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Philip Singerman
June 07, 1976
The Strongest Man in the Free World, 237-pound Mark Cameron has 28-inch thighs, a dragon tattooed on one hip and a good shot at muscling a medal out of Montreal
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June 07, 1976

Rising To A Weighty Occasion

The Strongest Man in the Free World, 237-pound Mark Cameron has 28-inch thighs, a dragon tattooed on one hip and a good shot at muscling a medal out of Montreal

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If I'd been born a hundred years ago I'da been a gunfighter. Not that I want to shoot anybody, you understand. Come to think of it, I don't even like guns. But imagine the excitement—and the competition!" Mark Cameron heaves his 5'10", 237-pound body onto a green vinyl couch and everything in his tiny living room trembles. An Olympic flag hanging on the wall flutters slightly. The TV set goes from color to black and white, and out in the thimble-sized kitchen a three-foot stack of dirty dishes clatters in the sink. Cameron's terry-cloth Pan-American Games bathrobe, bursting at the seams, falls open, revealing a thigh the size of a beer keg—28 inches around, to be exact. And on his hip, in vivid shades of red, blue and green, a tattooed dragon hoists a barbell over its head. "Guy in Newport, Rhode Island did that," he says. "I had to stand perfectly still for over an hour while he put it on. Haven't met a woman yet that didn't go crazy when she saw it. They don't expect it, you see, 'cause the rest of me's so respectable."

Cameron grins, displaying a lot of teeth below a thick mustache, and the corners of his eyes are hidden by deep creases. Like the rest of him, his face is broad and chunky, without sharp angles, and his expression shifts easily from seriousness and unbending determination to self-mocking irony. At 23 he is the best Olympic weight lifter in the U.S., probably the only one with a shot at a medal in Montreal. Although he lifts in the 242-pound, or heavyweight, class and is a good 100 pounds lighter than some world-class superheavyweights, he has totaled more weight in the snatch and clean-and-jerk (the two lifts in Olympic competition) than any other human being this side of the Iron Curtain.

Below the two meager rooms of his York, Pa. apartment, down in the cellar where Cameron sleeps, a headless mannequin faces his water bed. On the mannequin is a black, long-sleeved jersey given to Cameron by his mother, on which bold white letters proclaim: STRONGEST MAN IN THE FREE WORLD. It is a title that he accepts with amusement, because beyond the Iron Curtain Valentin Christov, the phenomenal 20-year-old Bulgarian heavyweight, has totaled 920� pounds for the world record in the two lifts, more than 60 pounds better than Cameron's best effort of 854.

"My mother has a sense of humor like me," he says. "She's Polish. That's where I got my build, although as a kid I was a skinny runt. Which reminds me, I haven't had my prebreakfast vitamins yet. I'm light for a heavyweight. I eat and eat, and gobble vitamins, but I just can't gain any more weight. Probably should drink more beer."

Cameron bounds with startling agility from the couch to a card table laden with bottles and jars and consumes, with a high-protein energy drink, somewhere near a shovelful of every vitamin known to man, every mineral on the periodic table, some enzymatic digestives, acidophilus culture, brewer's yeast and assorted oils and potions designed to make his capillaries vibrate. His next breath could blow every fuse in the neighborhood. "Listen," he says between swallows, "if somebody told weight lifters they could lift an extra five pounds by munching Brillo pads, there wouldn't be a clean pot within three miles of any gym in this country."

