Philippi remembers watching wide-eyed, in his first strongman competition, as Ahola puked his guts out for 10 minutes after a truck pull, then went out and won the next event. A carpenter by trade, Ahola was one of the first competitors to "event train," that is, to work out with the implements of competition rather than with weights in a gym. Tapping friends in various businesses around his hometown of Hämeenlinna and using his carpentry skills, Ahola accumulated an assortment of gigantic tires, heavy stones, sinister-looking yokes and other torture devices employed in his sport. Going into Malta, where he was the favorite, the Forceful Finn—some would say the Pharmacologically Fabricated Finn—needed three more WSM titles to match Ver Magnusson and Sigmarsson. Considering his youth and willpower, many think Ahola will succeed.
It is fascinating to watch Ahola and Samuelsson watch each other compete, and to watch others watch them. At a June event in Hawaii, Samuelsson and Ahola described their respective methods of picking up the monstrous 800-pound tire used in the tire flip. One by one, other competitors drifted over to hear what the two men were saying, and it struck an observer that the experience was, in the strongman world, analogous to hanging around the batting cage as McGwire and Barry Bonds discussed how they handle Tom Glavine's changeup.
Samuelsson and Ahola are for the most part friendly to each other, but they are sensitive to every slight, to every possibility that the other is getting a break in competition. "This promoter," says Samuelsson, tapping the program of the Hawaii competition, "he favors Jouko over me." Ahola was featured first in the program and had exactly one more line of credits than Samuelsson.
The roles they play in WSM—Samuelsson, the anointed one; Ahola, the man of the people—extend to the financial arena. Samuelsson has an agent, a Web site (www.giantswede.com), a slick promotional pamphlet ("To those who have not actually met Magnus Samuelsson in person, we can assure you that it is an awesome experience....") and a video (in which we learn that a typical Magnus lunch includes 22 meatballs—whether they're Swedish is not specified—and nine potatoes). Samuelsson says that with prize money, a few endorsements, and appearance fees at dozens of exhibitions, he earned about $100,000 in 1998 and expects to be in that neighborhood in '99. Ahola, on the other hand, has no representation and none of the trappings of No. 1 except for a preternatural confidence and a gunslinger's swagger. He says that last year his income was about $50,000.
Those two and Ver Magnusson, who says he will make six figures this year despite a drop in his competitive earnings, are probably the only men making a solid income just from being professional strongmen. Ahola points out with a wry smile that one of Samuelsson's endorsements is with Valtra, a trucking company. "That is motivation," says Ahola, "because it is a Finnish company, and they didn't ask me."
What is the future of strongman competition?
Among the athletes, there is widespread agreement with an opinion that only Kazmaier will express on the record. "IMG and TWI could do more for the sport," he says. "I think they do very little to make a lot."
Frank says the less-is-more approach is sound. "A big circuit would kill World's Strongest Man," he says. "The injury factor is too high. Athletes need time to recover and can't compete on a regular basis. It's also hard to come up with new, interesting events. Any strongman who thinks of doing this on a professional, sole-income basis is misguided."
Some strongmen believe that a standardization of events would help, if only so that clear records could be kept and dutifully noted on broadcasts. But that probably won't happen. At every strongman competition, at least some events are tailored to the local audience. So at the '98 WSM a passel of pretty Moroccan women were part of the weight lifted and hauled by competitors in the super-yoke race. Nobody knew whether these women were 100 pounds lighter or 100 pounds heavier than the Playboy bunnies or Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders who were used at past WSMs.
The unpredictability of a strongman competition is what gives it some of its delicious carnival charm. In Hawaii the handles on some of the weights carried up steps in the back-bending power stairs event fell off just before that climactic competition was to begin, with Ahola leading Samuelsson by only one point. There ensued a discussion of which event could be repeated in place of the power stairs, and predictably, no consensus could be reached, because each of the two leaders wanted to do something in which he excelled. So Ahola was declared the winner, leaving Samuels-son with fire in his eyes and Kristin with tears in hers.