Day 217: Tough Guys – The World Of Strength Athletics

originally published August 4, 2012

It won’t be long before Olympic television coverage gets around to those sweat-spackled, spandex-sporting muscle beasts in the weightlifting competitions. I admire a sport whose primary terminology includes ‘snatch’ and ‘clean and jerk’, yet is not even a little bit dirty. But while most every Olympic sport requires an element of strength for success, weightlifting is one of the only Olympic disciplines to focus purely on might. Those of us (well, not me but it sounded nice) who are bursting with physical oomph need to turn elsewhere to find ways to compete with one another.

Strongman athletics are designed not only to test one’s strength, but one’s endurance. Picking up a Hyundai is great, but how long can you hold it over your head? Guys have been trying to out-muscle other guys since the dawn of time. Before technology gave us the ability to kill one another with a tiny twitch of a trigger finger, being the strongest guy in the village really meant something.

It meant you were obligated to compete against other villages.

In Scotland, it meant you’d be entering into the Highland Games, an annual competition which predates written history. One story states that King Malcolm III organized an early form of the games in the 10th century. Of course as we learned here a few days ago, the 10th century may not have actually happened.

The thing I like best about the Highland Games is their commitment to conquering nature. Olympians hoist a steel bar over their heads, with steel discs measured out to the gram providing the weight. They throw manufactured steel shot puts and tailored javelins. The Highlanders throw fucking trees. Their shot put is called the stone put because it’s a rock. They heave bales of straw. They do it all in a kilt and no one makes fun of them.

If you wanted to witness feats of strength in the 19th century, you’d probably head to your local circus. Some of those big top strongmen even became famous.

Thomas Inch, who once held the title of Britain’s Strongest Man, invented this thing. This is the Inch Dumbbell, and anyone who’s spent time training their muscles for strength knows all about this thing. Me, I just learned about it now.

The Inch Dumbbell weighs 172 pounds, 9 ounces, and has become a challenge anyone worth their salt (apologies for that stupid, bizarre expression – most people are worth more than the salt they possess, unless they own a tremendous amount of salt) in the strength world needs to conquer. The handle is 2 3/8 inches thick in diameter, so much of the difficulty stems trying to grip the thing.

Louis Cyr is considered by some people in the mega-muscle industry to have been the strongest man who ever lived. He pushed a freight car up an incline. Resisted the pull of four mighty draught horses. Had a platform strapped to his back with 18 men (over 4300 pounds total) standing on him. Then he lifted them.

Also, Louis was Canadian. I make no apologies for mentioning this – it’s Olympics time. National pride is allowed and encouraged.

Joe Greenstein – and contrary to his appearance, he never played in Deep Purple or the Doobie Brothers – was a Polish-born Jewish strongman. His credits include driving nails into boards using his bare hands, changing a tire without any tools, bending half-inch steel bars with his hair (wait… what?), biting through a quarter, and beating up 18 Nazis with a baseball bat. I’m not entirely clear on how this last one was staged for the public, but I’m impressed.

As 20th century technology started beaming sports into people’s homes, broadcasters found that there was an audience for strength sports. It made sense to make an internationally televised event out of finding the World’s Strongest Man.

Since its inception in 1977, the World’s Strongest Man competition has blended pure lift-and-carry or lift-and-throw events with a touch of theatrical spectacle. The one-on-one battles are always entertaining, whether competitors are grunting it out in a two-man tug of war, or trying to push each other out of the ring, sumo-style, from either side of a massive pole.

The keg toss seems like a waste of quality beer to me, and the crucifix – where a competitor holds two weights with his arms outstretched for as long as possible – carries with it a lot of suggestively religious baggage. What interests me is not only watching someone pull off feats of might and muscle that even with a strict, years-long regimen of hardcore training and copious injections of bear-steroids I could never accomplish myself, but watching events with a visceral what-the-fuck quality.

The Hercules Hold is a classic throwback to ancient mythology, and it looks downright bad-ass. The competitor stands between two heavy pillars that are tipped away from him. He then holds on for as long as humanly possible. This is also done with cars on ramps, which provides a fantastic opportunity for a corporate tie-in. This would work on yet another level if you stocked each car with four fat guys eating a sack-full of Whoppers. These games won’t pay for themselves, you know. Gotta nail down the sponsorships.

The Fridge-Carry. This is both impressive and practical, whether you’re moving to a new home and need a strong pal to help haul your two fridges off the truck, or if you’re watching the game and can’t decide what to snack on. “Hey Keith, run into the other room and bring me your fridge, will you? I want to see whether you’ve got any onion dip.”

This is the event most people picture when they see the World’s Strongest Man on their TV listings. It’s not much to watch in terms of wild TV-friendly thrills, but it effectively makes me feel tiny and insignificant – the other main goal of athletic competition. I don’t think I’d be able to drive one of those trucks a hundred feet without getting winded. Pulling one is out of the question.

While I’m sure I’ll be glued to my set during the upcoming Olympic feats of strength, in my heart I think I’ll prefer the more genuine, earthy events of the Highland Games ilk. Like the Dinnie Stones, for example. These are two gigantic 785-pound rocks which were hoisted by circus strongman Donald Dinnie in 1860. The next guy to pull that off? It was David Prowse a century later. Prowse eventually became an actor, and was best known for turning his brute strength into the embodiment of evil:

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