WSM was born in an era when anabolic steroids were an accepted part of training. You worked yourself to death in the gym: four, five, six hours a day of intense training. You injected juice or took it in capsules to add strength and to enable you to train through injuries and fatigue. You sucked down enormous quantities of carbs and calories. You got as big and as strong as you could, anyway you could. That was the culture, and to an extent, it's still the culture. But public opinion has turned against steroid use. "The average American might be smoking weed and doing coke and drunk on his ass," says Wilhelm, "but he wants his athletes clean."
Reeves, now an IFSA official, and Hoeberl talk about instituting steroid tests in the next couple of years, but no one is convinced that will happen. There is still a feeling that seemingly superhuman feats such as pulling 22 tons of truck can't be performed without chemical assistance.
"I'll probably get in trouble for saying this," says Kazmaier, "but when there's something you can use to get to the top of your sport and you don't use it, well, there's something wrong." And that something is steroids? "Yes. When I speak to kids I tell them, 'I hope you don't use steroids, but I'd be lying if I told you I didn't.' "
Among world-class strongmen, few admit to using steroids, but they are too honest to say they don't. Most confirm it off the record, with a smile. Samuelsson says he doesn't use them, though some of his rivals don't believe him. Philippi says he doesn't, and everyone believes him. "Mark is the purist," says Kazmaier.
Knowing that steroids are so accepted among strongmen, Philippi, feeling he will come across like a complaining moralist, is even reluctant to talk about not taking them. "How could I load up, then ask my guys [at UNLV] not to?" is about all he will say. At the same time, some believe that Philippi, lacking the extra edge that users get, will never win WSM. Bull Stewart, a world-class powerlifter who recently began entering strongman events, says that the competition will be inherently unfair until there is drug testing and until competitors are divided into weight classes. But WSM has never been about fairness or about giving everyone a chance. It's about being bigger and stronger than everybody else.
"A guy who weighs 110 kilos [about 242 pounds] should not win World's Strongest Man even if he's a great athlete," says Hoeberl, who admitted to and later denied having used anabolic steroids during his competitive days. "This sport is for big guys."
Are they truly the world's strongest men?
Strength, like speed, is an elusive term. "How do you determine the world's fastest man?" asks Reeves. "Is it the 100-meter champion? Or is it Michael Johnson? Or is it the versatile middle-distance runner? Hard to say, just as it is with strength. But we think we have the best test, the decathlon of strength."
A rotating series of events, 40 to 50 with many variations, have made up WSM contests over the years. (There are between seven and 10 events in each competition.) More and more, aerobic capacity—as opposed to mere strength—is being tested. The farmer's walk, for example, is a staple of WSM. Competitors lift a torpedo-shaped weight, usually between 250 and 300 pounds, in each hand and carry the weights by their handles along a course of 75 to 100 meters. It takes strength to pick up the weights, an ironclad grip to hold on to them and significant aerobic capacity to walk the distance with them. "No one in history could equal, in a battery of tests, what today's strongmen do," says Webster.
But does that make them the strongest men in the world? Wilhelm says the test of ultimate strength should be elemental and simple. "Pick up a barbell, two hands, and clean it to the chest," he says. "He who lifts the most is strongest. End of story."