When I went to Europe’s Strongest Man earlier this year, I was stunned to learn that the World’s Strongest Man competition is 40 years old, making me ever so slightly older than the contest, so I genuinely have grown up with it. It’s an annual Christmas tradition in my household. I sit down in front of the TV and scream at it, urging on the strongmen to greater and greater achievements. Last year, I went to my first event, Europe’s Strongest Man, and I will never forget watching Eddie Hall lift half a ton. The TV show gives a good sense of what goes on, but there really isn’t anything like the buzz of seeing it live.
Just before Christmas last year I treated myself to a VVIP ticket for the World’s Strongest Man Tour 2017 in Manchester. Having been VIP at Europe’s Strongest Man earlier this year, I had some idea of what I was in for, but I had no idea what a fantastic night I was going to have.
The ticket included a pre-show ‘motivational speech’ from Bill Kazmeier and Magnus Per Magnusson, which I was looking forward to. What I didn’t realise was that this speech was actually going to be an interview with almost all of the competitors and strong men casually strolled into the bar as Bill and Magnus were speaking, which was most surreal. I’d look round and there would be Laurence Shahlaei, Robert Oberst, Eddie Hall! There! Within hugging distance!
Having failed to meet Eddie Hall earlier in the year, when he came into the bar, I took the opportunity to shake his hand and congratulate him on all his success, just in case I didn’t get the opportunity in the meet and greet. I’ve followed his career for years, so I was really glad to actually speak to him in person and let him know how proud I am that he’s done so well.
It was absolutely fascinating getting a backstage insight into the sport. It was clear that the men were all very passionate about what they did. Nick Best became very emotional, talking about how being here was on his bucket list. Then there was Iron Biby, a newcomer to international competition but with massive amounts of potential, not to mention massive biceps and thighs! One of the things that’s always struck me about strong men events is how strategic the sport is. Sure, you need to have enormous amounts of strength to lift heavy weights, but there’s also a huge mental component in how well you do. Almost without exception, every single strongman I’ve met has lived up to their onscreen persona. They are all driven, but humble. Competitive, but sportsmanlike. In short, they’re all gentlemen in every sense of the word, which is a beautiful contrast to other more lucrative sports, where the athletes aren’t always the nicest of people, no matter how great they are on the field.
Colin Bryce also came in for a chat. Instrumental in bringing the sport to our screens every year, he said a couple of things that made me think. One was that he asked how we felt about spoilers. I said it at the time and I’m going to repeat it here:
I was absolutely gutted when Yahoo! told me who won this year’s World’s Strongest Man. I wanted to watch the competition unfold on television. Sure, we all know that it’s not filmed live, but there’s still something wonderful about following the scores, the drama of not knowing who will deadlift the most or run the fastest with a motorbike strapped to their back. I’m under strict instruction from my friends not to tell them who won and I respect that because we all love the sport and want to see it for ourselves, not hear about it secondhand. It loses something when you know who’s won. What’s the point in watching how they got there when you know the outcome already?
The other was that Colin described those of us in the room as being the ‘true fans’ because we’d spent silly amounts of money on our tickets. Now on the one hand, I can appreciate him wanting to make us feel valued because we were supporting the sport with cold, hard cash and VVIP tickets aren’t cheap. On the other, when I was at the Deadlift World Record, I was no less of a fan just because I was in the standard seats. Going to these events (and strong men competitions are the only sporting events I’ve ever been to in this country) involve a lot of resources for me. I have to find a hotel, which is costly in Manchester. I have to take a weekend off work. I have to make sure the children are going to be okay and can still go to all their classes. When you add it all up, I’m investing a heck of a lot in the sport just to be there in person, whatever level of ticket I buy. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to afford another VVIP ticket any time soon, but I’ll love the sport regardless and I’ll still be a true fan.
Indeed, when I was at Europe’s, Big Z couldn’t compete due to injury but came out for the meet and greet. There was practically no queue for him, even though as VIPs, you’d expect us all to know who he is and why we should want to seize any chance to meet him. It seemed that everyone wanted to meet Eddie Hall and Thor, so their queues were enormous. Meanwhile, the greatest strong man ever, was sitting by himself. It worked out brilliantly for me – I got to chat to him more because there weren’t people waiting, but it did show just how little so many people there really appreciated the sport they were supporting, ignoring someone like Z in favour of a movie star.
