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I thought the caption accompanying the photograph in the Los Angeles Times had to be a misprint. In the picture sat a hunched man wearing pajamas, his face and body emaciated and showing the pain of years of brain, bone and lung cancer. His glazed eyes stared into nothingness. The caption revealed that he was 63-year-old John Davis, who had been called the "strongest man in the world" when he won the Olympic heavyweight weightlifting gold medal at the 1948 and 1952 Games.
Davis now weighed 130 pounds, almost a hundred less than in his glory days, when he was perhaps the greatest weightlifting champion the U.S. ever produced—undefeated in 15 years of national, international and Olympic competition. As I stared at that picture, it was difficult to believe that this was the same magnificent athlete who had been responsible for my becoming a filmmaker more than three decades earlier.
When I read the story on Jan. 27, 1984,I was in Los Angeles preparing for the production of 16 Days of Glory, our $4 million, five-hour film on the 1984 Olympics, which would start in six months. In 1953, I had produced my first film, a 15-minute short subject based on John Davis's career. It was called The Strongest Man in the World, and it cost $5,000.
I met John in the spring of 1948 when, as the 21-year-old sports director of radio station WHN in New York City, I had invited several U.S. Olympians to be interviewed before they left for London to compete in the first Olympic Games since the outbreak of World War II. I was surprised when John told me that he stood only five foot nine inches tall but weighed 230 pounds. So finely honed was his body that he seemed much taller and appeared to weigh no more than 190.
After the interview, John stayed with me through the afternoon, listening to Red Barber's account of a Brooklyn Dodger game broadcast by our station. At one point Red talked about a ballplayer who had recently died and who after his death had received accolades that were far greater than the acclaim accorded him during his lifetime. "If you're going to give someone flowers, make sure he's around to smell them," Barber said in his familiar homespun style. For the first time I heard John laugh.
"You know, I won my first world championship in 1938, 10 years ago, when I was 17," John said. "Since then, I've won two more world championships and seven national titles, and I've been undefeated in 10 years. But outside of weightlifting, I don't think 15 people ever heard of me."
John was in the Army during World War II and served in the South Pacific. He won national championships in 1941, 1942 and 1943, but international competitions were suspended. "The war really was costly to every athlete," John said. "There were no world championships from 1939 to 1945, and the Olympics were called off in 1940 and 1944." His implication did not escape me. He believed that if there had been no war, he would be leaving for the London Games with two Olympic gold medals and nine world championships under his belt.
John took first place easily in London, and the international press greeted his victory with headlines and feature stories. The French called him L'Hercule Noir and offered him citizenship, as well as a home and a business. England, Germany, Sweden, Spain and Egypt gave him the kind of reception usually reserved for their own champions. However, his gold medal was not a major accomplishment to American sports fans. Promoters occasionally called on him, but only to have him perform such stunts as lifting small trucks and automobiles. These overtures went unanswered. Davis believed in the purity of his sport and turned down all offers to exploit his great strength.
He had other pet peeves about his sport. He disdained the 300-pound heavyweights with big bellies, and took particular pleasure in photographs of himself on the top step of victory platforms flanked by paunchy runners-up. Many times John's competitors outweighed him by more than 100 pounds. He was equally disdainful of "Muscle Beach" bodybuilders, who paraded bodies that seemed chiseled in granite. "They can't lift their own weight," John said.
It was something of a surprise when, a year after his Olympic victory in '48, John accepted an offer by the French Athletic Association to try to lift the famed Apollon Railway Wheels. John's rationalization was that he was a national hero in France and had great respect for Louis Uni and Charles Rigoulot, the two French strongmen who were the only ones to have lifted the massive wheels over their heads. The Apollon Railway Wheels were actual train wheels connected by a thick axle. Together they weighed 365 pounds, but the weight was not John's biggest problem. The massive axle was. Both Uni and Rigoulot had large hands and wrists and could grab the bar from the top and then raise it overhead. John's wrists and hands were small for a heavyweight. They were large enough to grasp a normal barbell, but getting a firm hold on the Apollon axle would be far more difficult.