You see them at all hours of the day and night, lifting cars, pulling buses, lugging around absurdly large rocks. They are big men with big arms, big chests, big shoulders, big legs and sometimes big bellies; sweaty, scary men trussed in bandages and harnesses and belts; gargantuan mummies come eye-poppingly to life. They compete in something called World's Strongest Man (hereafter WSM), and their esoteric exercitations are replayed with numbing frequency on ESPN and ESPN2. But it's difficult—particularly at 4:30 in the morning—to wrap your mind around this whole strongman thing. You have questions.
Who dreams up these events? Why do the men compete in them? What's a Husafell Stone? Is this strongman thing for real, or is it some sort of ringless pro wrestling? Are these titans of testosterone paid well, or are they ordinary working stiffs who might one day show up at your door with your new sofa from Sears? Are they related to Lou Ferrigno and those other incredible hulks who lugged around refrigerators on CBS Sports Spectacular 20 years ago under the hawkeyed gaze of Brent Musburger? Are WSM fans stuck in a time warp, or are the same competitions indeed being broadcast over and over? How would Mark McGwire do in WSM? Most intriguingly, is every strongman named Magnus?
You'll get your answers, but first, for all you bleary-eyed WSM aficionados, a new show will soon be available for your repetitive viewing pleasure. The 1999 WSM, the sport's de facto world championship, was contested last month on the Mediterranean island of Malta. From that competition Trans World International (TWI), a division of all-powerful IMG, will slice and dice 11 shows that will appear next year on ESPN and ESPN2, mostly the latter. Departing from magazine policy, we will not divulge the results from Malta, lest we spoil the intrigue, but we can tell you that a Magnus was in contention. After a few months and a few dozen reruns, the '99 WSM will no doubt begin to resemble the endlessly replayed '98 WSM from Tangier, Morocco (whose winner was a Magnus, by the way). ESPN2 will also continue to broadcast a batch of the old CBS strongman shows, including the '78 competition, which featured Musburger doing his best Mike Wallace impersonation. "Tell me," he asked shot-putter Brian Oldfield, one of the competitors, "do you believe in sex before the refrigerator race?"
WSM broadcasts on the Deuce do quite well, averaging about 0.5, better than the channel's overall 0.4 rating for college basketball and not far from the 0.6 it got for non-U.S. games in the soccer Women's World Cup this summer. ESPN would gladly consider increasing WSM coverage, particularly if there were more new competitions, but TWI, which owns the rights to WSM, has no plans to expand the schedule.
"There's not one viewer in a million who can name two of the world's strongest men," says Barry Frank, an IMG senior vice president and the inventor of WSM. That ignores the fact that if a viewer knows the name Magnus, he automatically knows at least two of the world's strongest men, but, well, Frank should know whereof he speaks. He is (he Fred Silverman of sports TV, having also dreamed up Superstars, Battle of the Network Stars and American Gladiators, a résumé that should send him straight to a hell in which My Mother the Car is rerun 24 hours a day. Still, Frank's programs, once termed trashsports by this publication, have raked in a lot of loot for CBS and ABC (Frank was a high-ranking executive at both) as well as IMG.
Frank's frank talk makes the strongmen feel like picking up, say, a caboose and dropping it on his head, but there is nothing they can do about it. Executives of the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA), the main organizing body of the sport, are subject to Frank's whims.
To escape what he calls the "tyranny" of TWI and IMG, Manfred Hoeberl, a former strongman competitor, has organized a splinter group of behemoths who compete primarily on a European circuit under the banner of Fullstrength Challenge. Hoeberl, an Austrian who finished second (to a Magnus, by the way) in the 1994 WSM and who is probably the only sports exec whose biceps once measured more than 25 inches, has already lured away one top name (a Magnus, by the way) from WSM. But Frank professes not to devote even a moment of thought to Hoeberl's group, and he says he believes ESPN viewers will blissfully tune in to WSM no matter which Samsons are spilling the sweat. "There are plenty of strongmen out there," Frank says.
Actually, there aren't. Between 40 and 50 strongmen compete regularly on the two circuits, each of which includes maybe a dozen international events per year. Even the grittiest of these guys enters no more than seven contests, because of injuries and other wear and tear on the body, and only about 10 of them can be considered world-class grunters and groaners. Do you know many muscleheads who can tie a harness around their waists and pull three 7½-ton Ryder trucks along a 30-meter course? Do you know many who can lug 440-pound weights up a steep set of stairs? The most misleading aspect of WSM broadcasts is that they show mostly the successful lifts, carries, pulls and heaves of the world's best strongmen, giving the impression that the events are completed with relative ease.
Though strongman competitions have a sideshow-pro wrestling ambience—bikini-clad women are invariably involved—there is 110 faking and no predetermined winner. The athletes, many of whom are heroes in home countries far from these shores, are deadly serious about their sport. Competing takes a frightful toll on their bodies, and part of the appeal for the viewing audience is the possibility of witnessing a gruesome injury. Biceps tear like tissue paper, disks disintegrate, knees collapse.
Gary Mitchell, who has entered strongman competitions for eight years but has never made it near the top of the sport, has had 10 knee operations (including two reconstructions), biceps tears in both arms, two herniated disks removed, a shoulder operation, and hamstring and quadriceps tears too numerous to mention. Mark Philippi, the director of strength and conditioning at UNLV, ruptured his left patella tendon at the '98 WSM and still has the cable and pin that doctors removed from his knee a few months ago. That injury—along with a torn left biceps—occurred as he lost his balance trying to push over a 1,720-pound car on the beach. Car accident, you see, does not have the same connotation for these guys that it has for you and me.