Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Legends, Myths and Facts - Gottfried Schödl

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From "De Arte Gymnastica Libri Sex"
Hieronymus Mercurialis, 1569


Hans Steyrer
Germany, 1849-1906



Street buskers, Rome
1905









Legends, Myths and Facts
by Gottfried Schödl (1992)


Taken from “The Lost Past” by Gottfried Schödl.
Published by the International Weightlifting Federation.


It happened in May 1984. In the Basque city of Vittoria, Northern Spain, the final chord of the Weightlifting European Championships, the superheavyweight contest was about to be struck. In the previous days the Bulgarian Neno Terziiski, Maim Suleimanov, Stefan Topurov, as well as the Soviet athletes Oksen Mirzoian and Victor Solodov had marked the Championships and carved their names in the world record statistics. There was nothing unusual in these events to which the public had grown accustomed at previous championships. Yet, before Anatoli Pisarenko and Antonio Krastev set out for the challenge of the strongest, something special had taken place in the sports hall.

Born 1956 and weighing 125 kg, the Basque strongman Ignacio Perurena demonstrated his art in weightlifting in front of the competition platform with 5,000 spectators watching in awe. True to the art practiced by strong men thousands of years ago, in the misty olden times of legends and myths, Perurena lifted a stone weighing 260 kg (at that time he held the world record at 285 kg which he has meanwhile increased to over 300 kg) to his shoulder three times within three minutes. Again three times and within the same interval he lifted a block of stone of 200 kg with his left hand. After the third lift, with the weight on his shoulders, he mounted the platform, shook hands with Anatoli Pisarenko and only then put down the weight. Perurena performed weightlifting in its primeval form which has been preserved in some parts of the world until our very days.

The attention devoted at all times to special feats of power lies plainly in the human nature: the will to be not only strong, but if possible stronger than the other. In the history of mankind, strength performances have been accomplished for purposes of cult, survival, war and finally a sporting comparison of powers.

We may find evidence of human strength in the paintings and statues of athletic gods, in the illustrations of religious literature, in songs, ballads and poems about super heroes, sagas and tales of giants and, last but not least, in the maxims and charms supposed to help attain immortality and invincibility. Nearly all countries of the world can produce analogous presentations from their own history. One is apt to think that the first songs had been sung in praise of the wonders of nature, beauty, virtue, the failures or the soul of man, – No, it was bodily strength, victory and dominance through muscular power. Until our very days, when top sporting achievements are celebrated more than any other human feat, little has been changed at this.

There are plenty of personalities whose name has been associated with feats of strength in all languages of the world. Hercules in Greek mythology, to whom tradition attributes the creation of ancient Olympic Games, or Samson, whose deeds are marked in the Old Testament, are only two of them. Also Sisyphus, the Corinthian king, who was supposed to have initiated the Isthmian Games, became a symbol. He was condemned to roll a stone uphill in the Nether World, and the stone kept rolling back from the peak. Was he the first one to have been forced to carry out isometric physical efforts? The many heroes and powerful creatures of the Nibelung saga should not be forgotten either.

Weightlifting, as a sport allowing man to express his physical power in a particularly impressive manner, looks back on a past of thousands of years, but its actual origin is likely to remain buried forever. From time immemorial, people used to match their strength against each other using for their performances weights at hand or easy to procure: stones, sacks filled with various contents, but also living loads like animals and humans – their contemporaries.

The oldest traces of weightlifting are found in the over 6,000-year-old Egyptian culture which has been almost completely disclosed. In Beni Hassan, 270 km south of Cairo, on a rock terrace, 39 tombs were carved into the rock. All th walls are decorated with pictures in vivid colors giving testimony not only of the daily work of man 4,000 years ago, but also revealing those everyday activities which we have been calling “sports” for over a century.

The sons of Egyptian Pharaohs, as the paintings prove, had to practice running, wrestling on a daily basis, and last but not least lifting sandbags and other heavy objects. Fascinating illustrations of this early form of our sport, corresponding to the one-hand snatch or swing, are recorded in the tomb of Prince Baghti dating from 2040 B.C.