Cameron slips on the only bell-bottoms he owns that still fit his legs, shrugs into a denim jacket with the Polish falcon embroidered on the back and is ready for an assault on a local restaurant specializing in king-size breakfasts. "You know, weight lifters have a reputation for being dummies or wild beasts," he says on the way to his car. "Really it's a stigma that's totally unjustified. You take the time I wrestled a bear back when I was at the University of Rhode Island. Four or five fellas went before me, and these were big guys, man, bigger than me; but they tried to overpower the bear and they got beat like that...boom! I mean he wasn't the biggest bear in the world but he still must have weighed over 450 pounds and he flipped those guys like they were bottle caps. I noticed that the bear responded to whatever maneuver each guy pulled, so when it came my turn I walked up to the bear and started tickling its stomach and talking real soft to him and tickled a little more and just as soon as his head began to nod I stepped on his foot and tripped him and—wham!—I had him beat. Everybody thought I outmuscled him, but I didn't; I outsmarted him. Or take the time I bit the head off this duck in a bar...."

Bear wrestling and duck decapitation aside, Cameron is not only the most promising and self-assured lifter this country has produced in years, but also probably the most dedicated student of the sport. He digests translated accounts of the latest Russian, Bulgarian and Polish training techniques with the same gusto he applies to vitamins. He plans to do graduate work in either corrective therapy or exercise physiology (he was a phys ed major at Rhode Island); and although he has a short fuse for "some of the incompetent idiots" who have positions of power in U.S. weight-lifting circles, he will go out of his way to listen attentively to anyone who can teach him something about lifting. "It's not that I won't listen to reason," Cameron says, "but I'm a goal-oriented person, and right now my goal is to do well in the Olympics. I have a tendency to get very impatient with anyone who gets in the way of that goal."

About a dozen members of the U.S. Pan-American baseball team found that out in Mexico when, during some early morning carousing in their hotel, they were confronted by a nude giant with a tattoo on his hip and blood in his eye. He looked like a cross between Dick Butkus and Genghis Khan (Cameron shaved his head for the Games: "Every man ought to get a tattoo and shave his head at least once"). "All right, you bunch of baseball bats," he told them. "Weight lifters need their sleep. We can't catch up on it in the outfield like you guys, so either quiet down or prepare for a visit to the dark side of the moon." The ballplayers chose silence. "I think they were more shocked than scared," Cameron recalls. "I guess I get pretty aggressive in situations like that."

He wasn't always that way. His father spent 26 years in the Navy, moving Mark and his mother from one East Coast seaport to another, where they lived in trailers to avoid the complications of buying and selling houses. Cameron was a shy, withdrawn child, forever at the mercy of local bullies and continually subjected to ridicule for living in a trailer park. Finally, as a junior high school student in South Carolina, he was beaten up one time too many. He bought a set of weights and began lifting in the laundry room of the trailer park, hoping, like thousands of kids who read the ads on the back pages of comic books, to triumph over the pug-faced bozos who had kicked sand in his face. At first Cameron stuck to the standard body-building course that came with the weights, but he got bored and switched to Olympic-style lifting. He learned the fundamentals of the snatch, clean-and-jerk and press as best he could from pictures in weight-lifting magazines. (The press was removed as a competitive lift after the 1972 Olympics, the consensus of weight-lifting experts being that it was too difficult to judge.)

Meanwhile, the Camerons moved to Newport, R.I., where Mark entered high school. "I was so introverted," he recalls, "they put me in what was called a 'guidance class' with all the social misfits and weirdos. I never dated, had no friends. What can I tell you? I was a casebook study in isolation." At 16, a reticent but no longer scrawny Cameron entered his first weight-lifting meet in Boston as a 181-pounder, or light heavyweight. He had never seen a weight-lifting event, so he watched the lighter-weight classes compete to find out what he was supposed to do. On his first lift, the press, he had little difficulty raising the weight above his head, but he forgot to breathe. When he set the bar back on the lifting platform he passed out, bloodying his nose and cutting his lip. The meet officials were certain they had seen the last of Cameron. But what Cameron lacked in finesse he more than made up for in determination. A year later, in early 1970, he entered the same meet, his second weight-lifting contest, and took third place. A month later, in March of 1970, Cameron, totally self-trained, won the Junior New England Championship in the 181-pound class. At that meet he was introduced to Joe Mills.

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