I’ve been in isolation ever since I returned on March 9th from directing the 2020 Arnold Strongman Classic (ASC). Like other fans of Strongman, I’ve watched with sadness as show after Strongman show got canceled last month as the coronavirus spread around the globe. In recent weeks, I’ve been listening with yet more dismay to the vitriolic barbs Eddie Hall has been hurling at Hafthor Bjornsson as the big Icelander gets ready to attempt to set a new all-time Strongman deadlift record on Saturday, May 2nd from his gym in Iceland. If I didn’t know all the principals, I might suspect the WWE had decided to step into the world of Strongman and create a fake feud between their main-eventers as they do before WrestleMania. But after watching several on-line interviews in which Eddie Hall, the current record holder in the deadlift at 500 kilos (1102.3 pounds), has insulted Thor’s manhood, his honor, and the integrity of nearly everyone else involved in this event, I find myself turning to the keyboard to reflect on Strongman as a sport and the legitimacy of records.
The modern sport of Strongman draws from two historic legacies—the circus/vaudeville strongmen of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the World’s Strongest Man (WSM) TV show. Legendary strongmen like Arthur Saxon and Eugen Sandow didn’t bother to prove their bonafides by participating in the Olympic Games when it offered weightlifting as an event in 1896 or 1904 during their prime years as strongmen. They understood, as their fans did, that they were professional showmen and that strength exhibitions, not medals, paid their bills. These early strongmen set their records in the center rings of circuses, on gaslit theater stages, and often, in gyms or “athletic clubs.” There were generally no official judges present to verify the lifts—just reliable witnesses—usually men knowledgeable about lifting and also known for their fairness and integrity who could attest to what they had seen. Naturally, there was controversy surrounding some of these records as we showed in the new Rogue Legends documentary about Arthur Saxon. But, no one in this era questioned a man’s right to try for a record whenever and however it could be arranged. Holding titles and records was important to the careers of the early strongmen and their best lifts, made in far from official circumstances, are still honored and remembered more than a hundred years later. In fact, their “unofficial” world records are in large part why we regard them as legends.
In 1977, when WSM debuted, no one would have predicted it would still be on TV 43 years later or spawn an actual sport. Like other TV shows, WSM’s producers saw it as entertainment and there was no thought in the early days to use standardized equipment in order to keep records. In fact, WSM generally prided itself on using non-standard strength tests like Fingal’s Fingers and cars for deadlifting instead of barbells. The Strongman sport that grew from WSM’s popularity has embraced a similar outlier attitude toward rules, events, and organizational structure. Competitions for amateurs and pros are sponsored by individual promoters; festivals and expos; and a number of competing strongman federations. Strongman has no standard lifts like weightlifting which uses only the snatch and clean and jerk in competition. Strongman events vary from contest to contest and the ever-changing rules, and often fantastic apparatus, are a large part of the sport’s appeal.
So, just to be clear, there is no all-encompassing association for Strongman that legitimates world records as the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) does for Olympic weightlifting. And, unlike weightlifting where the rules plainly state that world records can only be set in specific IWF competitions, in front of certified referees, and following exacting rules, Strongman has no standardized rules that apply to all competitions. Strongman rules are entirely dependent on who’s running the contest. In the Arnold Strongman Classic, for example, we use the longer and slightly thicker Rogue Elephant Bar for deadlifts and do not allow deadlift suits, or double-loop hand straps. When Eddie Hall lifted 500 kilos at the Giant’s Live Deadlift World Championships in 2016, he used a bar of regular length and diameter. What further differentiated Eddie’s lift was the supportive deadlift suit he wore and the double-loop hand straps he used which make it almost impossible to drop the bar. Strongman’s “anything goes” approach to rules and equipment was the main reason, my husband, Terry Todd, suggested to Rogue Fitness—who supplies the equipment used in the ASC— that we begin recognizing certain events as Rogue Record Breakers so that at least for some lifts, we could more meaningfully talk about records. Rogue Record Breaker events now happen both inside and outside the ASC. Last month we had four Rogue Record Breaker events that occurred as part of the ASC, five more for men who were not competing in the Arnold, and six RRB events for women.
To share another example of the changeable landscape that Strongman inhabits, following Eddie’s historic lift in 2016, the Giant’s Live promoters also held Deadlift World Championships in 2017 and 2018. However, in those years the winners were chosen based on who did the most repetitions with a set weight. The meets were still called the Giant’s Live World Deadlift Championships but the rules were totally different than they were in 2016. In 2019, the rules changed again, and the contest was once more about who could pull the most weight for one time. Weightlifting is always the same.
Eddie’s personal and highly insulting rants have touched on a number of subjects that are not worth excavating here. His one claim that bears consideration is whether Thor’s attempt to lift more than 500 kilos can be called a world record, or is even legitimate if it is not done in a Strongman contest. This charge is also echoed by Brian Shaw in a video he made about the controversy but their shared assertion overlooks the fact that many of the lifts already acknowledged as Strongman “world records” were made in exhibitions, not contests. If you were to ask anyone who keeps up with the sport what the world record is in the Atlas or Manhood Stone right now they would tell you it is Tom Stoltman’s 600-pound lift made in the Rogue Record Breaker’s at the 2020 Arnold Sports Festival. Tom’s heroic effort broke Brian Shaw’s 560-pound Atlas Stone record, also made in an RRB event in 2017, and not as part of a “regular” strongman contest.
