A tribute to Tommy Kono

April 27, 2016, 10:43 a.m. (ET)

Tommy Kono – A Weightlifter’s Weightlifter

By Artie Drechsler

When the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) commemorated its 100th anniversary in 2005, Tommy Kono was delighted to learn he was among those invited as special guests to a formal celebration that would be held in Instanbul, Turkey. Once the ceremonies got under way, Tommy was surprised when IWF President, Tamas Ajan, brought Kono to the podium and presented him with a plaque that read “Best Weightlifter of 100 Years”. While Tommy was humbled to receive such an profound honor, those who know the history of the sport were not surprised at all, considering a number of facts about Kono’s incredible career in weightlifting.  

First, Tommy Kono won eight consecutive World Championships/Olympic Games, being undefeated on the world stage from 1952 through 1959. His first “loss” came in 1960 when he took a silver medal at the Olympic Games (he won a bronze medal at the 1961 Worlds Championships and a silver at the 1962 Worlds Championships).

Second, as remarkable as that medal winning streak was, Tommy’s accomplishments with regard to World Records were even more astounding. According to the IWF’s data, Kono set 20 World Records between 1952 and 1962. Tommy counted 26 and I believe his meticulous record keeping (the six not recognized by the IWF likely occurred because during the 1950s there were many instances of records for which paperwork was never filed – unlike today, there were no competition secretaries then).

While that level of record breaking had been unprecedented up until that time, two other factors make Kono’s accomplishments even more extraordinary. One factor was that he had multiple records in the press, snatch, C&J and total, showing how well rounded he was. But what is even more amazing is that he made records in four separate bodyweight categories during an era when there were no changes in those bodyweight classes. That is an achievement still unmatched in weightlifting history, and one that will likely never be equaled.

As if his official accomplishments were not impressive enough, there are the details of Tommy’s “pre-careers” and “second career(s)” make his weightlifting career even more remarkable. Prior to becoming an athlete, Kono was a truly sickly child, who made the iconic “98 lb. weakling” look mighty. He literally weighed 74 lb. at the age of 12, and had missed a full third his school days because of chronic and severe asthma. At this point, because of their Japanese ancestry, Tommy and his family were interred in a detention camp the US maintained in Tule Lake, CA, during WWII. In that camp, Tommy met another boy who had what Tommy considered to be a great physique. That boy introduced Kono to weight training. Tommy began training religiously, with the very tentative hope that lifting weights might make him more “normal”. Little did he know or dream that his dedication to his new found sport would lead him to glory on the world’s biggest stage. Self-coached, self-supporting and training alone a good deal of the time, he became an unstoppable force that would make history in world weightlifting.

In terms of his second careers, Tommy won three Mr. Universe titles and one Mr. World title in bodybuilding (with no special training for that sport). In the realm of coaching, he may have been the only person ever to have been Olympic Coach for three nations (the USA, Germany and Mexico). A prolific author, he wrote two books (“Weightlifting, Olympic Style” and “Championship Weightlifting”), which he also illustrated and provided most of the photos for (he had taken some of the most prized photos in weightlifting from the 1950s through the 1970s). He also had one of the longest running series of articles in the history of Strength & Health Magazine, the leading weightlifting (and general fitness) magazine in the US for nearly half a century (his article on “quality training” was one of several that were to become classics). And he literally invented the neoprene rubber knee bands that so many athletes wear today, a height gauge for high pulls, along with contributing many other innovations.

If anything surpassed Tommy’s athletic and second career accomplishments, it was his character and mental powers. One example of the latter were powers of concentration so profound that when a fire alarm went off during his last C&J at the 1964 Olympic Trials, he didn’t ask for another attempt because he said he didn’t hear it. And if Tommy was known for anything, it was his infectious positive mental attitude combined with unbounded determination.

In terms of character, Kono learned an important lesson from John Davis, who roomed with Tommy in 1952, at the Helsinki Olympic Games . Davis, considered by many to be the greatest lifter in the world at the time, was on his way to winning his last Olympic Games and Tommy was to win his first. The very evening of Kono’s victory, Davis sat the young man down and essentially told him “You are now the Olympic Champion, with all of its well-earned joy and glory. But with that honor comes a responsibility. You will for the rest of your life represent the Olympic movement. So in your every behavior, you must uphold the rich and solemn tradition that has been handed down to you.” This was a lecture that Kono never forgot, and always strived to be guided by.

I had the enormous privilege of knowing Tommy for just shy of 40 years, meeting him as a young lifter anxious to learn from one of my heroes. Many young people idolize someone from afar, only to be disappointed when they actually meet their hero. That certainly happened to me on multiple occasions. But not with Tommy Kono. As I got to know him and became his friend, he continuously surpassed my lofty image of my idol, making in impression on me forever, with his expressions of his love for the game.

For instance, many may not know that despite his many high profile coaching assignments, Tommy was a volunteer at the Nuuanu YMCA, in Honolulu, HI, for decades (he had moved from CA to HI in the mid-1950s). He went to that Y on a clocklike basis, to train and offer coaching advice to athletes at all levels. He never charged a nickel for his priceless advice.

While those who never met Tommy will never fully appreciate his full measure, we can all be grateful that his books and other writings captured at least some of his wisdom and character for all time. Tommy would have had many invaluable messages for the lifters of today and the future, had he been with us longer. But I feel confident that the one message he would have wanted to leave with us all was one that we talked about during our last conversation before his passing. He fervently wished and believed above all else - that USA weightlifters can be among the best in the world once again. They can do it if they only come to believe they can, and train intensely and intelligently to realize that level of performance. I hope the young lifters of today will have the courage and dedication to heed Tommy’s message, and grant him his last wish.