Sunday, January 21, 2007

Hugo: The Strongman versus the Corporate Giant

This story was on the notable list in The Best American Sports Writing

From Toro, October 2005

STANDING TALL

Hugo Girard might be the strongest man in Canada but his fight to defend the rights of the world’s most powerful athletes is taking a lot more than muscle

At six-foot-six and 370 pounds, with narrow-set eyes behind reflecting shades, Travis Lyndon looks like he just climbed off Dr. Frankenstein’s workbench. Lyndon is at the starting line of an event called the Atlas Stones. Out in front of him are five huge, lead-filled concrete balls weighing 230, 265, 290, 330, and 385 pounds. And before the starter gives Lyndon the signal, Hugo Girard, Canada’s strongest man emeritus, calls him out.

“Travis is the best in the world at this event,” Hugo says into the microphone, held by the emcee at the Ontario Strongman Championship in North Bay over the Canada Day weekend. “I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t do all five.”

It sounds like good-natured banter. It seems to fit in with the genuine bonhomie on the Strongman circuit. But make no mistake: It’s trash talk dressed up as colour commentary. Hugo has been wearing a police uniform (in Gatineau, Quebec) for twelve years. He knows how to press a guy’s buttons while keeping a smile on his own face. Hugo is 330 pounds of sinew and resolve. When he goes passive-aggressive, it’s pretty plain. And though Lyndon was his training partner in Gatineau for years, everything has changed between them.

Lyndon, who brushed off Girard’s comment with a wave, sprints up to the first stone ball. Though there’s nothing to grip, he raises the 230-pound boulder to his shoulder and drops it on a wobbly metal pedestal like it was a bag of groceries he was setting on the kitchen counter.

After doing the same with the next two balls, Lyndon ambles up to the fourth, a 330-pounder that has thwarted all the other competitors. He wraps his massive arms around it, raises it cleanly, without hesitation, his back arched enough to splinter a normal spine, and thrusts the stone onto the perch. The crowd issues a collective gasp, then breaks out into a riot of cheers.

The last stone is 385 pounds. Lyndon takes a deep breath. He bends. He raises it a foot off the ground and quickly drops it. He shakes his head, turns, and acknowledges the crowd.

Hugo is furious. He thinks Lyndon didn’t make much of an effort with that fifth ball. Lyndon did enough to clinch his spot in the nationals, but Girard worries about the fans feeling shortchanged. It’s a problem for Girard because he is the event’s promoter. Hugo says nothing. If his left ankle weren’t in a cast, he’d try to do the fifth ball himself. Instead he hobbles over to the fence that separates the fans and the giants’ playground, protecting bystanders from being crushed by the Mack truck the strongmen take turns pulling up the street. He signs autographs, some on trading cards he has had made featuring his likeness, and poses for pictures. Men, women, and children are hoisted onto his shoulders like ragdolls.

Meanwhile, in the tent that is giving the strongmen shade in the
Noonday sun, Travis Lyndon sits on a plastic folding chair and glowers. The emcee, a young woman from a local FM station, is encouraging the crowd to hit the beer garden to beat the heat. “Take off your shirt,” Lyndon yells to her. His wife happens to be sitting off to the side in the tent, acting as though she didn’t hear him and watching their young daughter dance to a Brittany Spears song pumping out over the sound system.

Back in the 1970s, American television networks were desperate for sports programming, so every event from sport’s fringe made it onto ABC’s Wide World of Sports and CBS’s Sports Spectacular: Cliff Diving from Acupulco; World Arm Wrestling Championships from Petaluma, California; Demolition Derby from East Islip, New York. So ABC came up with Superstars, which featured famous athletes competing in events like bowling and cycling for the ersatz title of the best all-around jock. CBS countered with the World’s Strongest Man, and the International Management Group, the world’s strongest sports agency, recruited weightlifters, shot putters, football linemen, and bodybuilders to fill the rosters.

Dr. Terry Todd, a former U.S. record holder in the bench press and an academic steeped in strength’s history and lore, worked as a consultant on the original World’s Strongest Man competition. “We realized very quickly that the events we were staging were more visually dynamic than Olympic lifting,” Todd says.

