Strong Man


In the esoteric universe of brawn and iron, Paul Anderson was the very best, performing in his prime feats of strength that defied credulity, as well as gravity, setting standards that have yet to be equaled.

Anderson, who died at 61 August 15 after a long battle with VTC kidney disease, was a sports hero who made his name in a sport Americans en masse have never taken much of a liking to.

Largely unknown outside his weight-lifting milieu, he competed and performed without the manic celebrity accorded to Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Johnny Unitas and other athletes of his time who were the very best at what they did.

Paul Anderson seemed to inhale air and exhale brute power. In 1956, in a strength show in Las Vegas, he did a deep knee bend with more than 1,200 pounds on his back; in 1957, after he turned pro, he positioned himself under a custom-built 6,270-pound platform and back-lifted it, a feat still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest weight ever lifted by a human being. Then there were his 627-pound bench press, his 550-pound push-press, his 820-pound deadlift and 10-repetition, one-handed dumbbell presses with 135 pounds.

These lifts are particularly remarkable because Anderson had no one to push him, no one who posed a challenge to be overcome. Others have since exceeded his bench press and deadlift, but Anderson performed these lifts in the 1950s and mid-1960s, when his closest competition was over 100 pounds away.

His legend was born in Moscow during the U.S. weightlifting team's world tour in 1955. Alexander Medvediev, the Russian heavyweight, had pressed 325 pounds, and the Russians asked Anderson if he wanted to withdraw. Instead, he called for 402 pounds on the bar, 42 pounds over the official world's record. Anderson pressed it and brought the house down.

The Russians proclaimed Anderson the "world's strongest man," and were so intimidated that they all but conceded him a gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, keeping Medvediev out of the competition.

Anderson won, though barely. Ailing with a 104-degree fever, he managed on his final attempt (after missing it twice) to clean and jerk 414 pounds, tying his nearest com-petitor and winning by being the lighter man.

After the "Melbourne Miracle," as Anderson called it, he became a born-again Christian. In 1962 he started a youth home in his native Georgia, supporting his family and enterprise by giving speeches and strength exhibitions around the country.

By 1964, Russia had become the world's top weightlifting power. Anderson, fiercely patriotic, wanted to reclaim an Olympic gold medal for the United States in the heavyweight division.

But by profiting from his exhibitions, Anderson had, according to the strict Amateur Athletic Union code then in effect, forfeited his amateur status. Like Jim Thorpe half a century earlier, Anderson and his supporters pleaded to deaf ears.

Lifting pundits still argue over whether Anderson, facing stiffer competition in Tokyo, could have reclaimed the Olympic heavyweight crown, given his tremendous pressing power but relatively small hands that limited his potential in the snatch and clean-and-jerk.

Few of them, however, disputed his right to be called the world's strongest man. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Anderson gave exhibitions. Even without the intense preparation competitive powerlifters undergo, he routinely squatted, for example, with 900 pounds -- in his socks!

Kidney disease in 1983 withered the normally 5-foot-9-inch, 350-pound Anderson down to 200 pounds. A kidney transplant (from his sister) saved his life, though he was near death again in 1984 from a ruptured colon.

By then, his fame rested as much on his humanitarian efforts as it did on his lifting prowess.

I corresponded with him briefly in early 1986, and Anderson wrote what I had already suspected -- that his athletic feats "were a catalyst in helping to develop the real important work of my life."

By "important work" he meant preaching his faith and running Paul Anderson Youth Homes. Still, who can forget that back lift listed in Guinness or those 1,000-pound squats or that time in Moscow when he sent those strength-loving Russians into a frenzy?

Mark Miller, a weightlifter, writes from Baltimore.

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