Spoiler Free Event Review – World’s Strongest Man Tour 2017

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!

Hanging out with two great legends

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.

Chilling with Nick Best and Benny Magnusson

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:

NO SPOILERS!!!!

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!

Big Z’s back

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.

The two Americans squared off for the Atlas Stones but did either make the podium?

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.

I’m your biggest fan…

(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.

Theatre Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

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I love 60s theatre, so when I was offered a ticket to review A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, I jumped at the chance. Peter Nichols’ play details how a couple cope with bringing up a severely disabled child, a subject that is close to my heart, being both a parent of children with special needs and having many friends in similar situations.

I came away from the play with mixed feelings. It’s a difficult subject to cover, especially as a comedy, and the cast did well to elicit numerous laughs from the audience while treating the material with the respect it demands and deserves.

The standout of the show was the guy who played Brian. Sadly, I didn’t catch his name, but I have fond memories of his performance as Blackadder in the open air festival a couple of years back and he was perfectly cast as the disillusioned teacher using humour to cope with an incredibly difficult situation. His portrayal was complex and sympathetic, drawing you into the story.

It has to be said that without Brian, the play would have lost a lot of its charm. Sheila, his wife, was solidly played and the first half worked well as we learned about the couple’s marriage and how they found out about their daughter’s disability and the impact it had on their lives.

The second half saw the cast expand to include Brian’s mother and a couple Sheila met through her amateur dramatics. This gave the opportunity to introduce further opinions on what Sheila and Brian ‘should’ be doing and the pressures the faced externally as well as internally, but I found that the performances were flat compared to the first half. Perhaps Brian was just that good.

Overall, though, it was an enjoyable performance of the quality I’ve come to expect from Everyman Theatre. The show runs until Saturday at the Chapter in Cardiff, including a Saturday afternoon matinee, and it’s well worth going to see.

Tickets are still available here: http://chapter.org/joeegg

 

Spoiler Free Event Review – Europe’s Strongest Man 2016

The line up for the Dead Lift World Record attempt

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.
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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.
Žydrūnas Savickas
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.
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(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!
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(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.
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(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.