It’s hard to watch that final 200kg+ Atlas Stone inch its way up to the top of the barrel without anxiously holding your breath. It’s the most iconic event in World’s Strongest Man and it’s evolved with the competition, with heavier stones and higher lifts. In recent years’ viewer’s anxiety has gone from “How many stones will he lift?” to “How quickly can he lift all five.” It’s a perfect mix of technique, cardio and power. World’s Strongest Man’s iconic event first appeared in the competition in 1986 but it has a history stretching back much further.
What’s in a name? The most enduring image in World’s Strongest Man fittingly took its name from the Greek titan of endurance (And astronomy). After losing a war against the Greek gods, Atlas was condemned by Zeus to hold up the heavens for all eternity to keep him out of more trouble. He was shown in sculptures carrying a gigantic celestial orb, where the Atlas Stones take their name from.
Way back when Lifting stones have been popular in various parts of Europe for hundreds of years. In Iceland a set of lifting stones (or ‘aflraunasteinar’) at Djúpalónssandur beach were used to test whether men were strong enough to work on fishing boats. They would have to lift the 49kg ‘hálfdrættingur’ stone to their waist in order to be allowed to work on fishing boats. In case you were wondering, Hálfdrættingur translates to weakling. Stronger men could try their hand at the 104kg hálfsterkur (half strength) or the 155kg fullsterkur (full strength). And if you couldn’t lift any of them? You could always try the 23kg amlóði (useless) stone.
However Iceland’s most famous stone is called the Hussafell. This 190kg slab of rock is was used by Snorri Björnsson as a door stop for his sheep pen over 200 years ago. Since then, lifting and walking with around the perimeter of the pen is a widely recognised feat of strength. The 1991 WSM in Iceland actually used the Hussafell in an event and Canadian Gregg Ernst set a record by carrying it 70m. The record stood until WSM 1997 when Svend Karlsen beat it using a replica stone.
In Scotland, Clach cuid fir, Gaelic for manhood stones, were used as a rite of passage to accept young men into adulthood. Once a man would lift his clan’s stone to his waist he would be considered man. Lifting stones are embedded in Scottish history, with records as early as 1020 detailing King Malcolm Canmore’s embryonic Highland Games including them as a strength challenge.
The modern event
The Atlas Stones were first introduced into World’s Strongest Man in 1986, originally under the name McGlashan Stones. It wasn’t until the 1998 competition ¬¬– held in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco – the event was referred to as the Atlas Stones. The Atlas Stone has been at every World’s Strongest Man competition aside from when it hosted in Africa and was replaced by the ‘Africa Stones’. When the event first started it was extremely rare for the athletes to lift all five stones but as the level of competition went up, more and more people finished and speed became a more important factor.
Originally the stones the platforms were waist height, but over the years they’ve been set higher and higher to make it harder. The stones have also gotten heavier, meaning today’s event a very different beast to when it started 30 years ago. There’s been a few variations of the event as well, with some year’s seeing competitors having to walk a short distance with the stones before placing them on the platforms.
In its current form the five platforms are in a straight line with a stone in front of each. Next time you’re watching the strongest athletes in the world compete in the Atlas Stone event, remember it’s been influenced by gods, rites of passage and… fishing.