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The Deadlift World Record Is Coming to the Center of the Sports Universe

ESPN will devote a block of coverage to Hafthor Bjornsson’s attempt to break the deadlift world record. Will this bring a new audience to strongman competitions—and the debate over the attempt’s legitimacy? 

Ringer illustration

Many people would describe Hafthor Bjornsson as a mountain of a man even if he hadn’t played a character called The Mountain on Game of Thrones. Standing a smidge under 7 feet tall and weighing more than 400 pounds, he takes up the space usually required for three humans. In 2014, when Bjornsson was clocking in at a wimpy 390-something, The New York Times compared him to a refrigerator. And if you thought he was towering as Gregor Clegane, well, he’s a lot bigger now.

It’s been nearly a year since The Mountain fell from the Red Keep; these days, Bjornsson is making news at his day job. On Saturday, he’ll be on ESPN, attempting to pull 1,104 pounds (or for context: about five of the aforementioned refrigerators, or one adolescent elephant, or two-thirds of a smart car) off the ground and up to his waist. More precisely, Bjornsson will try to break the deadlift world record, a four-year-old mark set at 500 kilograms by the British strongman Eddie Hall.

The deadlift is sometimes called the “King of Lifts,” both because it is extraordinarily taxing and easy to understand. Though the average lifter is taught to focus acutely on proper technique and only deadlift about once a week to avoid injury, the exercise’s appeal is universal: Everybody knows what it feels like to lift something off the ground. And 501 kilograms is a whole lot of something.

In normal times, Bjornsson’s attempt wouldn’t have a dedicated window of prominent airtime; just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that people want to watch it. Strength sports have a niche audience better served by YouTube and Twitch than cable television. Nevertheless, The Mountain will be live on ESPN at noon ET, with a 30-minute block of coverage focusing on his feat of strength. Will sports fans tune in … or care?

There has been a fascination with strength for as long as there have been humans. An advantaged party is still known as a Goliath; the strength of Hercules has been portrayed both in a Disney cartoon and a 2014 live-action movie starring Dwayne Johnson. Beginner lifting programs and modern strongman competitions often reference the myth of Milo of Croton, a man who may or may not have lived about 2,500 years ago and trained for the ancient Olympics by walking around with a growing calf on his back. And in 2015, when Bjornsson carried a 640-kilogram log for five steps, he did it to break a record set only in legend: The viking Orm Storolfsson is said to have carried the mast of a ship for three steps before breaking his back.

Feats of strengths are part mythology and part circus act—for the 19th and much of the 20th century, strongmen traveled with promoters performing impressive but strange feats, like driving a nail through a board or biting a coin in half. There was no uniform strength competition, however, until the creation of Olympic weightlifting in 1896. Even then, the kinks in that competition weren’t worked out until about 40 years later.

Paul Anderson, the American who claimed to be the strongest man in the world in 1950s and ’60s, won Olympic weightlifting gold at the 1956 games before giving up his amateur status to tour the country doing his own act; he lifted dumbbells and squatted with the weight of eight audience members on his back while a comedian prattled on as his emcee. These feats contributed to Anderson’s fame, but a lack of standardization led to grating questioning and a constant demand for proof. Anderson would lift dumbbells over his head, and after his show an audience member would come on stage, lift the weight, and suggest that it wasn’t so heavy. “I can’t understand that,” Anderson told The New Yorker in 1969. “When a violinist gets through with a concert, nobody comes up and starts playing his violin.”

Eventually a competition would emerge: The first World’s Strongest Man (WSM) was held in 1977 at Universal Studios and aired on CBS. It had similar vibes to UFC 1, with haphazardly designed events that drew competitors from the worlds of bodybuilding, football, weightlifting, and hammer throwing. One competitor was a professional stuntman. Lou Ferrigno, Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding foil in the documentary Pumping Iron and the actor who played The Hulk in a pre-CGI world, was there too.

In the years since, the competition has become a proper sport, with qualifying events and participants who specialize in strongman. Timed bar-bending has given way to events more closely based on powerlifting exercises. In the 1980s, the deadlift became an occasional part of WSM competitions and emerged as a strongman favorite. In 1987, the late Jon Pall Sigmarsson, a four-time WSM winner and athletic legend in Iceland, famously deadlifted a 1,000-pound wagon-wheel-like contraption and exclaimed at the top of the lift, “There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift.” Bjornsson has the line tattooed on his left shin.

Today, strongman competition is Bjornsson’s realm: He’s finished among the top three at each of the last seven editions of the competition, winning the World’s Strongest Man title in 2018. At the Arnold Strongman Classic, the U.S. Open to WSM’s Wimbledon, he’s in the midst of a three-peat. In the deadlift event of this year’s Arnold Classic, he was so far ahead of the field that he didn’t even need to take his third attempt, which is usually reserved for an athlete’s heaviest weight—his second attempt was good enough to beat everybody else’s max.

Yet while strongman events are often designed for visual flair—for years, the Arnold Classic put Hummer tires around the weights at the end of the barbell to add to the deadlift’s effect—Bjornsson’s attempt Saturday won’t feature a funky made-for-TV bar. Instead, it’ll be done on a deadlift barbell with powerlifting plates, the standard equipment required for a lift that could break the world record. Of course, the regulations here are far from clear.

Eddie Hall isn’t really a mountain of a man. At 6-foot-3 and a competition weight of 385 pounds, he’s more of a boulder, or a cannonball. In 2016, he set the current deadlift world record, breaking his own previous mark by 35 kilograms. The record usually climbs in single-digit increments.

The 2016 effort is hard to watch. Hall makes the lift without a hitch, but as he rises, so does the pressure inside of his body. His nose fires blood, and to showboat, he holds the weight at the top of the lift for an extra handful of seconds. When Hall comes down, he collapses. Later, he said he was in and out of consciousness for weeks, and that he had trouble remembering his kids’ names. But the publicity and endorsement opportunities following this lift allowed Hall to fund his strongman training. In 2017, he finally won the World’s Strongest Man competition after five unsuccessful tries, and then promptly retired.

Hall knew that he couldn’t stay healthy while maintaining the mass he needed to continue being a strongman, so he’s since shifted into making himself a personality, running a popular YouTube account on which he’s proved to be nearly as charming as he is strong. Bjornsson has taken to building a vlogging infrastructure too. His page isn’t as popular as Hall’s, but it features stuff like this:

This content kills on YouTube among people who seek out incredible feats of strength. But it’s unclear how this will play on ESPN. The deadlift attempt is partially being framed as a gimmick—it’s running during the network’s fifth edition of “ESPN: The Ocho,” a recurring stunt in which the worldwide leader gives a half-day chunk of coverage to usually unaired sports. Other programming this Saturday will include a cherry-pit-spitting competition, marble racing, and something called the Stupid Robot Fighting League. Bjornsson’s lift will be the only live event in the block.

It’ll also take place from his gym in Reykjavik, on his own time frame, without any of the other inconveniences that come with open strongman competition. In a way, it’ll feel like a sprinter trying to set a world record by running a 9.57-second 100-meter dash alone at a local track. Hall, who set his record at the World Deadlift Championships competing against a group of other athletes, has taken issue with the circumstances surrounding the lift. He and Bjornsson have developed a YouTube beef.

If Bjornsson successfully pulls the 501 kilograms, there still will be no consensus as to whether his record is legitimate—some might see this as reason for further standardization, and some might write it off as another gimmick in a sport that rarely gets a national platform. But perhaps the debate should be part of the appeal: What is a feat of strength without the accompanying mythology?