As the illustrations of the Egyptian temples and tombs featured only activities of a long tradition, we may suppose that the first traces of a manifold sporting occupation, within this weightlifting, must have led back to prehistoric times.

It is hard to fathom these prehistoric ages, since they were marked by a co-existence of different human communities and cultures. In the third millennium B.D., Egypt, with its nearly miraculous achievements, emerged at an unbridgeable distance from other cultures. The world did not yet possess a common history. Mankind lived in different millennia. At one place still in the middle stone age, somewhere else in the late stone age, and again someplace already in the bronze or even the iron age. Who can really tell where and when the first stone – or some kind of weight – had been lifted just for the sake of testing or demonstrating one’s bodily strength?

A block weighing 480 kg, found on the Greek island of Thera (Santorin) bears an inscription from the 6th century that it had been lifted by Eumastas, son of Kritobulos.

In the book “The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece”, compiled by several authors, we can find the following comments of Kl. Palaeologosand th. Karagiorga-Stathakopoulou on working with weights and some other feats of strength in Greece during the 7th to 6th century B.C. –

“Demonstrations of strength and the use of different weights to gain strength have been recorded in many parts of our world since ancient time. Particularly Greece, in the time of the ancient Olympic Games, being a rich source of discoveries in the field of human strength. In addition to the athletic competitions familiar in the games, other sports took place in the ‘gymnasia’. These were athletic exercises whose aim was either physical development, well-being and strength in general (educational training), or more specifically the training of athletes for particular events. A common way in which competitors in events developed their physical strength was weight-lifting, or throwing the weight. The weights usually consisted of unworked stones. In Greece there have been discovered in vase paintings many pictures of such exercises. In one picture, the massive, almost spherical stone that the athlete is raising from the ground with both hands, has a diameter four times as great as that of his head, while in another (500 B.C.) in which a youth is lifting two unworked stones, one in each hand, either stone has a diameter almost one and one half times that of his head (In some of these illustrations, the athlete’s head is adorned by a laurel wreath. This honor went only to athletes who had won a contest. Therefore, recent research does not exclude the possibility of weightlifting having been accepted on the competition program of other Panhellenic Games as well.). In passing, it should be noted that weightlifting never became an official event in ancient Olympic Games. Lifting of weights found favour as a popular spectacle. However, since it was a means of demonstrating physical strength that easily aroused men’s inclination to compete, and that easily met with a response from the wide public at the popular festivals, thanks to the original techniques and devices used by the weightlifters. From time to time isolated performances occurred in this sphere that gradually passed into legend as superhuman achievements. Famous athletes had from an early date (7th and 6th centuries B.C.) cultivated their reputations in places where the crowds gathered, and mainly on the fringe of the great games at the Panhellenic sanctuaries, by displays of this kind. Often challenging their rivals – if there were any – to an open contest. The famous ‘Milon of Croton’, who never in the fullest sense of the word was a weightlifter, is regarded by history as the strongest man in the ancient world. Milon was a disciple of Pythagoras and proclaimed victor six times in wrestling at the Olympic Games. He also made the rounds of other games, winning seven times at the Pythia, nine at the Nemean, ten at the Isthmian, and gaining innumerable crowns during the course of his athletic career from the games at which he competed all over Greece. Milon sent the crowds at Olympia wild with enthusiasm when he lifted as four-year-old heifer on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium. The enormous statue of Milon, that, after his many victories was set up in the Altis was carved by the sculptor Dameas. It is said that Milon himself lifted it and carried it to where it was erected. Fate willed, however, that the life of the most fortunate and glorious athlete should close with a tragic end. Milon went out once into the forest and there was a newly cut tree-trunk into with wedges had been driven to open it up. He decided to open the trunk with his strength. He put his hands into it and pulled them outward, but the wedges flew out and the trunk closed up and trapped his hands. He was thus caught in a trap and had to stay there in the wilderness, unable to free himself. When night came, he was torn to pieces by the wild beasts. At an even earlier period (early 6th century), an athlete named Bybon had performed another feat of strength, also at Olympia. With one hand he lifted above his head and threw a massive cylindrical stone, which was discovered during the excavations and is now kept in the Museum of Olympia. It weighs 143.5 kilos (33 cm high, 68 cm broad, 39 cm thick), and has an inscription on it narrating the event. Of course, hardly can we conceive a feat like this to be humanly possible.”

