It is a curious fact that the country of Iceland, with a population of just three hundred thousand, has won nearly a quarter of the forty-one World’s Strongest Man contests. The country seems to have been permanently linked, culturally, to the concept of human muscular strength and power. One man, above all others, is responsible for that, and indeed much of the popularity the sport still enjoys. He is, of course, the charismatic icon of strongman, Jon Pall Sigmarsson.
Jon Pall Was the epitome of a strength athlete, excelling in all the main disciplines; weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman and even Highland games, where he was a regular contender in Scotland due to his friendship with strongman and games organiser Dr Douglas Edmunds. His athleticism was the key to his success and he thrived in any test of strength that also involved movement and speed. Sigmarsson himself conceded that his static strength was inferior to his great rival, Bill Kazmaier, but also stated that he was the fastest strongman in the world. His build, too, was much more athletic than some of his hulking contemporaries, staying mostly lean as he periodically cut bodyweight for bodybuilding shows in Iceland. The 1987 Pure Strength contest, held in the grounds of Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire and serving that year, in the absence of a World’s Strongest Man contest as an unofficial replacement, was the one exception. Bulking up to by far his greatest competitive bodyweight he won eight out of the ten, mostly static, tests of strength against Kazmaier and his other great nemesis, Geoff Capes.
Born on a farm in Solvangur, Jon Pall enjoyed the kind of active early life that shapes the physiques and mindsets of many of sport’s great champions. Hunting seals, gathering eggs and carrying large pails of water about the farm instilled in him not only physical strength but a work ethic and discipline that he would use to great advantage throughout his career. In 1978 he began training in Jakabol after being introduced to weightlifting two years earlier. Problems with his lockout prevented progression and so he redirected his efforts towards powerlifting and bodybuilding. In 1981 he took 3rd in the IPF World Powerlifting Championships and claimed the European title in 1983. The following year he won the Icelandic bodybuilding title, and just to prove his versatility won his first WSM title the same year.
Sigmarsson won four WSM titles in all, surpassed only by Mariusz Pudzianowski of Poland and equalled by his compatriot Magnus Ver Magnusson and Lithuania’s Zydrunas Savickas. Twice he was defeated by Capes, and twice Jon Pall won back the coveted title. “The king has lost his crown!” Was perhaps the most memorable of Sigmarsson’s quips as he defeated Capes in an arm wrestling bout to claim his first title in 1984. Throughout the eighties the Icelander was a near unstoppable force, capturing five World Muscle Power Championships, two Europe’s Strongest Man titles and six Iceland’s Strongest Man victories. Yet, the number of his wins was overshadowed by the incredible style in which he won them and the charisma and entertainment he injected into the competitions. In an era that was hardly lacking in big personalities such as Kazmaier, the Canadian Tom Magee head-butting the sets and the mighty Capes, a household name in England, Sigmarsson stood out and continues to live in the consciousness of all who were lucky enough to have watched him.
In victory he would roar and posture; flexing and swinging imaginary swords whilst declaring “I am the Viking!” always though with a sense of fun. In defeat, Sigmarsson would yell and stamp, angry at himself, rather than his competitors, although on one memorable occasion, beaten by Magee in a deadlift, he responded by blowing kisses to the crowd. It was this showmanship and ready wit that endeared him to the fans: “Too much power!” he once proclaimed to the audience as the rope he was pulling on snapped. He admitted that “I’m a little bit crazy, when I’m competing. I have to do it crazy.” In a lesser mortal such qualities might have seemed arrogant, but Sigmarsson was a truly ruthless competitor who could back-up his talk with an athletic ability that none of his competitors could match.
In the thick of competition Jon Pall had once shouted that “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift.” Sadly these words proved to be prophetic as in 1993, only a year after his final Iceland’s Strongest Man title and at just 33, he died of a heart attack caused by an aortic rupture, doing what he loved best, deadlift. It is often the way that those stars that shine brightest, shine briefest, but Jon Pall’s memory and legacy lives on in the competitors that have been inspired by him and the fans that began watching the sport because of his magnetism. One phrase, above all perhaps, sums up the achievements and the attitude of a man who is part of strongman and even Icelandic history: “Ekkert mal fyir Jon Pall,” “ain’t no problem for Jon Pall.”