Ironically, given Eddie’s vociferous assertions that only meet conditions satisfy calling something a world record, the big Brit has claimed several “world records” outside of strongman contests himself. One was also made in a gym. His gym record is not a Strongman record, but, rather, a timed event on an ergometer called a Skierg. Eddie mentioned it to Mark Bell when he appeared on Bell’s Power Project Podcast this past week. If you watch the video of his Skierg record being made, you have to wonder how Hall can regard this informal gym event, a “world record”, and then argue that Thor should not have a similar opportunity. Far more compelling evidence of the double standard at play here is the video made in 2017 titled “Eddie ‘The Beast’ Hall World Record Silver Dollar Deadlift.” The barbell, in this case, consisted of two large boxes that appear to be filled with copies of Eddie’s autobiography and then attached to a bar. Giant’s Live promoter Colin Bryce reported the total weight to be 536 kilos or 1181.7 pounds and explained that if Eddie made it, he would be breaking the “18-Inch Deadlift World Record.” In the video Bryce does the announcing, tells Eddie when to start the lift, gives a down signal, and then tells the audience “All right, there we go. A new world record. He absolutely locked it out.” There are no referees other than Bryce. The setting appears to be some sort of snack bar or café, perhaps in a shopping mall.
Claiming the high ground on legitimacy is, as you can see, somewhat complicated in Strongman. Because Strongman has never been bound by rules stipulating how records are set, it has continued to function more like the world of old-time strongmen inhabited by Sandow and Saxon than modern sports run by one association. For fans, this actually makes the sport far more interesting. Because there are no unified standards, the biggest lift made under what appear to be reputable conditions becomes recognized by the media and fans as the world record. I’ve thought for some time that Strongman’s closest analogue in terms of sport is powerlifting, which also has multiple associations, and wide variation in rules for the performance of lifts and for the kind of gear powerlifters can wear. There are no unified World Records in powerlifting anymore either. Strongman is more than just sport though. It is both sport and theater and we have and should continue, to honor and reward great performances in both contests and exhibitions.
Hafthor didn’t begin his training cycle with the idea that he would lift at home in Reykjavik so he would have some theoretically special advantage. He planned to enter a WUS-sponsored contest in Bahrain in mid-April and try the world record there and hopefully earn the $100,000 prize offered to the man who could beat Eddie’s record. Had the global pandemic not struck we would already know if he could do it. But when that meet was canceled, and he had already come as far as he had in his training, who can really fault Thor for deciding to continue his pursuit of the record when he was so close?
Elite athletes in all sports know that their bodies are not capable of peak-level performance year-round. Strongmen plan their training months in advance and workouts are cycled to bring them to their highest level of performance on a certain day. If something unforeseen happens and the athlete can’t compete at the time she or he had planned, it is devastating for the athlete. I know this from personal experience. I had weighed in and was ready to start lifting in the 1996 World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation (WDFPF) North American Powerlifting Championships—where I expected to pull an open world record deadlift—when police walked into the ballroom of the meet hotel in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and ordered us all the evacuate as the Susquehanna River was flooding. The WDFPF only allowed world records to count in international meets and you had to have three international referees in the chairs. As I flew back to Austin later that night, I couldn’t quit thinking about all the time and training and effort washed away by those floodwaters. You don’t get those opportunities back. So, I totally understand Thor’s desire to show what he can do now, while he is in this condition. I suspect any athlete denied a record-setting opportunity would feel the same way.
If Thor does lift 501 kilos (1104.5 pounds) or more as he’s suggested, will it be regarded as the new world record? Of course, it will. WUS will certainly promote it as such, just as the Giant’s Live promoters hyped Eddie Hall’s record in 2016, and Eddie himself described his Skierg and “18-inch deadlift” as world records. I agree it’s regrettable Thor can’t do this in a contest where he would also have a big crowd to cheer him on but isn’t it better during these perilous times to use the technologies available to us and learn whether Thor—who already holds the Rogue Record on the Elephant Bar at 1046 pounds (474.46 kg) which he made without a supportive suit and double-loop straps—is truly the greatest Strongman deadlifter in history?
While Magnus Ver Magnusson, a four-time winner of WSM, and the most reputable and knowledgeable referee I know in Strongman, will be the onsite referee in Thor’s PowerGym on Saturday when he tries the lift, the real judges of whether Thor’s performance will be considered a world record will be the thousands watching on the various streaming platforms. The general public will have the final say on whether this is the all-time heaviest deadlift record—and they will care little about the nuances of how Thor sets the record just as was true in the days of Sandow and Saxon. Most people aren’t going to feel cheated by the fact that this is being done in a gym when the world is in COVID-19 lockdown. If he makes it, most fans, like me, will be happy they were able to watch as Hathor Bjornsson lifted more weight in the deadlift than any man has ever done before.
As for Eddie, if Thor does succeed, he will still be a one-time winner of the World’s Strongest Man, the former record holder in the deadlift, and he’ll have his other accolades. That’s a lot to be proud of. But like Lady Macbeth, he should be careful of what he’s revealing with all his vitriol … for the lad doth protest too much, methinks.
Stay safe, everyone.
Hafthor Bjornsson’s record attempt is being promoted by the World Ultimate Strongman Federation, with additional sponsorship by Rogue Fitness. The ESPN live stream begins at 11:00 AM Central Standard Time. Here is the link to register. https://www.espn.com/watch/player/_/id/7ef8286a-6480-4b23-8565-966c0005ab44
Special thanks to Conor Heffernan and Christy Toms for reading earlier drafts of this essay.
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