The Future of Natural Strongman - A Case for a Sport No One Cares About
Powerlifting, like Olympic weightlifting, has reached the status of being openly embraced by athletes and lifters from all walks of life, while strongman is still a backyard sport of relative obscurity in most countries. To get strongman to the scale of the other strength sports will require a dramatic shift in the perceived barrier to entry and accessibility of the sport. Nobody cares about natural strongman competitions at this point in time, but we should all pay attention, as these competitions may hold the key to the future of the sport as a whole.
I was having a discussion with a fellow strongman competitor the other day about natural strongman competitions and why there aren’t more competitions that are drug-tested in the sport. He was lamenting over the fact that there aren't more natural competitions to partake in and that it's unfair to those who want to compete naturally to have to compete in open competitions all the time.
While I don't think it's such a bad thing to compete in open competitions to get better and challenge yourself, for instance, my old training partner Dain Wallis would compete and do very well against men twice as heavy as him in open competitions all the time before weight classes in strongman became a thing in Canada.
I can still see how some athletes want a more even playing field. That's why weight classes have started to surge in popularity as the sport has continued to grow. It makes the barrier to entry seem more attainable for those who aren’t built so big.
Strongman will never make it as a mainstream sport, but here’s why I think that natural strongman and strongwoman competitions could help the sport to grow.
Why we don’t see more natural competitions:
First and foremost, other than a few of the world’s best athletes, strongman is not making anyone rich. Organizing and running competitions is not a lucrative career and the majority of athletes are breaking even at best by competing.
To hold a natural strongman and/or strongwoman competition means that the show promoter has to tack on the additional cost of drug testing in organizing the event if they want to do it right and uphold the standards.
And drug testing ain’t cheap.
Not only will it cost the competition organizers more but is the interest in natural strongman there to help justify the cost?
I don’t think it is, at least not yet.
In Canada, I believe we have less than 50 total athletes in the whole country that even care about natural strongman competitions, and realistically I'm being generous; the number might be closer to half of that.
It could be a "chicken or the egg" situation in that there aren’t that many natural competitions taking place and so the athletes aren't flocking to natural competitions thereby increasing the demand for more of these competitions to happen regularly.
It would be nice to say that it’s simply because strongmen and strongwomen don’t care about the “Ws” and are happy to compete in any competition because they're all about the quest for personal improvement, but most competitive athletes have strong egos, so that’s not all that likely. That's why athletes want an even playing field so that they have a better chance of winning.
The interest isn’t there, yet, because there’s no greater purpose to competing in natural strongman. As of right now, there’s one World’s Natural Strongman Federation with limited opportunities to qualify, because there’s no underlying country-to-country structure. If an organizer in a country wants to hold a qualifying competition to get athletes a spot at the WNSF competition, they’ve got to take that upon themselves to hold the competition. And so there are only a few countries that are actually on board with WNSF right now.
Again, not a whole lot of incentive to join in. It takes a very noble and convicted proponent of natural competitions and drug testing in sport to get on board with WNSF. In Canada, we have three natural strongman competitions each year: a qualifier for the Eastern provinces, a qualifier for the Western provinces, and Canada’s Natural Strongest Man. The winner of CNSM gets an invitation to the World’s competition, much like how Canada’s Strongest Man gets invited to World’s Strongest Man.
It’s a similar path, but with a much smaller group of interested athletes in the natural competitions. This might make it somewhat more attainable for someone wanting to get involved, or it might just show that having a stricter barrier to entry is pointless.
Here’s why natural strongman might save all of us in the sport of strongman and eventually strongwoman too, though.
The WNSF has the vision to get strongman into the Olympic Games and supposedly they have gotten a lot closer to making that a reality in the past couple of years.
With the 2020 Summer Games only two years away, it’s unlikely that it will happen by then, but we may be looking at a future Olympic trial sport with strongman in 2024.
Getting into the Olympics would help the sport to grow and would pave the way to it being seen as even more inclusive. The Starting Strongman motto is that “strongman is for everyone” and having natural strongman in the Olympics would further reinforce that point.
While certainly as a trial sport strongman wouldn’t get the media attention in the Olympics that WSM still gets on television stations every year, it would still garner attention to the sport and with a prescribed set of events (an essential component for it to be considered for the Olympics) it would be perceived as a sport that a lot more people could get involved in. Eventually, this would pave the way for strongwoman to become more widespread as well and potentially make it into the Olympics as well. Being in the Olympics would also mean younger athletes would find their way to the sport as well like we see with weightlifting and the track and field throwing events.
I would hate to see strongman competitions become pigeonholed into whatever events are determined to be "Olympic worthy" as the variety of events is part of the appeal of the sport, however, some athletes determined to get to the top of the podium would certainly become more specified.
Some people think that having strongman in the Olympics is a terrible idea because the viewership is in decline and due to the marring of athletic integrity with all the doping scandals. Olympic viewership might be in decline but it's still a lot more eyes and media exposure that we could get on the sport than what WSM gets alone. As for thinking that strongman in the Olympics serves no purpose other than finding out who the best cheater is, I think that's an excessively pessimistic view of it. USAPL and other drug-tested powerlifting organizations have been doing quite well for themselves because there's the option to compete in open competitions for those who are so inclined, whereas Olympic weightlifting has only one option to provide to lifters, so they either have to play by the rules or cheat the system.
As a competitor and long-time fan of the sport, I think that finding ways to get a larger audience interested in competing in strongman and strongwoman can only do good things for helping the sport to grow. Natural strongman can help to surge the popularity of the sport much like how raw and drug-tested powerlifting has helped powerlifting to grow in recent years. With the dynamic nature of strongman, it only follows that as more people become aware of the sport and see it as something that is realistic to get involved in, we will all have more opportunities to compete in the sport that we love.