioneers.

Rigby now works with children with special needs. “I find my favorite thing is when those children have that ‘aha moment,’ when all of a sudden, they do something that they thought impossible. And they look at you and go ‘what just happened?’”

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