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10.05.2003

Reptilian Kitten-Eaters, Canadian Beefcake

Last Wednesday, I fired up the old Saturn and drove to Montreal to meet the YULbloggers, a loose confederation of people who meet once a month for dinner at the kind of pub I would chew an arm off to have in my own town. I got to meet some people whose sites I had long read, like Martine Page and Aaron Cope, as well as hitherto unsuspected bloggers like Boris, Stephanie, Marie-Jo, Maggie, and (cringe) a handful of nice people whose names in my memory didn't survive the long trip south. The YULbloggers were hospitable and charming. Once I got over everyone's terrifying ability to switch between fluent English and French in mid-sentence, I had a great time. Rather than drive home in the wee hours, I decided to spend the night in Canada, and found myself a motel in the strip mall wasteland south of Montreal, contented and happy. Spending the night meant the double treat of watching Canadian late-night TV, then listening to morning drive time radio at first light. The radio certainly lived up to my high hopes - it informed me that someone named Dalton McGuinty had been elected to a position of importance in Ontario, despite his opponent having issued a press release in which he called McGuinty an "evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet". That's just the kind of reason I like to travel to the parallel universe called Canada. Consider that our most populous state is about to elect a left-breast-groping, Teutonic meat mountain to be its governor, while the new leader of Ontario is a colorless, odorless nonentity whose biggest crime is looking too much like Norman Bates. And who gets called a kitten-eater? Consider further that, in the States, if your name is "Dalton McGuinty" you might as well call yourself "Unelectable McLoser". Obviously we have a lot to learn from Canadian politics. Late-night TV at the Days Inn turned out to be no less inspiring. The first program I came across was the "Canada's Strongest Man" semifinal, in which fifteen guys who looked like the Michelin man competed in various feats of strength, like hoisting large stone beach balls onto a wooden platform. Mildly hopped up on my can of '5 agrumes' soda, I greeted "Canada's Strongest Man" with the kind of derisive snort I usually reserve for "Canada's [superlative] X", where [superlative] is not one of 'coldest', 'largest' or 'most remote'. But the snort froze in my nose when I saw the Paul Bunyan types in action, hauling Mack trucks with their teeth and playfully tossing tree trunks at each other. Canada produces large men. There's no denying it - something to do with northern latitudes, lumberjacks and hockey players, meals rich in protein and gravy. And it turns out that Quebec in particular has a rich strongman tradition. Halfway through the program, there was a nice retrospective about the granddaddy of Canadian strongmen, Louis Cyr. A native of Quebec, the 'Canadian Samson' had spent most of his short life humiliating the few weightlifters foolish enough to compete with him. Not only had every Strongest Man contestant heard of Cyr, but they all spoke about him in the same hushed, reverential voice. Just a few of his confirmed lifts, in no particular order:

  • 550 pounds with right middle finger
  • 3635 pounds with his back
  • 273 pound barbell pressed above his head
  • four draft horses unable to pry his arms apart
Louis Cyr had a colorful life - he worked as a lumberjack, then did a stint as a Canadian cop. It goes without saying that the crime rate in his precinct fell. His wife was a frail little thing, never weighing more than 100 pounds, or about the weight Louis could hold with his arm fully extended. She probably spent most of her marriage in the kitchen: Cyr believed that the real foundation of a strength regimen was eating as much food as he could possibly fit, an approach that eerily foreshadows my own theories on marathon training. There is a very nice French-language website devoted to Cyr, along with a more abbreviated English biography that goes into some of his greatest feats in more detail. And don't miss the photos of Cyr in a fig leaf. It turns out there's a whole world of interesting websites devoted to Victorian and early 20th century body building. I especially recommend this set of galleries, featuring some rare vintage action shots, as well as a capsule history of bodybuilding, which culminates in our very own Aaahnold. See if you can spot the point at which they start using anabolic steroids. While it's true that the bar was not always set as high for muscle men in those pre-steroid days, the Sandow Museum site in particular has some stunning examples of 1930's bodies that wouldn't look out of place on a modern magazine cover, provided you got rid of the Brylcreem. I am particularly fascinated by the three-way split between physical culturists like Charles Atlas, who were trying their best to look like Greek statuary without much thought about strength, brute-force strongmen like Louis Cyr, who didn't look anything like Greek statuary but could probably pulverize it with their bare hands, and the 'scientific' bodybuilders, who pioneered methods like free weights, resistance training, and all the other strength-building techniques we take for granted today. I'm also fascinated by the aesthetics of old-time beefcake. When did the hot fig-leaf-and-club photo fall out of style? And just what are the origins of the Fred Flintstone outfit? I can't wait to go back to Canada.

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