Once it was a sideshow – but this year, Ukrainian soldiers competed with LGBTQ+ pioneers in a sport that’s being taken seriously
Oleksii Novikov doesn’t walk into the room. He turns sideways, and shuffles through the doorway like someone navigating a particularly busy bar.
At 6ft 1in and 300lb of solid muscle, Novikov has shoulders that are three and a half feet wide. His hands, permanently curled from years of lifting really heavy stuff, are like bear paws, his wrists as thick as some people’s biceps. He’s wearing an XXXXL T-shirt.
“My problem, it’s just my size. I am so small for a strongman,” Novikov says.
We meet in Sacramento, California, before the 2022 World’s Strongest Man competition. Novikov took the title in 2020 – but this time, he is competing after an unimaginably hard few months.
Drafted into the military, Novikov trained alongside his countrymen – including sniper and general firearms training – but was given leave to enter Europe’s Strongest Man competition in April. Having been forced to neglect his training, apart from the physical exercise he did in the military, Novikov won the year’s competition anyway.
This year’s strongman competition was held on the Capitol Mall, in front of the looming white dome of the California state capitol building. It was an attractive location but an unforgiving one, with the athletes competing on an exposed strip of land. The sporadic palm trees lining the mall offered little respite from the belting sun and scorching temperatures, which reached 97F (36C) on the first two days.
By 8am on Tuesday 24 May, hundreds of spectators had gathered, many wearing tank tops and T-shirts bearing the names of favorite strongmen, some waving signs, others armed with Sharpies and cellphones, hoping to collect signatures and selfies.
The first glimpse of the towering athletes was met with lusty applause, some of the strongmen raising giant arms in response.
They were here for the “loading race”, a fan favorite and the opening event of this year’s contest. The event involves athletes racing to lift five heavy things – a big stone ball, a 275lb anvil, a beer barrel and two sandbags – off the ground, and carry each of them, running about 20ft before dumping them on a four-and-a-half-foot-high platform.
The strongmen, wearing sweat-soaked T-shirts and large lifting belts around their waists, heaved and sprinted and heaved again, slumping over the platform after lifting the final object. Conscious of the heat, the competition’s crew ran over to the athletes with ice and hand fans, dumping water over their backs like trainers do with racehorses.
As the strongmen competed, the crowd predictably went wild, with hysterical shouting and screaming. But once the athletes had finished, this gave way to quiet contemplation and analysis as the course was reset. Spectators recalled past performances, as people attempted to predict how well each of the 30 individuals would fare. Novikov, it was commonly accepted, should do well in the loading race. He walked up to the starting line with a look of steely determination, and proceeded to do very well indeed, shifting the five items – which had a cumulative weight of more than half a ton – in 37.25 seconds.
For the spectator, it was obvious from the red faces, bulging veins and gasps for air that the athletes were lifting a lot of weight – but the exact amounts can feel a little abstract when watching on TV. Not everyone can immediately understand what it is like to raise 400lb above your head.
A good illustration, though, is how much effort it takes the crew to return the implements once the strongmen have finished. It took three big men nearly five minutes to return the five items to the starting line. And that was using a loading trolley.
On the second day, when the athletes were tasked with carrying a Volkswagen Beetle down a 20ft track – another good event for Novikov – the crew used forklift trucks to shift the 950lb cars whence they came.
Strongman goes professional
The World’s Strongest Man competition began in 1977 as a bit of a sideshow. Very large men were recruited from sports such as power-lifting and shotput, and tasked with bending steel bars, running around with refrigerators on their backs, and pushing car engines up a hill.
It was an endearingly amateurish production put together, essentially, as a novelty event for TV. In the UK, the tone of the broadcast was usually wry and irreverent, with vaudeville piano music tracking over footage of the hefty competitors.
These days, the men are just as massive as before. But unlike some of their predecessors, who looked like they’d been dragged from a local bar, the modern-day competitors are fit, too.
