Image: Golli.

Of Mountains and Men

 In Magazine, Magazine Intro, Society, Sport

Words by Ragnar Tómas Hallgrímsson

Photography by Golli

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the Icelander who portrayed Gregor Clegane, a.k.a. “the Mountain,” in HBO series Game of Thrones, owns and operates a gym in Kópavogur, Iceland.

It’s called Thor’s Power Gym, which, admittedly, has an ever-so-slightly masculine ring to it.

It’s there where Hafþór and other might-minded individuals convene to train for, among other things, the sport of strongman. Called aflraunir in Icelandic, the competition involves a potpourri of premodern feats of strength (with a few modern twists) often named for mythological heroes: the Atlas Stones, the Hercules Hold, Conan’s Wheel, Fingal’s Finger.

In strongman, there are no points for subtlety.

On a sunny morning in June, I lug open the door to Thor’s Power Gym, unleashing a low frenzy of death metal into the world. I’m here to interview strongman-in-training Theodór Már Guðmundsson – who they say has at least two or three centimetres on the Mountain himself. Theodór may be the only Icelander big enough to accept hand-me-downs from Hafþór (which, I am told, he sometimes does).

Strolling past a gallery of unreasonably hefty weights – over-sized dumbbells, log bars, stones, and axles – I come across three men casually perpetrating Iceland’s cardinal sin: squandering the rare sunlight in their off hours. As I wait for Theodór, I ask one of the guys, a stocky man neck-deep in tattoos, about a video I had seen last night. It showed the Mountain limping off the competition grounds at the World’s Strongest Man tournament (held in Florida this year), following the second event. Hafþór is defending his title: his first, but Iceland’s ninth, making the country’s number of champions second only to the United States.

“Is Hafþór really injured?” I ask.

“Yes,” the man replies. “He tore a sinew on the bottom of his foot.”

Hafþór tore his plantar fascia: the fibrous tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel and the toes. It’s the kind of injury that usually requires a removable cast and calls for a period of immobilisation lasting at least three or four weeks.

“Does that mean that he’s out?” I ask.

“For most people, it would – but Hafþór’s the craziest fucker I know.”

“Crazy” can mean a lot of things. Applied to a man who broke a 1,000-year-old Viking record by shouldering the 640-kilogram (1,410-pound) mast of a famed longship, Ormurinn Langi (The Long Worm), before proceeding to take five whole steps, the word “crazy” probably falls a smidgen short. The original record holder, the legendary Ormur Stórólfsson, only managed three steps, and – if the eponymous saga from the 13th century is to be believed – was “never quite the same again.”

Hafþór was fine.

A controversial figure in Iceland, Hafþór tends to elicit the same polarised reactions that Marmite does. On the one hand, his portrayal of the Mountain, his feats of strength, and his way of making those who stand next to him feel like a jacked-up Gandalf has come to visit Hobbiton, inspire awe. On the other hand, public accusations of domestic violence have cast a long shadow over his reputation.

In Thor’s Power Gym, people generally go for awe.

But Hafþór is only one in a line of local titans vying for the title of Iceland’s strongest. Among those hoping to emulate the Mountain’s mythological exploits, is a lumbering behemoth who presently enters the gym (stooping slightly). He greets me with a smile – right before his ursine paw swallows my palm.

Theodór Már Guðmundsson is 25 years old and boasts, perhaps, the most remarkable before and after photograph in the history of Iceland. Before our meeting, I studied the picture (which readers can view on Instagram) for something like the twentieth time. On the left side, there is a 17-year-old boy slouching in his boxers: long hair, pale, slender arms dangling uselessly by his side. He looks like a lanky Kurt Cobain doing an impression of a dispirited lamp post. There’s a reusable grocery bag in the background bearing the logo of Iceland’s most economical grocery store: Bónus. It seems oddly pertinent, a token of the boy himself: a second-class version of the bona fide hulk flexing a huge tattooed arm on the right side of the photograph, whom viewers are expected to believe is the same man – only six or seven years older now, wearing a black wife beater, with shorter hair, and a beard.

He looks like the Thor that Chris Hemsworth modelled himself after for the eponymous film.

After Theodór settles into his seat, I ask him about the boy on the left side of the photograph.

“I was built like a lamp post,” he admits. “I was 87 kilos [192 pounds] at my lightest. For a person of my stature, which was 203 centimetres [6’8’’] at the time, that’s skin and bones. I’ve managed to bulk up to about 158 kilos [348 pounds]. Things have certainly changed,” he says, laughing.

Theodór’s nonchalance, I learn, belies the price of his transformation. On any given day, he wolfs down three times as many calories as the average adult male (somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000) and, like many of his strongman peers, he has developed sleep apnoea from the weight gain. He sleeps with a CPAP mask, which facilitates the ventilation of his respiratory system, but also, he tells me – greatly mitigates the intensity of his snoring. Without the mask, his girlfriend must take refuge from his vigorous snorts in another room. Churchill snored, but only at 35 decibels (according to one source): that’s the volume of a library.