The original World’s Strongest Man program provided an unforgettable image: competitors racing with refrigerators on their backs. “I warned them that they needed to run the event up a slight grade,” Todd says. “They ran it in the flat and Franco Columbu [a champion bodybuilder] went down. His knee just exploded and the litigation lasted for years. Then Cleve Dean, the world arm-wrestling champion, a true giant, over 400 pounds, ended up falling and being pinned by the refrigerator.”

Then a funny thing happened, much funnier than giants being pinned under refrigerators. Demand for the niche sports and trash sports plummeted in the ‘80s and ‘90s. When you’ve seen one swan dive off a cliff, you’ve seen them all. Without the cameras, arm wrestling went back to the people of Petaluma, and East Islippers got back their exclusive access to the Demolition Derby’s rolling wrecks. Even the novelty of Superstars wore out like the ass of a ten-year-old Speedo. Only one thing survived: IMG’s strength franchise. In fact, it evolved and grew, with the World’s Strongest Man giving birth to the Strongman circuit, these days the province of the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA).

Though powerlifting has cred in the gym and weightlifting the Olympic seal of approval, Strongman made better programming. When it came to pulling tractor trailers at the end of a rope or lifting stones or bending steelbars, television audiences couldn’t get enough. Immense muscles rippled. Veins popped in temples. Primal grunts quaked. Sports fans who couldn’t name a single Olympic weightlifter knew Magnus Per Magnuson, the stoic Icelander who dominated Strongman in the ‘90s.

“The second generation of strongmen is coming along,” Todd says. “We’re seeing athletes who grew up watching Magnus Per Magnuson. For the original strength athletes, Strongman was an alternative, an outlet. What we’re going to see is athletes who are first and foremost Strongmen - who have trained in Strongmen.”

*

While other kids were playing with toy guns in first grade, Hugo Girard played with his father’s one-kilo dumbbells. When he was a little older, reading comic books, he wanted super-strength. He wanted to lift cars like Superman. He wanted to fight crime. He saw the Hulk throwing boulders like baseballs.

He grew up in Ste. Anne de Pontneuf, population 1,500, out between Tadoussac and Baie-Comeau on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. He played hockey with the other kids, but he was more interested in being strong and getting stronger. He had good genes. His father, Rosaire, was a construction worker. Big hands. Thick arms. Heavily muscled legs. He could swing a sledgehammer with anyone. He would have made a good strongman.

When Hugo was twelve, he took a job setting pins in a bowling alley so that he could buy his first set of weights. When he was old enough to take shop in school, his first project was gym equipment. A bench. A squat rack. Other kids read about the great athletes they saw on television. Hugo read historical accounts about Louis Cyr, the Quebec strongman who, at the turn of the twentieth century, lifted platforms loaded with people or horses, the strongest man in the world, the strongest man ever known.

In Hugo’s teens his family started to pull apart. His mother would leave with his sister. He stayed on with his father. He started to withdraw. He spent more time in his bedroom with his weights.

He doesn’t have much to do with his family any more. He’ll tell you that he has been on his own since he was seventeen, which was when he left his Québécois Smallville for Quebec, the big city, to take a law enforcement course.

*

It’s a point of pride for Hugo that he paid his own way. Hugo’s gifts landed him a job as a bouncer during his school days. It amounted to a pre-emptive hire - better to have him on your payroll than to have to tell him to drink up after last call. Hugo became a minor legend among the brotherhood of bouncers - by force of personality more than brute force. His smile alone can benchpress 400 pounds. His laugh is the sound of a bear pawing a freshly caught salmon. And working the door, he met Nadine Tremblay, a nursing student.

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “He was so big. It was scary,” she says. Nadine invited Hugo over for dinner. As the date approached, she thought more and more about what it would take to sate the mountain man. Nadine stocked up as though she were preparing dinner for the night shift of the Gatineau police force. A half-dozen steaks. Bags of potatoes. “That’s how I thought he had to eat to be that big,” she said.

