Hanging with heavies at Highland Games
WHETHER they come for money, or for God and glory, the Highland Games would be poorer without the international giants who love hurling our trees and rocks
THE stone is pitted and round, weighs 16 pounds and draws the mind to dragon eggs. It was lifted from the bed of the River Aray in the Victorian age and has served, ever since, as a test of strength at the Inveraray Highland Games. It is granite, formed around 425 million years ago, and right now is being held high in the air by Heidar Geirmundsson, a 30 year old athlete known as Heisi who hails from the lava fields of western Iceland. Heisi is about to throw the stone some 60 feet, he hopes and as the crowd holds its breath, and as his right arm bends back and bulges, causing his Viking tattoos to warp and dance, one senses the collision of elemental and cultural forces in this moment: the hard rock from Scotland versus the rock hard man from the far north.
He throws. He grunts: "ch!" The stone arcs through the hot summer air and lands some distance short of the record. No matter. There will be soon be another rock, another test. For Heisi is one of a travelling band of overseas athletes who spend each summer competing at Scotland's games and have come to dominate the sport. This is his fourth event in four days. That giant in the kilt over there tossing the caber? He's more likely to be from St Petersburg than St Andrews; more likely Californian than Caledonian. He might even be whisper it English. This foreign lot, they're coming over "Buy Cheap Jintropin Online" here, throwing our hammers and, jings, the worst thing is they're pretty good at it.
"In Iceland, you "Anabola Steroider Norge Lagligt" grow up lifting stones," Heisi had explained earlier in the gazebo where the athletes shelter from the sun, sipping energy shakes and, as the day wears on, cold beers. "You pit yourself against your friends to see who can lift the heavier stone. The heavier it is, the better I like it." He shrugged hairy shoulders; pressed a plug of Icelandic tobacco up a nostril. "It's just what we do. We throw big rocks. It's in our genes, I guess."
More than 60 Highland games take place in Scotland each year between May and September. Cash "Oxandrolone Powder India" prizes are on offer for those winning the different heavy athletics disciplines. The money isn't huge but it adds up. A high performing "heavy" could walk away from a middle range games with 500 cash in his sporran, and if he is able to travel to two or more each week during the summer, he can earn a decent whack. At Inveraray, home of the World Caber Championships, there is 400 for the winner of that event alone. There are expenses, of course, notably fuel for vehicles and those cavernous, ravenous bodies "You eat more than you win," says one Scottish competitor but, especially for those athletes who come from eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the Scottish games represent an opportunity to boost their incomes considerably.
The Wenta brothers, Sebastian and Lukas, are regular winners on the scene iron bros, made in Poland from girders. They come from the town of Tczew, and while Sebastian still lives there, working as a house builder, Lukas moved to East Kilbride 18 months ago and has found work as a mechanic. Lukas is the younger and smaller, aged 35, and relatively puny at a mere six foot six and 120 kilos. Sebastian, known as Wentyl, has four years and an inch on his brother, and weighs 155 kilos; his neck is almost two feet around, as are his biceps. But those are mere statistics. What they don't give you is the look of the man: an extraordinary genetic splice of Eric Cantona and Popeye's nemesis Bluto; the crucifix gleaming between his pecs is a golden statue in an alcove above the flying buttress of his belly. Wentyl is more gothic architecture than flesh, a soaring cathedral of meat and muscle. His nickname on the scene "housewife's choice" comes larded in irony.
"Why Highland games?" he says in broken English. "For me, very good events. How many will I go to this year? I think 20. My best 29 two years ago. Scotland is good place."
Sebastian, I ask, have you always been so big?
"Tak," he replies. "Yes."
There are 14 athletes taking part at Inveraray, only six of whom are Scottish. The international contingent comprises the Wentas, Heisi, an American, an Irishman, a Swiss, and a German with Schottland written across his T shirt. England is represented by Scott Rider, a shot putter who has escaped for the day from the athletes' village of the Commonwealth Games in order to attempt a defence of his caber world title. "Achat Anabolisant Belgique" The Scots, inspired perhaps by the cosmopolitan air, are keen to show off their foreign language skills: "The weather today," muses Stuart Anderson from Lochearnhead, "is fin' scorchio."
Six homegrown athletes out of 14 is considered a decent ratio these days. You go to some games and there isn't a single Scot. Heavies do not receive the funding given to Scots competing in mainstream athletics discus, shot putt etc and there is concern that without future support, the talent gap between us and the rest of the world will widen until, as the Highland games historian David Webster has written, "Scotland's wonderful heavies may be in danger of becoming an extinct species".
Despite this prospect of national embarrassment, there's no noticeable tension at Inveraray, which is one of the few games to offer a separate tier of prize money for native competitors in order to make it worthwhile for Scots showing up; indeed, a fist bumpingly fraternal air of friendly rivalry seems to characterise the heavy athletics scene. "We welcome anybody," says Stephen King, Inveraray's "local heavy", a title with a happier resonance than it would have in, say, Govan. "We'll throw against anybody. We'll take them on and beat them."
Listen a little closer, though; talk to people off the record, and you do get to hear suspicion and resentment given sour voice. "You are aware that most of the foreign athletes are junkies?" says one Scottish competitor on the phone. "They've got arses like pin cushions. They don't care about tradition. They don't have any morals. They just want the prize money and they'll win at any cost."