Theodór’s snore, I imagine, is no library.

Besides the adverse effects of the weight gain, competing in strongman also comes with its share of injuries, of the kind that Hafþór suffered yesterday. Although many strongmen will maintain – as Theodór does – that the risk of injury isn’t greater in strongman than in any other sport, there is research to suggest otherwise. In a paper from 2014, Paul Winwood et. al. surveyed 213 strongman competitors and found that 82% suffered an injury during one year of training, which is a lot – even when compared to the other strength sports (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting). Most of the injuries are sustained during traditional events, like the lifting of Atlas stones onto raised platforms or pulling freight trucks (Theodór himself has been struggling with a back injury). The toll that the training and the diet take on the strongman’s body – not to mention the open secret of steroid use, which Theodór and I don’t discuss – has caused friction among his family.

“Following the death of Jón Páll Sigmarsson,” Theodór says, “people began saying things like, ‘You’ll kill yourself if you go into this sport.’”

Before the Mountain, there was Magnús Ver Magnússon, and before Magnús Ver Magnússon, there was Jón Páll Sigmarsson, Iceland’s most famous strongman and four-time World’s Strongest Man titleholder. He was a hero to every boy growing up in the ’80s, until his sudden death in 1993. Having popularised the sport in Iceland, he died at the age of 32, doing what he loved most: deadlifting. During his lifetime, Jón Páll was the promulgator of many memorable quotes, among them, “What’s the point of being alive if you can’t deadlift?” – a saying that has since acquired a somewhat paradoxical shade. The official cause of Jón Páll’s death was an aortic rupture, which some say was the result of a genetic condition; however, it’s not unlikely that steroid use, combined with the intensity of Jón Páll’s training, along with the incredible vacillations in weight that he underwent – competing, as he did, alternately in bodybuilding and strongman – exacerbated the condition.

“Jón Páll’s death has engendered prejudice toward the sport,” Theodór says, “and among my family. But I try to reason with them. I try to tell them that this is what makes me happy and that I hope that they support me…”

As he says this, his train of thought is cut short by barbaric screams ringing out from the gym.

“Something crazy’s going on out there,” Theodór says, glancing over his shoulder and smiling.

In light of the injuries, the weight gain, the CPAP machines, and more, I wonder what it is that attracts people like Theodór to the sport. It may have something to do with Icelandic culture.

The history of Icelandic strength traces its roots to the Vikings, who settled on the island in the 9th century. Dr. Mathias Nordvig, of the University of Colorado Boulder, has described the Norse settlements in Iceland as exceptional, arguing that there is a specific kind of mentality that leads an individual to seek out new lands as opposed to remaining in “comfortable surroundings in Scandinavia.” Nordvig maintains that a large portion of Iceland’s early population was a little more opportunistic, independent, and fortune-seeking than the average person, which may also explain why Icelandic literature constitutes most of Old Norse literature: these are the kind of qualities that inspire good stories. (Indeed, anyone who lived through the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland has learned that “opportunism” and “fortune-seeking” are part and parcel of Icelandic national identity – along with a healthy dose of the Dunning-Kruger effect.) The roughness of life on the island during the Middle Ages meant that locals placed a premium on grit and strength.

The Icelandic strongmen, I’m convinced, are traditionalists: a vestige of the island’s early settlers.

Before taking my leave of the gym, Theodór demonstrates a few strongman exercises as I look on with admiration. He’s not as strong as the Mountain, not yet, but I’m told he shows great promise. He tells me that he dreams of competing in the World’s Strongest Man competition one day and then lets out a self-deprecating laugh.

“I don’t know. That’s the dream. Truthfully, I just want to be myself – someone I can be proud of.”

Two days later, curled up on the sofa watching a documentary on Iceland’s lifting stones (stone lifting was Iceland’s most popular sport for centuries, someone claims), I learn that Hafþór has lost his title of World’s Strongest Man, but somehow, despite his injury, has placed third. To a person who cut a beeline to the emergency room following a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome – this seems insane.

Watching four-time World’s Strongest Man Magnús Ver Magnússon waddle around on the screen (his awkward gait likely the result of many painful injuries), I find myself pondering, once again, what it is that drives the Icelandic strongmen. Musing upon the matter, one of the documentary’s interlocutors, strongman Stefán Sölvi Pétursson, begins discussing a runic fragment of Hávamál(old Viking poems) that is tattooed on his arm:

 

Cattle die

And kinsmen die,

Thyself too

Soon must die,

But one thing never,

I ween, will die;

Fair fame of one

Who has earned.

 

He pauses.

“It basically says that everything has its time, everything dies, but if you make a good reputation in life, it will go on … that’s what I strive for.”

Stefán’s words bring to mind another poem, written by Icelandic poet and notorious pessimist Steinn Steinarr:

 

Sown into every man’s dream

Are the seeds of his undoing.

 

I think Steinn was on to something.

This article is in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.

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