This is how the historians depicted a few of the documented feats of strength in ancient Greece. There were many stories about Milon, like the following one proving that, at least as far as lifting and carrying loads was concerned, there were men even stronger than him:

“As, one day, Milon challenged the shepherd Etolos Titormos, famous for his strength, to a test of power, the latter walked up to a boulder, raised it several times, tossed it on his shoulder, carried it 14 metres before finally dropping it on the ground. Milon could hardly remove the boulder from its place.”

It is a well-known fact that Pythagoras, someone who we now only know from school for his famous equation a² + b² = c², was Milon’s tutor and father in law, and looked after the Greek strongman in all his sporting activities. As for Milon’s workout routines, he was reputed to go on hoisting a calf every day till it grew up to be a bull. Was perhaps Milon (presumably born in 557 B.C.) – despite his triumphs mainly as a wrestler – the first weightlifter who had carried out a systematic training with gradually increasing loading? Already in his lifetime, about a dozen writers reported about Milon and it is quite difficult today to tell legends apart from truth. His life inspired the fantasy of many authors and the athlete’s end of life was depicted in various ways.

Not only in Egypt and Greece were traces of an early form of weightlifting documented, but China also has to offer some facts of interest. Yang Shiyong, a friend from Chengdu, is a member of the “Research and Teaching Office of Weightlifting” in Sichouan Province. He published remarkable books on weightlifting and in one of these presented the history of this sport in his country. Herewith an excerpt:

“Historical records about weightlifting can be traced back as early as to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) in ancient China. The 'Lu's Annals' stated: As a great thinker and educator in ancient China, Confucius (551-479 B.C) was able to pick up the 'Guan' (which refers to the large logs propped against the city gate). Because of the protracted annexation wars between the ancient states during the Warring States Period (325-21 B.C) there was a higher demand for the military quality of the troops and another form of weightlifting emerged: Ding-lifting. Ding is an ancient cooking vessel with two loop-handles and three legs. Usually there have been three sizes: large, medium and small. In a documentation of that time Wu Zi wrote: In the army there must be warriors whose physical strengths are so great that they could lift ding easily. Ding-lifting refers to grasping the two loop handles with both hands and turning the vessel upward while snatching. Ding-lifting and competitions of physical strength could also be found in the imperial court. In the year of 307 B.C. Emperor Wu competed with Meng Shuo in dinglifting when he went to Lejiang to to enjoy the wonder ding with nine dragons carved on it which was originally owned by the royal family of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. At this time the emperor's strength failed and the ding fell down and broke his shin bones. All these stories can be read in the great Chinese book 'Historical Records'. Winners of dinglifting were given the title of 'Dinglifting Warrior'. Even the book 'Geography of Shenzhou' is deals with weightlifting: In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) weightlifting had a greater development. Wang Jie was famous because of his mighty strength. He got to Changan and reached the Dong-wei bridge. By the bridge there was a stone lion which weighed 500 kg. He pointed to the stone lion, saying he could lift it up and throw it away. Nobody there believed him. To everyone's big surprise, he handled it up and threw it several meters away. And then ten people tried to move it and failed in the end. They had to beg Wang Jie to put it back and he did. In the Ming Dynasty Shidan lifting emerged as a new form of weightlifting. Shidan was a wood bar with each end running through a large stone and people used it regularly in strength competitions. This form is quite close to the modern barbells used in present competitions."
Yang Shiyong's presentation, here quoted in a shortened form, relies on historical records proving that as early as in ancient China before our times strong people had been revered and the kind of weightlifting practiced there had come closest to the sport's present form.

In his book "Gods, Heroes, Supermen", a cultural history of peak performances (1962, econ-Verlag, Dusseldorf and Vienna), Walter Umminger also deals with China, and states:

"Weightlifting was even more valued than wrestling. Weightlifting was also a part of a pentathlon contest introduced by Emperor Wu Tse-Tien in the 7th century A.D. Besides archery on foot and on horseback , and joust against four wooden discs the lifting of weights constituted the tournament. A 5-metre-long wooden or iron plate of 3 to 4 cm thickness, weighing 30 kg, had to be raised 10 times to full height and carried 20 paces. Tests in archery, riding and weightlifting belonged, until the 19th century, to the curriculum of the philosophic-literary examinations."