She was a nurse. She was used to caring for people. She was, well, not the biggest fan of the police. She thought them tough, nasty, mean. And that’s before she got a glimpse of Hugo.

But that was also before she got to know him. “In a lot of ways he’s gentle,” she says. And it’s true. He is gentle. I’ve shaken hands with jockeys who grip harder than Hugo. He is patient. I kept him waiting at a train station - it was a derailment; it would have been a piece of work even for him - and there wasn’t one anxious furrow on his considerable brow. He is tolerant. Swarmed by fans just walking down the street, he signs every last autograph.

Terry Todd says this attitude is the rule among strongmen. “The St.
Bernard syndrome,” he calls it. “They’re so big, so threatening just with their size, that they overcompensate rather than scare everybody away.”

*

Eight years ago, after Hugo had dedicated so much of his life to powerlifting, to the benchpress, squat, and deadlift, Nadine pointed out a cruel fact one night while they were lying in bed. “Hugo,” she said, “you’re training like you’re going to the Olympics, but there is no Olympics for you.”

“It hurt,” he says. “She didn’t understand me – that’s what I thought at first. But then I realized that she was right. My powerlifting was all for a trophy. The national championships didn’t even make it into the newspaper. They didn’t even draw a crowd in the gym.”

He threw his lot in with Strongman. He won a skein of Canadian titles. He set world records. He came third in the worlds. And fourth. In 2002 he seemed poised to win the World’s Strongest Man. He had been the dominant strongman in Grand Prix competitions all year long. Instead, he finished a hugely disappointing seventh.

“He is still an incredible performer,” Terry Todd says. “But that might have been his best chance. The competition is that much tougher. The field is deeper.”

Still, Hugo has had his moments since then. He beat all the top strongmen at his “home” event last year, World Muscle Power in Dolbeau Mistassinni, Quebec.

Watching Hugo work out, it’s hard to believe he has lost anything. At the bench press, he warms up with four repetitions at 315; two repetitions at 365; one repetition at 405. And then the workout starts in earnest: five repetitions machine-gunned at 435; another five at 455; and the last five at a bar-bending 475. It looks like he won’t make it past three reps, but he guts it out. His teeth bite into his lower lip and his face is as red as a fire engine. When he inhales and exhales, the curtains move.

“Some people say my strength is the result of steroids,” Hugo tells me between sets. “It doesn’t make sense for me to do steroids. There’s not enough in it. I wouldn’t do that to my wife and son. As a police officer I couldn’t have done that. It would mean possessing something illegal.”

Hugo’s workout lasts barely forty minutes but he’s limited by the cast on his ankle. He has had horrific things happen to him before – the 385-pound Atlas stone once crashed down on his chest after a fall - but, up until a year ago, he has never had to stop competing. That all changed when he partially tore his Achilles tendon at the World’s Strongest Man in the Bahamas in September 2004. Five months into his rehabilitation, he snapped his Achilles again, trying to come back too quickly, trying to hoist an 800-pound girder in an event called The Hammer.

“I was depressed when I tore it the first time,” he says. “I didn’t get off the couch for three weeks. But the second time I was back in the gym in a few days.”

According to Alan Black, the director of Strongman, a documentary about Hugo that has a cult audience in the demimonde of iron-pushers, “Hugo always said his goal was the World’s Strongest Man title. But now he’s at an age when that’s looking less likely with his Achilles injuries. I hope he can come back. He deserves good things to happen for him.”

*

Earlier this year Hugo and Nadine moved from Gatineau to Quebec City. She resigned from her job at the Royal Ottawa Hospital to be at home with their newborn son, Tyler. Hugo is in the last stages of stepping down from the Gatineau police force to pursue making a career out of strength. They live extra-extra large in a plush home. A statue of Louis Cyr gazes out at the pool table and bar. Two massive boxers, Spyke and Mike, pad around the house. His big SUV is parked out front. His Harley - compliments of an endorsement deal - is parked in the garage. “I’m not supposed to ride it with my Achilles, but nothing will stop me,” he says.