Strongman, as the sport is known to enthusiasts, has gone professional, with international events now filling arenas throughout the year, while the top athletes have millions of followers on social media, and millions in the bank.
It’s a far cry from the strongman of a couple of decades ago, when even the most successful competitors were little known outside of weightlifting communities, or those with particularly niche interests. Today, the top athletes do this full-time. They earn a living through prize money, sponsorships and, frequently, from the hundreds of thousands of YouTube views they attract each month.Social media, in particular, has driven the sport’s visibility, enabling fans to get their strongman fix any time, rather than wait to attend a show or watch a sporadic competition on TV. It has also allowed these hulking competitors to change stereotypes about what big, strong men are like, and how they behave.
Rob Kearney, an American based in Massachusetts, is among the most popular. He is the first out gay strongman, and on Instagram goes by the name “world’s strongest gay”.
His 2in-tall mohawk is frequently dyed in vibrant colors, and Kearney, 29, shares photos and videos that show not just his training but also his relationship with his husband, Joey. Kearney has become revered by fans, a role model not just for his mighty strength but for his decision to come out in 2014, becoming one of a very few professional male athletes to have done so.
In 2022, Kearney is hoping to make up for lost time, after a wretched couple of years. He ruptured his triceps in 2020 while attempting a log-lift record. The muscle has been surgically reattached, but it’s not quite the same, and one of his strongest events has become, if not a weakness, then certainly less of a strength. After recovering from that career-threatening injury, in 2021 Kearney was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which also required surgery.
“Both happened three weeks before World’s Strongest Man that year,” Kearney says. “So three weeks out from this year was an anxiety-ridden week. I wanted to make sure I got through nice and healthy. Fortunately, I did.”
Kearney was speaking a day before World’s Strongest Man was due to start. He’s alternatively amusing – when he talks about coming dead last in his first strongman competition, aged 17 – focused, and intensely passionate as he talks about challenging homophobic stereotypes.
“I had lived a very heteronormative life. I was in a relationship with a girl for a year and a half and kind of woke up one day and realized that this wasn’t the life for me.“To be honest, I was tired. I was tired of having to wake up every day and pretend to be somebody I wasn’t,” Kearney says.“Whenever I post a picture of Joey and I, it’s met with a decent amount of hate and negativity. And it’s because the LGBTQ community has just been hypersexualized for so long, where when they see a picture of my husband and I, they don’t see love, they see sex.“And that’s just really been the narrative we are trying to change: that our love is no different than yours. We just want to be able to show it, like you guys can.”
Kearney is short for a modern-day strongman, at 5ft 10in, but he has used this to his advantage. He is more agile than many of his competitors, which comes in handy for events that require carrying things at speed. He won the Arnold Pro Strongman in Australia in 2019 – he and Joey got married there a day later – and has been to World’s Strongest Man three times, in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
In Sacramento, Kearney emerged to take part in the loading race, where Novikov had excelled, to cheers and cries of “Go Rob!”
It was a rousing welcome, but it couldn’t coax a winning performance. Kearney picked up the big ball as if it were filled with helium and bolted down the course, but he was a bit lax as he dumped it on to the platform. As Kearney sprinted back to collect another item, the ball agonizingly rolled off the platform, to widespread groans from the crowd. Kearney had to pick it up all over again.
It cost him valuable seconds and meant he came fifth in his group, on one of his better events. It wasn’t a good omen. Competitors need to finish in the top two in their group to advance to the 10-man final, held at the end of the week, and Kearney would ultimately fail to advance.
In recent years, some of the strongmen have broken through to become bona fide celebrities. Iceland’s Hafþór Björnsson is probably the best known, having juggled competing with playing the Mountain in Game of Thrones before retiring in 2020.