Hieronymus Sophronius Eusebius (374-420), who as a religious scholar translated the Bible into Latin -- the so-called "Vulgata" -- reports on the lifting of a test stone. The youngsters measured their strength according to the height they were able to raise the stone to: whether to knee, stomach, breast level, or to stretched arm's height. He further mentions that that "on the castle of Athens, next to the sculpture of Pallas Athene there lay a heavy iron ball" which had to be lifted in order to qualify for competition.

An epigraph in the Royal Palace of Munich states of Duke Christoph von Bayern, famous for his "superhuman" power, that in the year r1490 he had lifted and thrown a stone of 182 kg.

In the year 1569, the physician Hieronymus Mercurialis (1530-1606) published "De arte gymnastica libri sex" in Venice. The work became the most significant publication on physical culture of its time. The lifting and carrying of heavy sandbags, stones or other burdens was presented as means of increasing strength and excellent tests of will-power. An illustration of this book showed exercises with stones.

In 16th and 17th century Japan (Tokugawa Shogunate) contests of strength trials were extremely popular. The forerunners of the Miyake brothers Yoshinobu and Yoshiyuki, who excelled with outstanding results in the 20th century, were rejoicing in regular competitions they used to call "ishi-sashi" (lifting a stone) and "taware sashi" (lifting rice bales).

In his research of the mechanism of muscle strength in 1740, Derby, John Theophilius Desagulier, Doctor of Physics, student of the great English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton, examined a certain Thomas Topham, a man who had attracted attention by extraordinary feats of strength. The results of his examinations, published in an essay "System of Experimental Philosophy", led the scientists to the conclusion that Topham matched the combined strength of 12 men. Walter Umminger on this statement:

"Topham gripped and iron bar at both ends, put in on the nape of his neck and bended it forward as if it was a neck-tie. With the same ease did he then straighten the bar again. With his teeth he lifted a six-foot long table at the far end of which a 25-kg weight was hanging and held it in suspense horizontally for a considerable time. With the hands he lifted a stone mill-drum of 363-kg on a chain in the air. In 1741, Topham had a stage built on the market place of Derby where, on 28th May, he raised three barrels filled with water of a total weight of 832.8 kg alone with his neck and shoulder muscles, without the help of the leverage effect of the thighs, normally applied in such stunts of power."

Wonders were reported on the performances of the French brothers Charles (1782-1226) and Henry (1784-1844) Rousselle from Lille -- with Charles being prominent -- we will not go into details of these feats at this time. Their tombstone in the West Cemetery of Lille bears the following inscription:
In memory of the Rousselle brothers. Charles Louis Joseph Rousselle, called 'Hercules of the North'. First model of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. The Academy of Lyon, London and Anvers. Died 25th July 1852, at thet age of 45 years. Joseph Henry Rousselle, also called 'Hercules of the North'. Died 9th September 1844, at the age of 60 years. They wore the most beautiful features of antique Hercules and their portraits were reproduced in academic works. In them all of fortunes were found united. Their souls were just as fine as their bodies were strong.

Hilmar Burger and Klaus Weidt (Germany) write in their book "Kraftproben", published in 1985 by Sportverlag in the former German Democratic Republic:

"In the Middle Age, the Scots did not stint their strength either. In a 'golden test' each man-to-be youngster was compelled to put a stone of minimum 100 kg on another one. Only them was he allowed to cal himself 'man' and wear a cap. In neighbouring England the stone blocks were dismissed and iron weights were experimented with. So, the Royal soldiers practiced jerking iron posts and the Queen herself recommended young Englishmen instead of 'dancing and other useless diversions' to train with weights."

Today a comparison of performance controlled by rules producing the strongest in bodyweight categories as per the poundage lifted: weightlifting has found place in the world among the multiple sporting activities. With its competition and training exercises, weightlifting is indeed he most efficient means of strength increase in the training for all branches of sports. However, much had to happen before this status was reached.

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