He is making steaks on the barbecue. It’s his lunch. Nadine is busy feeding Tyler. It’s peaceful, maybe too much so.

Nadine misses her work. She says that they left friends behind. “When Hugo is off at work or travelling it’s lonely sometimes, even though my family is here,” she tells me. Hugo listens, looking wounded.

Another complication: Hugo is conflicted about his decision to leave the police force. “What do you think people will think of me?” he asks me. He says he always cared about justice, about doing the right thing. He served as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for Gatineau and law enforcement. In the end it didn’t matter to his superiors. They didn’t want a celebrity cop. They saw him as a celebrity cop. He would pull over drivers, and they would be on their cellphones telling friends that they were getting a ticket from Hugo Girard.

He kisses Nadine and Tyler goodbye. He has an appearance tonight. The World Police and Firemen Games are wrapping up in Quebec City, and he is to deliver a speech at the closing ceremonies.

A couple of thousand people are dining on hot dogs and drinking beer at the exhibition grounds. As soon as Hugo walks in, they flock towards him. He smiles. He poses for pictures. They ask him to make a muscle. He gives a bicep pose. They ooh and ahh and laugh.

“Such charisma,” one onlooker says to me. It’s Claude Larose, a municipal councillor of Quebec City. And then Hugo is called up to the podium. He makes a speech without notes. He says that it’s a special event for him, that he knows about the life of a police officer. He gets an ovation.

“I’m shy,” he tells me after the speech. It sure doesn’t come across that way, I say. “There is a Hugo character. And then there’s me. That was
the Hugo character.”

*

A couple of years ago the IFSA had the strongmen of the circuit sign contracts. They looked like sweetheart deals. The federation was guaranteeing salaries for the strongmen - in addition to their winnings at scheduled events - and, in return, the athletes had to give up control of their endorsement incomes. Headquartered in Brussels, the IFSA would negotiate the endorsements and take a percentage. “[IFSA] made a lot of promises,” Hugo recalls. “It sounded good.”

For the Eastern European strongmen, any deal had to look good, the way Hugo tells it. “A little money goes a long way over there,” he says. When IFSA officials showed up at events with a briefcase full of contracts, they came away with a bunch of signatures. The IFSA had all the leverage. If they didn’t sign, the strongmen would be barred from many regularly scheduled events, not including World’s Strongest Man, which remains the property of Trans World International, IMG’s television division.

Hugo had issues with the IFSA contracts. “They wanted us to be characters and to have nicknames like pro wrestlers,” he says. Though it gnawed at him, he signed.

Then another funny thing happened: The IFSA notified Hugo that it wanted more than a percentage of his endorsements going forward. The federation wanted a percentage of his existing endorsement deals, the deals that he had negotiated years before. Hugo had shaken thousands of hands, passed out thousands of his trading cards, and cultivated the Hugo persona. And now the IFSA wanted a piece of all that.
“I believe in giving my word, but I also believe in being treated
fairly,” Hugo said. “First chance, I was getting out of that contract.”

And the IFSA soon gave him one when one of their scheduled payments didn’t reach him on time. With his lawyer spotting him, Girard performed a feat worthy of a strongman - he broke the IFSA chains and punched a hole in the iron-clad contract.

Then he rallied the Canadian strongmen behind him. After all, without Hugo, what is the strongman circuit in Canada? So the

Canadians were out of IFSA. Or most of them, anyway. Travis Lyndon was still on board, thus the tension at the Ontario championships this summer, and the calling-out over the Atlas Stones. Hugo calls Travis the world’s best stone lifter in one breath and in the next describes him as “weak.” It’s all about the difference between muscle fibre and moral fibre.
By fall, Lyndon has bailed out of IFSA too. He saw the light. He’s back in Hugo’s show. He’s hoping the international Strongmen will be brave enough to stand up to those who bully the giants with a contract and a pen. Travis Lyndon and the rest of the Candian strongmen are standing by Hugo Girard. They’re strong but he’s Superman, the Hulk, and Louis Cyr rolled into one.

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