In late 2016, Eddie Hall, a British strongman from Stoke-on-Trent forced his way into the mainstream press following a 500-kilogram deadlift, which he later admitted nearly killed him. The lift, totalling over 1,000 pounds, saw Hall pick a loaded barbell from the ground and pull it to roughly waist height. Setting a new world record and cementing a reputation as one of the strongest men in the world, Hall’s fame in the media and the world of professional strongman demonstrated how far the pursuit had come. Though still viewed as a subculture, strongman events and training gyms are now found across Great Britain, catering to men and women of all ages. While Hall is very much a product of the professionalisation of strongmen events, his rise parallels that of the sport itself. Originating in the United States as a vaudeville-esque inspired television programme in 1977, the World’s Strongest Man competition (WSM) is recognised by many as a repackaging of former strongman shows found in the circus or vaudeville stage in previous eras. Whereas today’s competitions feature standardised lifts and professional commentary, the early decade of the sport was characterised by a tension between providing entertainment and offering a serious sporting challenge. The purpose of today’s post is to highlight this tension within the British context with an examination of the inaugural Britain’s Strongest Man competition in 1979.

As previously mentioned, the first WSM was held in the United States in 1977. Featuring a series of former athletes, professional bodybuilders and known strongmen, the inaugural WSM was premised upon the lifting of barrels, the bending of steel rods and even a wheelbarrow race. Much to the dismay of strength enthusiasts in other parts of the world, nine of the ten competitors featured in the inaugural WSM were American, with the tenth, Franco Columbo, having lived in the United States for over a decade. Furthermore, the inclusion of Lou Ferrigno, a professional bodybuilder who later attained fame through the ‘Incredible Hulk’ television series, was met with derision in some parts. While the 1978 WSM boasted seven US lifters, the inclusion of three European lifters spoke towards a greater global dimension within the games. It is within this context that the 1979 Britain’s Strongest Man (BSM) must be placed.

Organised by TWI Studios and shown by the BBC, the Britain’s Strongest Man contest opened, somewhat ironically, with the traditional ‘Entry of the Gladiators’ circus music. Much like its American predecessor, BSM would seek to test the eight chosen athletes in a light-hearted manner. Importantly, the BSM represented one of the first attempts to introduce a regional strongman competition on similar lines to the WSM. The only other comparable event, Holland’s Strongest Man, took place that same year. It would take until 1980 for a European Strongest Man competition to emerge and several more years for all of these shows to become amalgamated into one coherent competition structure. Hosted by Barbara Windsor and Derek Hobson, the BSM featured eleven events for strongmen to compete in. While the show did pay some homage to traditional feats of strength such as the back lift shown below, the BSM too sought to appeal to the public through the inclusion of novelty events such as the tyre toss, tug of war and the tearing of phone book directories.

 

Interspersed with the actual events were short vignettes featuring men holding chairs aloft in their teeth or allowing men to break stones on their stomachs. The light-hearted nature of the clips served to normalise the BSM to a primarily bemused wider public. Commenting on the BSM prior to its airing, Ken Irwin of the Daily Mirror sardonically commentated that the entire event sounded ‘like a heavyweight bore.’ Whereas modern iterations of the WSM or BSM feature technical lifts with calculable weights, the early shows were characterised by circus style events in the hope that this format would make the games more marketable and enjoyable for the wider audience. As noted by Terry Todd in a recent documentary on Apollon, a French turn of the century strongman, strength athletes often needed to exhibit feats with recognisable objects such as tractors, horses or steel bars owing to the public’s familiarity with these objects. Though more people were turning to purposeful exercise in 1970s Britain, a point noted by Sassatelli, it is unlikely that the general public would have been as interested in watching men lift a variety of dumbbells and barbells ad nauseum. Variety and diversion were thus called upon. A clear instance of this came near the end of the competition when the eight competitors were tasked with striking a fairground hammer striker. Introducing the event, Windsor and Hobson discussed the familiarity of the feat, noting that many viewers would have seen one in the fairground at some point in their lives. Unlike Hall’s five-hundred-kilogram deadlift, the public had experience of the feat.

 

The eight competitors, detailed below, came from a variety of backgrounds and athletic pursuits. They were

  1. Geoff Capes – Field Athletics
  2. Andy Drzewiecki – Olympic Weightlifting
  3. Ray Nobile – Powerlifting
  4. Bill Anderson – Highland Games
  5. Grant Anderson – Highland Games
  6. ‘Big Pat Roach’ – Wrestling
  7. Tosher Killingback – Local Strongman
  8. Jim Whitehead – Field Athletics

In the end, Geoff Capes was crowned Britain’s Strongest Man with an eventual score of 98.16 points, as opposed to runner up Bill Anderson’s score 58.83. Of the eleven individual events and a final twelfth event, Capes came first eight times. Far from an empty victory, Capes’ BSM win encouraged the former Commonwealth athlete to compete in the European Strongest Man competition the following year where he proved impressive enough to earn an invitation to the 1980 WSM competition in New Jersey. Finishing third behind Bill Kazmier of the United States and Lars Hedlund of Sweden, Capes would compete in the WSM a further six times, winning two of them. Importantly for the development of the sport, the 1980s would see Capes, the American strongman Bill Kazmier and later the Icelandic strongman Jón Páll Sigmarsson rotate the title amidst a highly marketable rivalry. During the 1984 Games, Jón Páll declared ‘The King has lost his crown’, following Capes’ defeat in an arm wrestling competition. The rivalry would, according to Webster, propel the popularity of the sport as it sought to professionalise.

 

Interviewed about Hall’s lifting achievements in December 2017, Capes, by now regarded as an icon of the sport in British strongman circles, commented that

When we did it, it was people from all sorts of sports. I was an Olympian, there were Highland Games men, American Footballers, weightlifters, powerlifters. Highland Games was my main thing, I’d do that 30 weeks a year and then Strongest Man was just something else you did, so you’d turn up and you’d say, ‘you want me to lift what?’ You couldn’t train for the specific events like they do now, so it was more organic, more natural.

Capes and the 1979 BSM marked a pivotal moment in the birth of strongman competitions in Great Britain. That the sport has professionalised, become more technical and, some would argue, more complicated, reflects not only the growth in participation numbers but also a growing familiarity amongst the public regarding the testing of strength. While Ken Irwin may have viewed the initial games as a ‘heavyweight bore’, the British public did not.

References

Alan Tyers, ‘Why the Battle to be the World’s Strongest Man Still Punches its Weight’, The Daily Telegraph, 27 December, 2017. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/2017/12/27/battle-worlds-strongest-man-still-punches-weight/.

Britain’s Strongest Man, 1979. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VAI7lkWOKs

David Webster, Sons of Sampson: Vol. 2 (Self-Published, 1998).

Jack de Menezes, ‘Eddie Hall Nearly Died after Passing out Following new Deadlift World Record of 500kg’, The Independent, 12 July, 2016. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/general/eddie-hall-nearly-died-after-passing-out-following-new-deadlift-world-record-of-500kg-a7132306.html.

Ken Irwin, ‘The Week Ahead’, The Daily Mirror, 11 August, 1979, 18.

Roberta Sassatelli, Fitness Culture: Gyms and the Commercialisation of Discipline and Fun (Palgrave MacMillan: 2010).

The Rogue Legends Series – Chapter 2: Louis “Apollon” Uni. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdZZm1f4RvY