I don’t know what those Icelanders are eating, but I need to go over there and try some of that. – O.D. Wilson
Just what makes Iceland such a breeding ground for strength is open to interpretation.
With no public railways and the vast majority of the island being volcanic desert, Icelanders have grown accustomed to doing things the hard way. Farming used to be the national job, readying new generations for serious labour while fishing has helped supply its citizens with low-fat/high-protein diets. It’s a part of the world that tends to produce more robust humans. The average height of today’s Icelander comes in at a whisker under 6’.
At 6’9” Hafþór Björnsson dwarfs most of today’s strongmen, never mind bystanders. That includes his coach though the latter still looks like he could shift weights you won’t find in any commercial gym. For Björnsson it may not only be insight that’s powering his career but a certain willingness to please. It’s not often your tutor’s a legend.
Even the most casual of fans will recognize Magnus Ver Magnusson.
The most striking feature about this strongman was his modest build. 6’3” and 280lbs was nothing extraordinary for the ‘90s, he wasn’t particularly shredded, muscle-bound, and he didn’t sport a belly. You could say he looked like one those doomed competitors who simply don’t have enough mass to get on the podium. This notion didn’t last long.
That essential raw power made its first appearance in 1985 when Magnus gunned for the title of Iceland’s strongest man. Jon Pall Sigmarsson couldn’t be touched at this point, but at twenty two years of age third place hinted at a bright future. In the coming years more barbells were bent, competitions were won and he got a taste for strongman events. 1989’s Pure Strength was won by Magnus and his team mate Hjalti Árnason.
Thirteen years since its inauguration, WSM had noticeably changed in one key department; what was once an American sport had become a European one. Out of 1991’s eight competitors only one was a yank. A couple of them really stood out like the 7’ Ted Van Der Parre and herculean Manfred Heoberl. Selected from the reserve list, Magnus looked every bit a novice with his ‘happy to be here’ smile and trendy hairdo.
First timers are lucky to do well. That he won took everybody by surprise. The margin of victory was even more surprising.
Very capable in terms of static strength and a real speedster for a man of his pounds, what really separated Magnus from the herd was his ability to execute. The Icelander was a wonderfully clean performer; be it overhead presses or barrel loading there was a steadiness about him which preserved strength. Many fall short because they don’t give themselves that extra second or two. So close yet so far; messing up often destroys whatever chance you had. Mistakes were a rarity with Magnus. Consistency was his trump card.
Inspired by the backdrop of his homeland, 1992’s WSM was seemingly made for the reigning champion. Not to breeze over the location, Iceland’s waterfalls and geezers made for possibly the most dramatic settings of any strongman contest. Competition wise it was a shootout between Jamie Reeves, Ted Van Der Parre and Magnus. Going into the last event (the Husafell stone) it looked like the Icelander had everything sussed but opting for a fastened grip scarified his vision. An adjustment caused him to drop it and the title went to Ted.
Another competitor chomping at the bit was Gary Taylor and in 1993 it was the Welshman’s time to shine. Magnus did well for a man who’d “been in better shape”, coming second again, but nothing was stopping Taylor inside that French amphitheatre.
1994 was the first WSM competition I ever saw in Sun City, South Africa, and it’s nice to know that nostalgia isn’t guilty of distorting reality. It was a helluva contest. Heats were implemented for the first time, increasing the margin for error. Sadly for Gary Taylor the reigning champion didn’t make the final cut.
With his action-figure physique and bandana I was a fully behind Manfred Hoeberl; my juvenile mind was in awe of the fact that the Austrian’s arms were bigger than Hulk Hogan’s. Finland’s Riku Kiri and South Africa’s Gerrit Badenhorst helped make this year fiercely competitive. There were many injuries and memorable performances; Gerrit standing on one leg during his 130kg/287lbs stone lift may take the biscuit. As the events rolled on Magnus was his consistent self, always within striking distance. It all came down to the Atlas stones, another head-to-head against Manfred. Again the Icelander benefited from his more steady approach, taking over on the last two stones. I was a little sore about Manfred losing by half a point, but the all-round ability of Magnus could not be denied in a competition Jamie Reeves once described as a “decathlon of strength”.
Victory didn’t get any sweeter but more was on the way.
Missing from 1995’s competition was Manfred who was nearly killed in a car crash. The Austrian assured his fans of a return but he never did and WSM was robbed of a great talent. Out in Nassau, Bahamas, Gerrit Badenhorst proved the main obstacle for the champion but he got injured early on and lost his way. Despite this, Magnus showed he was not just a fast strongman (a common criticism) and won the squat event after hitting 437.5kgs/964.5lbs.
The chance to win three in a row and equal Jon-Pall’s magical four titles unfolded in Port Louis, Mauritius. For once Magnus wasn’t that confident and Riku Kiri got off to a brilliant start. Both the champion and Gerrit agreed that the Fin should be favoured. You could call it fate, or perhaps the Icelander was just underestimating himself, but Magnus put the pressure on in day two and capitalised on his advantage.
“I keep coming back for more. I don’t know why” explained Magnus after the win. Hunger had been a problem recently and it’s the old boxing adage that if you’re flirting with retirement you already have. During the 1997 heats the great man came last in one event and was a point shy of making the final. Kiri didn’t make it and neither did Badenhorst. It was the end of an era.
As the years rolled on and life became less strenuous, Magnus occasionally thought about that Husafell stone. Nobody could deny it. Even WSM’s most reliable performer had slipped up.
The prospect of five titles remained (at best) unlikely.