As I’m sure you have noticed, I love the history of Quebec strongmen, in particular Louis Cyr. As discussed, Cyr represented more than strength; he stood as a symbol of French Canadian opportunity in the face of an history of oppression. Little wonder Cyr’s funeral in 1912 is still alluded to in Quebec press.
The goal of this post however is not to discuss his death, but rather the event leading to his death and, I argue, to the disappearance of rural strongmanship.
Where are we in history?
The year is 1901, Louis Cyr, stricken by Bright’s Disease publicly announces his retirement from the strength scene. Since 1886, after defeating David Michaud, Cyr had been the undisputed Canada’s Most Strongest Man, later to be the self-proclaimed World’s Strongest Man following his two month tour of Europe.
With the title of Strongest Man still at stake, it was inevitable that a competitor would rise; that competitor being Saint-Henri born, Hector Décarie.
Upon announcing his retirement, Cyr turned to his long-time friend Horace Barré, whom was considered as the logical successor to the French Canadian sporting hero. Barré had been following Cyr for many years and eventually became his partner in their circus endeavors.
However, known for his lazyness, despite being considered, if not as strong as Cyr, standing not too far away from his teacher, Barré refused the offer, resulting in the title remaining in uncertain hands.
Barré even refused challenges from Décarie who wanted to undo the pupil seeing that Cyr himself would surely refuse to meet him in a challenge; next best thing type deal.
Crowning a New “Champion”.
Using the press as a way to get to Louis Cyr, Décarie started sending insults towards both Cyr and Barré, claiming both men were afraid and merely shadows of their former selves; often using “the strongmen of yore” when referring to the two former strength stars.
Wanting to be titled the World’s Strongest Man, Décarie also played the resonating nationalist card when he claimed that his challenge to Cyr would ensure that the title remain rightfully in Canada, and within the grasp of French Canadians; a wise narrative seeing the advent of American stars on the strength scene.
Five years after his retirement, Louis Cyr steps on stage for the last time.
The meeting, while resulting in the crowning of Hector Décarie as World’s Strongest Man has historical implications beyond the stage. First, the contest, to the boo’s of over 4000 fans and to the frustration of several journalists, ended in a tie. Both men could not agree on the rules of the contest so Cyr was judged on amount of weight lifted, while Décarie used a point-scheme to judge his performance (a successful lift awards a point). This occurrence, I argue, can be considered as one of the causes rural strongmanship declined. The inability to agree on a standardized competition caused the greatest strength event in Quebec (thus far) to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of thousands of fans and, let’s face it, French Canadians.
Additionally, the cries of “fake!” points to the possibility that the entire event was arranged: Décarie gains what he wants, the title, while Cyr awards it on his own terms, thus preserving his fame, legitimacy, and status. Leaning more towards professional wrestling, competitions following the Cyr-Décarie contest diminish in occurrence and popularity.
Finally, while Décarie possessed the belt and LABEL of World’s Strongest Man, he technically did not defeat Cyr, but merely tied the performance of a dying man based on ambiguous scoring methods. Therefore, when Cyr was buried in 1912. did he take the title of World’s Strongest Man with him? Surely the feeling of unresolved conflict remained on the Quebec strength scene. Can it be possible that this bitterness towards the sport brought its demise?
A final consideration can be, as discussed in La Presse in the 1900s, the phenomenon referred to as ‘Modernization’ leading to the period we term ‘Modernity.’ With machines now in place to lift heavy objects, was there any use for strongmen? An activity that had grown out of a certain cultural necessity seemed obsolete in a time when muscle is replaced with steel.
As history as shown, a fall of giants does occur shortly after Cyr’s death. Following the Cyr-Décarie meet, strength contests dwindled, being replaced by solo demonstrations of strength. As Gilles Janson notes, the prominent strongmen used their words instead of their muscles to prove a point. Using the Quebec press, champions insulted one another but refused to meet in person, in fear of losing their title. Younger athletes who aspired to be termed the Strongest Man hit somewhat of a plateau in their career; the upper echelons were inaccessible seeing that no challenges were accepted. With the activity of rural weightlifting slowly disappearing, we begin noticing strongmen entering the world of profession wrestling; will the wrestling mat become the new stage to display French Canadian nationalism, or would pride in French Canadian strength simply disappear, as its most prominent symbol did in 1912?