Kazmaier sort of agrees (though it kills him to say so because he and Wilhelm, who would finish in a dead heat in an ego contest, think little of each other). "We need to do more events with the feet firmly planted," says Kaz. "That's the best test of actual strength."
At any rate, WSM is a made-for-TV competition, and viewers, Frank decided long ago, want more than big men lifting big barbells. "When you're watching Olympic lifting, the bar always looks the same even though you're adding weight," says Mitchell. "But people can relate to a guy lifting an immense wheelbarrow or a car or a bus." So the first WSM featured, among other events, a tug-of-war; a wheelbarrow race up a 40-yard slope, with 750 pounds in the wheelbarrow; the infamous 40-yard refrigerator race, which, to critics, highlighted the ridiculousness of the whole competition; and—get ready to wince—the girl lift, which is exactly what it sounds like.
So the die was cast early for these strongmen. They set up camp on the fringe of sports, walked that tightrope between sideshow and bona fide competition.
Who are the best strongmen now?
Two men stand alone in today's strongman picture: Samuelsson and Finland's Jouko Ahola (YU-ko ah-HO-la), both 29. Samuelsson and Ahola, winners of the '98 and '97 WSMs, respectively, are at the height of their competitive careers and dominate WSM in much the same way that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dominated the NBA in the '80s, allowing for the obvious distinction that the sports world actually knew who the basketball players were. Just as there were with Bird and Magic, there are "Magnus guys" and "Jouko guys." The people on the inside of the sport—the officials and competitors—are respectful to both but generally root for one or the other.
Samuelsson, the big, easygoing Swede, is considered the favorite of IFSA and TWI, which love to promote the handsome, blue-eyed Nordic type as the strongman ideal. He looks massive by nature, not laboratory manipulation. His delightful wife, Kristin, is similarly striking: blonde, blue-eyed and—get this—an erstwhile blacksmith who has twice won Sweden's Strongest Woman title. She shed a few pounds recently and now competes in equestrian events, her interests calling to mind the answers in those questionnaires filled out by Playboy playmates. (Turn-ons: cantering at dawn, free weights, red-hot anvils. Turnoffs: flaccid guys who don't give 100%.)
Whenever Samuelsson competes, there is Kristin, shouting "Snabbare!" (Faster!) as he loads 300-pound lava rocks onto waist-high barrels, or "Ser bra ut!" (Looking good!) as he does the Hercules hold, his arms outstretched and his hands clamped on to handles in an attempt to keep two Mercedes-Benzes from rolling down ramps for as long as possible.
Some competitors believe that the events in last year's WSM were tailored to give Samuelsson an advantage over the 6'1", 275-pound Ahola. Samuelsson's size is an advantage in any kind of pulling event—in which significant bulk is needed just to get the object moving—so a car pull, these critics say, was included in '98. "I do not listen to all that," says Samuelsson. "I am not trying to brag, but I can dominate all events."
Ahola, who looks more like a wrecking ball of a fullback than an oversized lineman, isn't Hoeberl's type of strongman. He's just not big enough. But the Finn, a top junior ice hockey goalie until he began powerlifting at 15, is the favorite of most competitors themselves: a blue-collar, tough-minded, you've-got-to-kill-him-to-beat-him type of guy. How much (if any) of his body was chemically constructed is hard to say, but its musculature is a wonder.
"You could lose four fingers in Jouko's spinal erectors," says Kazmaier, referring to the bands of muscle that rise from the top of the buttocks into the lower back. "I think Magnus is an excellent guy and a credit to the sport. But I have no doubt that Jouko is stronger."