Land Of Giants: Inside The World’s Strongest Man CompetitionDownload the full PDF
They are men. They are strong. And they prove this by lifting things no man on earth should be able to lift. Matt Blake ventures into the heart of the World’s Strongest Man competition…
Never, ever stand downwind of a strongman when he’s about to lift something heavy. It was Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, also known as Thor, who taught us this valuable lesson at the 38th World’s Strongest Man competition last April, as he limbered up ahead of his turn to take on the Atlas Stones: a race to lift five balls weighing up to 350lb on to plinths in the fastest time.
The spectators fell silent as Thor stared icily into the middle distance. We stood just a few feet behind his 6’9” frame, our face almost level with his vast backside. A few clouds drifted sleepily across the sky. A spectator sneezed. And just then, Thor let rip an almighty fart that would’ve made the god of thunder himself wince. It might have been the shock, its bitter taste or the force of his wind, but we were nearly blown to the ground in a fug of protein shake and guts. By the time we’d wiped away the tears, Thor was standing by the final plinth bellowing at the heavens: “I AM KING!”
Welcome to the World’s Strongest Man 2015 – a land of giants where the clouds seem lower, the trees look smaller and the wind blows stronger (depending where you stand) than anywhere else on Earth. And we’re here in Putrajaya, on the outskirts of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, to watch an international horde of Goliaths battle it out for the sport’s ultimate prize.
Thor is something of a celebrity now. Fresh from playing skull-crusher Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane on Game of Thrones, he attracts double takes from guests as he lurches through the Shangi-La hotel where we’re staying with the athletes. Weighing 28st with a chest that measures 60in, he looks like he could crush your hand by looking at it. His face seems carved out of rock, his arms look like strings of giant walnuts fused together by tattoos of viking kings and his shorst are closer in scale to a set of drawing room curtains. To say he is big is to say a gorilla is a bit hairy. He is gargantuan.
And, this year, he is on a high. Just a few months earlier, he beat a 1,000-year-old record, set by the famous Viking Orm Storolfsson, carrying a 102.3-stone log for five steps. “It actually took 20 mortal men to lift the log to his shoulders,” Thor later tells us of Storolfsson’s attempt. “He took two steps and his back broke. Mine felt sore, that’s it. I came here to win. I was born to lift heavy things.”
That’s pretty much what World’s Strongest Man (WSM) is: lumbering he-giants taking turns to lift implausibly heavy things until their faces turn the colour of raspberry jam and putting them down again. It may not sound very exciting, but actually, it is. Its beauty is in its simplicity. These are men. They are strong. And they prove this by flipping 600lb tractor tyres, pulling 28-ton lorries and throwing kettlebells as heavy as a man 18 feet into the air. They psych each other up (“C’mon man, you can do this”), talk to their obstacles (“I own you, you are mine”) and yell at the sky when they’ve completed a lift (“AAARRGGHH!”). The sheer sight of these so-called human beings lifting objects that no man on Earth should be able to lift is puzzlingly thrilling.
“It’s one of the purest displays of physical male prowess on Earth,” says three-time WSM champion and walking sound-bite Bill “Kaz” Kazmaier, who now commentates on the show for ESPN. “If you win, you’re the king of the jungle. You step up, you seize the trophy, you conquer. It takes focus, tunnel vision, single-mindedness, the ability to block out all outside stimuli and have the vision to realise there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, that you can shoot for the stars and soar with the eagles.”