The Scottish Highland Games Association has worked with UK Anti Doping to carry out random tests for a range of banned substances including anabolic steroids and growth hormones. There have been 50 or so tests carried out since 2009, and only one athlete, an American, has tested positive. He was banned for two years.
The World Highland Games Heavy Events Championships, which is not SHGA affiliated, also operates a random testing policy. "I have not ever taken any steroids or any performance enhancing drugs," says Daniel McKim, the 32 year old from Kansas City who is the current US and previous world champion. "I hate to see it come in and be a part of our sport, but it is."
Is doping widespread in Highland games?
"Not like in strongman or power lifting, but it is and it's growing, I feel."
McKim is a fascinating character. Six foot five and 300 pounds (above which weight, he snores horribly, much to his wife Natalie's displeasure) he looks like an all American Hulk blond haired, bright eyed and Anavar For Sale Philippines totally, totally pumped driven by rapture rather than rage.
The son of a preacher man, raised in Maryville, a small Missouri farming town, he is a devout Christian and father to five boys. He holds Bible study classes before Sunday games, inviting his "brothers in bulk" to pray, and identifies with Behemoth, the awesome and mysterious creature described in the Book of Job: "Behold now, his strength in his loins and his power in the muscles of his belly. He bends his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together. His bones are tubes of bronze; his limbs are like bars of iron."
McKim competes at the Highland games for the glory of God; the divine, he feels, is revealed through his strength. "When I turn the caber," he says. "I want people to see and understand Him, not me."
The world championships move around the globe. McKim won his 2013 world title in Dana Point, California. This year the venue is the slightly less sun kissed Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline. Unlike most Scottish games, the championships are invitation only, and so today's field of ten, including two Scots, represent some of the world's strongest men. For those who have flown here from across the Atlantic, the grumbling of Iceland's Bardarbunga volcano is a concern. If it erupts, their return flights may be cancelled, leading to the one thing these toughs truly fear angry wives.
It is no accident that the world championships are taking place here, in a beautiful park overlooked by Dunfermline Abbey, the last resting place of Malcolm Canmore. As the historian David Webster, today tricked out in full Highland dress, explains in his running commentary, the 11th century king of Scotland held what can be regarded Deca Durabolin Blood Pressure as a progenitor of the modern games in the year 1040. The real flowering of games took place during the 19th century, however, their popularity boosted greatly by the patronage of Queen Victoria.
Webster, an Aberdonian, is an important figure in the development of games overseas. He attended his first games in 1937. On his first visit to the Braemar Gathering, he had no interest in the presence of King George VI, being captivated instead by strongman royalty the sculpted specimens of Scottish 4-chlorodehydromethyltestosterone manhood busy with stones and caber. Webster has been organising games since the early 1950s and is the founder of these championships. He is a Zelig like figure, internationally ubiquitous in his blue Balmoral bunnet. Just back from one games in Ontario, he is about to fly to another in San Francisco.
For several years Webster was chief judge of the strongest man competition at Arnold Schwarzenegger's sports festival in Ohio. Arnie and he are pals from way back. "I've known him since he was 19," says Webster. "He was a body builder and I was a judge at Mr Universe in London. He's always pulling my leg about my age. He says I was a wine waiter at the last supper."
Since the 19th century, when expats formed Scottish societies in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, our native heavies have crossed the oceans to compete. The best known was Donald Dinnie from Aboyne, a globetrotting Victorian superstar, all waxed moustache and constant kilt; for all his huge earnings, millions in today's money, he refused to spend any of it on trousers.
The promotion of Highland games overseas accelerated during the 1960s, 70s and 80s as Webster took groups of heavies on tours of America, Canada, Scandinavia and Japan. Also important during the same period was Douglas Edmunds, a heavy athlete, well connected, who has promoted the sport and culture worldwide. Edmunds is a giant of the games, literally and figuratively, twice world caber champion. The World Highland Games Heavy Events Championships are staged by Edmunds and his family, organised from their home in Carmunnock, a sort of ranch for heavies in which, at any given moment, one can stop by and find Russia's strongest man singing Leadbelly songs in the front garden.
Edmunds is known on the scene as The Godfather and, as he is rather unwell at the moment, spends his time at Dunfermline seated at the side of the field, a Don Corleone ish presence, black clad and crag faced, receiving tribute from the international athletes who approach for respectful handshakes and the chance of a few words.
"I've been involved in the Highland games since I was 17 and I'm now 70," he says. "I've been involved in more Highland games, either as organiser or as an athlete, than anybody else in history. One of the things I've always tried to do is bring the games into prominence. It annoys the hell out of me that the Scottish Government and others don't recognise their economic and cultural importance. Everybody and their granny's wee society seems to get funding, but not the games. There's this idea that they are always going to be there, but they are not. The games are in decline and without foreign athletes Deca Durabolin Injection Results they'd be in big trouble."
Edmunds believes that as well as creating an exotic, crowd friendly spectacle, the international heavies raise the standard, forcing domestic athletes to train hard if they are to have a hope of winning. He is strongly opposed to the system of having two tiers of prizes one exclusively for the Scots. "To me, that's just looking after your own midden heap. It's a pathetic attempt to keep your wee pot of money to yourself, and not in the interests of the games at all."