Most people seem to be surprised when they discover that I love watching the Strong Men events every Christmas. It’s been an annual tradition of mine for as long as I can remember. When I mentioned that I was going to Europe’s Strongest Man this year, the general response has been to assume that it’s because I find strong men attractive, so wanted the excuse to drool over large, muscly men for a few hours.
Believe it or not, this doesn’t even factor into the list of reasons why I love Strong Men events. I’m not a fan of sports at the best of times, the only other sport I used to deliberately make time to watch was Kabaddi, back in the day when Channel 4 used to show it every weekend. (And they really should bring it back – it’s amazing!) But there’s something about Strong Men contests that really appeals to me. I love watching the men push themselves to the limit, seeing just how much the human body is capable of.
I also love the fact that it’s a very sportsmanlike event. The athletes seem to be more in competition with themselves than with their rivals, an attitude epitomised in the announcement that if more than one person managed to lift 500lbs, they had agreed that they would equally be the first man to do so, no matter who’d actually lifted first in the contest.
I don’t know why I’d never thought about going to any of the televised events before. Maybe it was because it was on television and seemed somehow not quite real. But after my husband urged me to think about going to World’s Strongest Man one day, I looked up Europe’s Strongest Man and was stunned to discover that not only was it affordable, it was in Leeds, a mere four hours away from home!
And so it was that last night, I squeezed into the First Direct Arena along with 10,000 other people, largest crowd ever to attend a Strong Man event. This was not to be the only record broken that evening (multiple new records were set), but since I would really hate to be told how it all went before I had the chance to watch it at Christmas, I’m not going to go into details about who won what and by how much, other than to say that it was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting Strong Men competitions I’ve seen in years – and I was there live!
I’d said beforehand that I’d either come away knowing that I’m definitely not a sports fan or I’d be transformed into a die hard Strong Man fan. There was so much to be impressed by over the course of the night. Although there was a bit of set up not just before each round, but during as well, the hosts kept things moving and the energy high so that time flew by. It was without a doubt one of the best nights of my life.
Eddie Hall (pictured above) returned to see if he could maintain his position as the Dead Lift record holder, facing stiff competition from the likes of Benedikt Magnusson and Jerry Pritchett. Over the course of two hours, I oohed and aahed with my fellow strong men fans. I always got really excited watching it on television, cheering the athletes on and groaning if they couldn’t manage a lift and being there live was just incredible. The whole crowd was behind all the competitors – we just wanted to see whether anyone could smash Hall’s record of 465 kg. Hall got a rapturous welcome, the home crowd being fully behind him, but just as the competitors supported each other, so the audience also supported everyone. If more than one person could beat Hall’s record, we were very happy to be there to see it happen.
When you watch the show on television, you know that a lot’s been edited out. The Dead Lift event took a couple of hours, longer than anticipated, but the time flew past and then it was time for the rest of the event, the Dead Lift counting as the first round of Europe’s Strongest Man, although some competitors chose to miss it and make up the points elsewhere in the competition. I’d been looking forward to seeing all my favourite big name competitors, so it was devastating to hear that Big Z (Zydrunas Savickas – pictured above) would not be competing due to injury. On the other hand, it’s possible that his absence is what threw the field wide open, making it such an exciting and unpredictable contest.
The next round was my only bad experience of the evening. There was a short break between the Dead Lift and the next event, so I nipped out to the bathroom and then decided to grab some food, having driven four hours to be there and not having anything to eat since lunchtime. Unfortunately for me, I ended up in the queue of someone who decided that she was on a go slow, doubly annoying because I’d switched from the line I’d originally picked because that queue was so much slower. I stood there, increasingly frustrated that people who’d been behind me in my first queue were served before me. The icing on the cake was when the couple behind me split up, one to stay in my queue, the other to go into my original queue – and were then served before me!
Next time, I’ll just starve.
So I can’t even tell you what the first event was, other than “some running” in the description of one of the security crew, who clearly wasn’t a Strong Man aficionado. Gutted doesn’t even begin to cover it.
(Above: Thor squares off against Terry Holland)
Next was the log lift and the differences between seeing it live and seeing it on television started to kick in. The scores weren’t shown as frequently, so it was hard to know how everyone was doing, so instead you just got to focus on what was going on in the moment. Unsurprisingly, Hafthor “Thor” Bjornsson was tossing the logs about as if they were matchsticks and it was hard to believe how much the logs weighed when the athletes seemed to have no problem lifting them. There was no countdown on the big screen and I couldn’t hear the starting whistle from my seat, so it really was just a sudden BAM! Logs being lifted!
(Above: Laurence Shahlaei prepares himself for the race)
Next was one of my favourite events, the car run. The vehicles this year were apparently 20kg heavier than in the past, but you wouldn’t have believed it. It didn’t seem to be any harder for the athletes than normal. They just made everything look so easy.
There’s a really heavy psychological element to Strong Men competition. Frequently, the contest is won just as much in the mind as it is in the field. Last year, the World’s Strongest Man title was Big Z’s to lose – and he threw it away when he decided to go for a record after already winning the log lift. Strategy played its part when some men decided to skip the dead lift or only do one round and as the night wore on and fatigue set in while injury made its mark, it was mental attitude that really made all the difference, no more so when we came to the Atlas Stones and it was still a relatively open event. Depending on how the stones went, any one of a few men were going to take home the title.
(Mark Felix is magnificent at an incredible 50 years old)
Time a photo well and it looks like the Atlas Stones is easy. It’s not. It’s not easy at all and it comes at the end of a long night. It’s my absolute favourite event and knowing that the title depended upon it made it even more exciting. It was so great to be cheering on the athletes and, unlike when you’re watching on TV, know that it was actually making a difference, the athletes riding hide on the wave of positivity being sent to support them.
After the final stone was lifted, it was tense. They had to do the maths to see who’d won and it came right down to the wire. They had to go to ‘count back’ due to a tie, so it came down to how many individual events the contenders had won to determine the final top three.
So who was it? Who got to take home the title of Europe’s Strongest Man? Did Thor get it a third time? Did a Brit enjoy the benefit of the home crowd to romp home to victory?
I told you: No spoilers! You’ll just have to watch at Christmas to find out. Meanwhile, I’m booking my ticket for next year.