All in all, the speeches went on for an hour and a half, including photo ops, before we went out for the start of the event. I’d stressed about where I was sitting ever since I bought the ticket. I’d let the system choose the best seat for me, so was sitting at the side, instead of in the middle of the front and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see as well, which was particularly annoying, since I was only the second or third person to buy a VVIP ticket and could have chosen to sit anywhere.
Well. As it happens, I had the best seat in the house! I was in the front row right behind the starting line for the racing events, so I had a great view of the athletes warming up. I even got to chat to Nick Best and offer him support before he started one of the races – and he talked back to me!
The competition started with the old stalwart, the Log Press. With Big Z competing, it was clear that there were going to be some incredible efforts and sure enough, the first event didn’t fail to impress. It was followed by the Deadlift. Much was made of the fact that the weight they would be lifting was equal to a former world record, showing how much the sport’s moved on, since this event would be based on number of reps rather than ability to lift weight. However, for all the hype of how talented our modern athletes are, as it turned out, few were even able to lift the bar, let alone perform more than one repetition. This would turn out to be a deciding factor in the competition as a whole, with those earning points in a strong position for the rest of the contest, while many failed to score at all and would have to work hard to claw back the points difference.
Next were two races – the Frame Carry and the Super Yoke, each designed to test different types of strength. As is so often the way in strong man events, we did lose a few competitors along the way to injury, which made for an even more exciting competition, and by the time the traditional Atlas Stones came around, the scores were so close that any one of six athletes could have won. In fact, when it came time to determine the winner, the referees spent a long time deliberating to make sure their maths were correct, with a mere half point separated each of the top three places.
Who was on the podium? All I’m going to say is that I was very happy with the result – but you’ll have to wait for the Christmas show to find out why.
After the competition, they started getting the tables out for the meet and greet, asking us to sit down while they got ready. I must say that the Manchester Arena was a lot more organised than Leeds, so it was easier to get to see everyone. It also helped that I happened to be sitting next to Eddie Hall’s table, so I was able to get right up front in the queue for a photo with him the second they opened. There were staff there who were happy to take photos for you, so I got good shots of me everyone and due to the cunning strategy of always joining the shortest queue, this time around, I met all the competitors.
They say never meet your heroes, but with strong men, I can honestly say that they are the loveliest, most down-to-earth people out there, with one or two exceptions. Having now met everyone I respect (with the exception of Thor and Brian Shaw), my support for them is only greater, because I feel even more invested in their success having met them in person.
Iron Biby is one of my new favourites now and he’s definitely one to watch. I firmly believe that he’ll win World’s Strongest Man one day. Not only does he have the natural ability, he has the right attitude with it. He was a total sweetheart and very modest about himself. That man is going to go far.
By the time I got to the front of the queue for Nick Best’s autograph, I introduced myself as his friendly neighbourhood stalker. After all, we were practically BFFs with the amount of time I’d spoken to him before and during the competition. I said to him that when he mentioned that this event had been a bucket list thing for him, I understood how he felt, because that’s how it was for me too. I’ve been a fan of strong men my entire life and never thought that I’d get to meet my heroes, let alone any of the American competitors. As a consequence, Nick spontaneously treated me to the absolute best profile picture I could ever want.
(Incidentally, fellow American Robert Oberst attempted to portray himself as the bad guy. It’s a great way to get loud feedback from the crowd after all. Alas, I hate to break it to you Robert, but you’re far too nice a person to be able to carry it off! You’re welcome at my house for cookies any time.)
By the time the doors closed, I had autographs from all the competitors bar one, who’d put his back out, as well as a bonus scrawl from Mark Felix. Ever the gentleman, he’d not been able to compete due to injury, but he was there supporting his fellow athletes from the sidelines, cheering them on. My VVIP ticket had been worth every penny and then some. You’ll definitely be able to see me on TV. I’m the one behind the starting line for the races wearing a Cookie Monster T shirt, red jeans and an enormous grin.
Alas, they have inconsiderately scheduled next year’s Europe’s Strongest Man for the same day as my son’s fifteenth birthday. Not a fan of the sport (I have no idea why!), I can’t tempt him into coming with me, so I won’t be able to make it. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to get up to Britain’s Strongest Man either, unless…
Hey, Colin Bryce! If you need another co-host/superfan to help with the event or you’re looking for a freelance writer to write up backstage news, give me a shout. I’m always happy to help.