Eddie Hall, a retired Brit who won World’s Strongest Man in 2017 – and who recently fought Björnsson in a boxing match – has more than 3 million followers on Instagram, and hisYouTube videos are watched by hundreds of thousands.Increasingly the strongmen are brands. Hall has a “Beast” range of clothing and a food line. Brian Shaw, a four-time World’s Strongest Man winner, has his own “Shaw Strength” range of products.Luke and Tom Stoltman, Scotsmen who bill themselves as “the world’s strongest brothers”, have built a similar following, both through competitive success and through their online videos.Their YouTube content, like that of all strongmen, features videos of them in training, sharing how they are preparing for tournaments.
But as well as being big, strong men, their content has also addressed mental health issues. Luke has spoken about his struggles after his mother died. Last year, they put out a documentary about mental health. Separately, they have addressed the challenges Tom, who is autistic, faced at school and in competition.The Stoltmans aren’t the only ones to address this. Hall has talked about his own experiences, most recently during mental health awareness week. While athletes in other sports are increasingly discussing their experiences with mental health, Strongman feels ahead of the curve.
Partly this is because strongman can be such an isolated sport. Many of the athletes have coaches, but they aren’t with them every day, like in other individual sports, such as boxing or tennis. Some of the training is following weightlifting programs, alone, in the gym.
The shared experience has fostered a real sense of community among the competitors. At the athletes’ hotel, the day before competition, the most common sight was these gigantic competitors hugging and laughing with each other as they renewed old acquaintances. Kearney counts the Stoltmans and Martins Licis, an American who won World’s Strongest Man in 2019, among his closest friends.“This is one of the few sports where you’re competing against somebody and cheering for them at the same time,” Kearney says.“And I think it comes down to the fact that all of us realize how much hard work and sacrifice it takes to get to this level.”That camaraderie was there in the 1980s and 90s, but these days strict diets and even stricter workout plans have replaced mid-competition drinking sessions and night-time revelry.The most successful strongmen employ coaches, nutritionists and masseuses, a step towards professionalism that Magnús Ver Magnússon, an Icelander who won World’s Strongest Man four times in the 1990s, says has been made possible by social media.“I wish I would have had that,” he says. “It would have given me a bigger opportunity to earn bigger money and you know, a lot of these guys are now pretty much relying on that, that sponsorship this or that, and it allows them to focus completely on their sport.”By contrast, Magnússon worked as a ship mechanic throughout his strongman career. And while today almost every competitor will have access to gyms where they can use yokes or anvils, Magnússon was essentially turning up blind. “I never trained on the equipment. I just showed up at competitions and competed,” he says.
The accessibility of athletes past and present in Sacramento is a sign that the sport isn’t quite mainstream yet. The competitors walk past the crowd on their way to the competition area and stagger back the same way once they’re done. Despite their visible exhaustion – some were limping as they walked away from a “deadlift ladder” – most stopped to pose for photos and chat.
There were young people in the crowd, but for all the sport’s newfound popularity, nostalgia is a big draw. Colin Bryce, the larger-than-life tournament director who is also involved in Giants Live strongman shows that have filled the Royal Albert Hall, said data showed their typical attendee for British shows was a 48-year-old woman living outside of London.
“It’s such a common story: ‘I watched this with my dad at Christmas, and I want to pass it on to my kids,’” Bryce says.
The competition that demographic witnesses today won’t quite be the same as that of their youth. Strongman has finally evolved from what Terry Hollands, a Brit whose strongman career spanned from the early 2000s to 2021, describes as “a little bit of a circus show”, but the basic draw remains the same as it ever was: seeing huge men lift unbelievably heavy things.
For Novikov, it wasn’t meant to be. He led the final at the end of the first day, setting the fastest time in the truck pull and deadlifting a car until blood started gushing from his nose.
In the penultimate event, however, Novikov struggled, and he was overtaken in the leaderboard by the 6ft 8in, 400lb Tom Stoltman.
Stoltman went on to win, Licis came second, and Novikov took third place.
“I am happy, although I am tired and my body hurts, but it was a fight of very high level athletes,” Novikov wrote on Instagram.