A Challenge to Sandow; Strongmen in the Press.

While researching the regular strongman and bodybuilding articles (as we history PhD people do on the daily) I stumbled across this newspaper clipping that was featured in the National Police Gazette in 1893 asking “Is Eugen Sandow Afraid?”

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In this post I would like to address not only this specific clipping, but also the use of the press among the strongmen of yore.

First, the press.

With strongmanship being a sphere that is defined by the weight you lift and competition being dictated by how much more you can lift than anyone else, challenges had to be sent in order to decide who truly was the strongest in the world; although several men gave themselves this title on their own accord.

Before facebook we had emails, before emails we had television, before television we had the radio, before the radio we had the press, and before the press we had couriers who risked their lives to deliver a letter telling you your lord needed some money, but let us return to the press.

With the press as the desired means to stay up to date with what was going on around the world, it also became the outlet to inform sport fans about upcoming contests and results of competitions that had passed. Within these sport chronicles (and even spread sporadically throughout the paper at times) we find the strongmen. Promoters or strongmen themselves would send their demands to the press who would then insert them in the daily (sometimes weekly) paper for all (hopefully the rival) to see. While most challenges were sent to the general population with a promise of monetary gain attached to it, it wasn’t uncommon to see challenges directed to a specific individual; and so we’ve come full circle.

As stated earlier, the National Police Gazette paper is dated from 1893. The title asking “Is Eugen Sandow Afraid?” is followed by the claim that “he will not compete with American Strong Men.”

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Notice “Canada” stitched across his chest. A custom addition for his trip to England.

This clipping is a result of French Canadian Louis Cyr’s trip to England in the 1890s. After meeting Richard K. Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette in New York, Cyr was quickly proclaimed the “Police Gazette” Samson and challenges were sent all-over for challengers to face Louis Cyr for an amount of $5000 (it is said that some of this is Cyr’s own savings; talk about confidence.) This led to Cyr travelling to London, England for his “rise to fame” as Paul Ohl characterizes it.

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While in London, a challenge was sent to all of the local strongmen to compete against Cyr for the title of World’s Strongest Man; none responded. This led to Cyr gathering all of the records of the famed strongmen and beating them in 2 nights (this varies from 2 to 5.) One of the men on the list was Eugen Sandow (apparently the only one that mattered in Cyr’s mind.) Not standing up to Cyr led Fox to openly ask “Is Eugen Sandow Afraid?”

Well…was he?

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The way I see it, Sandow was smart…very smart. Beginning from nothing, he went from being a vaudeville strongmen, lifting odd objects here and there, to then become one of the most popular faces in England (and arguably all of its empire!). By integrating posing into his routine, Sandow paved the road to modern bodybuilding. He also had his health business and his magazine. All of this was promoted by one idea: Sandow was the strongest man in the world (and the fittest). Maybe Cyr couldn’t lift the weights he said he could, but would Sandow risk a mere challenge that could result in the demise of his livelihood? Highly doubtful.

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This can also be seen in the Quebec press following Cyr’s death. Cyr’s desire for competition and victory seemed to have died with him. The strongmen after him would throw challenges into the press, either directed to the general public or directed to specific strongmen, but would never follow-up on these contests. As with Sandow, there is a possibility that losing the title of strongest man was too much of a risk for these individuals. Quickly the strongman challenges loses its hype and filters out of the press and of people’s minds. Are we witnessing the fall of the Quebec strongmen? To be continued, in a PhD thesis near you.

To end, here are pictures of Cyr and Sandow posing with a leaf.

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