The Strongest Man in the Free World, 237-pound Mark Cameron has 28-inch thighs, a dragon tattooed on one hip and a good shot at muscling a medal out of Montreal
June 06, 1976

If I'd been born a hundred years ago I'da been a gunfighter. Not that I want to shoot anybody, you understand. Come to think of it, I don't even like guns. But imagine the excitement—and the competition!" Mark Cameron heaves his 5'10", 237-pound body onto a green vinyl couch and everything in his tiny living room trembles. An Olympic flag hanging on the wall flutters slightly. The TV set goes from color to black and white, and out in the thimble-sized kitchen a three-foot stack of dirty dishes clatters in the sink. Cameron's terry-cloth Pan-American Games bathrobe, bursting at the seams, falls open, revealing a thigh the size of a beer keg—28 inches around, to be exact. And on his hip, in vivid shades of red, blue and green, a tattooed dragon hoists a barbell over its head. "Guy in Newport, Rhode Island did that," he says. "I had to stand perfectly still for over an hour while he put it on. Haven't met a woman yet that didn't go crazy when she saw it. They don't expect it, you see, 'cause the rest of me's so respectable."

Cameron grins, displaying a lot of teeth below a thick mustache, and the corners of his eyes are hidden by deep creases. Like the rest of him, his face is broad and chunky, without sharp angles, and his expression shifts easily from seriousness and unbending determination to self-mocking irony. At 23 he is the best Olympic weight lifter in the U.S., probably the only one with a shot at a medal in Montreal. Although he lifts in the 242-pound, or heavyweight, class and is a good 100 pounds lighter than some world-class superheavyweights, he has totaled more weight in the snatch and clean-and-jerk (the two lifts in Olympic competition) than any other human being this side of the Iron Curtain.

Below the two meager rooms of his York, Pa. apartment, down in the cellar where Cameron sleeps, a headless mannequin faces his water bed. On the mannequin is a black, long-sleeved jersey given to Cameron by his mother, on which bold white letters proclaim: STRONGEST MAN IN THE FREE WORLD. It is a title that he accepts with amusement, because beyond the Iron Curtain Valentin Christov, the phenomenal 20-year-old Bulgarian heavyweight, has totaled 920¼ pounds for the world record in the two lifts, more than 60 pounds better than Cameron's best effort of 854.

"My mother has a sense of humor like me," he says. "She's Polish. That's where I got my build, although as a kid I was a skinny runt. Which reminds me, I haven't had my prebreakfast vitamins yet. I'm light for a heavyweight. I eat and eat, and gobble vitamins, but I just can't gain any more weight. Probably should drink more beer."

Cameron bounds with startling agility from the couch to a card table laden with bottles and jars and consumes, with a high-protein energy drink, somewhere near a shovelful of every vitamin known to man, every mineral on the periodic table, some enzymatic digestives, acidophilus culture, brewer's yeast and assorted oils and potions designed to make his capillaries vibrate. His next breath could blow every fuse in the neighborhood. "Listen," he says between swallows, "if somebody told weight lifters they could lift an extra five pounds by munching Brillo pads, there wouldn't be a clean pot within three miles of any gym in this country."

Cameron slips on the only bell-bottoms he owns that still fit his legs, shrugs into a denim jacket with the Polish falcon embroidered on the back and is ready for an assault on a local restaurant specializing in king-size breakfasts. "You know, weight lifters have a reputation for being dummies or wild beasts," he says on the way to his car. "Really it's a stigma that's totally unjustified. You take the time I wrestled a bear back when I was at the University of Rhode Island. Four or five fellas went before me, and these were big guys, man, bigger than me; but they tried to overpower the bear and they got beat like that...boom! I mean he wasn't the biggest bear in the world but he still must have weighed over 450 pounds and he flipped those guys like they were bottle caps. I noticed that the bear responded to whatever maneuver each guy pulled, so when it came my turn I walked up to the bear and started tickling its stomach and talking real soft to him and tickled a little more and just as soon as his head began to nod I stepped on his foot and tripped him and—wham!—I had him beat. Everybody thought I outmuscled him, but I didn't; I outsmarted him. Or take the time I bit the head off this duck in a bar...."

Bear wrestling and duck decapitation aside, Cameron is not only the most promising and self-assured lifter this country has produced in years, but also probably the most dedicated student of the sport. He digests translated accounts of the latest Russian, Bulgarian and Polish training techniques with the same gusto he applies to vitamins. He plans to do graduate work in either corrective therapy or exercise physiology (he was a phys ed major at Rhode Island); and although he has a short fuse for "some of the incompetent idiots" who have positions of power in U.S. weight-lifting circles, he will go out of his way to listen attentively to anyone who can teach him something about lifting. "It's not that I won't listen to reason," Cameron says, "but I'm a goal-oriented person, and right now my goal is to do well in the Olympics. I have a tendency to get very impatient with anyone who gets in the way of that goal."

About a dozen members of the U.S. Pan-American baseball team found that out in Mexico when, during some early morning carousing in their hotel, they were confronted by a nude giant with a tattoo on his hip and blood in his eye. He looked like a cross between Dick Butkus and Genghis Khan (Cameron shaved his head for the Games: "Every man ought to get a tattoo and shave his head at least once"). "All right, you bunch of baseball bats," he told them. "Weight lifters need their sleep. We can't catch up on it in the outfield like you guys, so either quiet down or prepare for a visit to the dark side of the moon." The ballplayers chose silence. "I think they were more shocked than scared," Cameron recalls. "I guess I get pretty aggressive in situations like that."

He wasn't always that way. His father spent 26 years in the Navy, moving Mark and his mother from one East Coast seaport to another, where they lived in trailers to avoid the complications of buying and selling houses. Cameron was a shy, withdrawn child, forever at the mercy of local bullies and continually subjected to ridicule for living in a trailer park. Finally, as a junior high school student in South Carolina, he was beaten up one time too many. He bought a set of weights and began lifting in the laundry room of the trailer park, hoping, like thousands of kids who read the ads on the back pages of comic books, to triumph over the pug-faced bozos who had kicked sand in his face. At first Cameron stuck to the standard body-building course that came with the weights, but he got bored and switched to Olympic-style lifting. He learned the fundamentals of the snatch, clean-and-jerk and press as best he could from pictures in weight-lifting magazines. (The press was removed as a competitive lift after the 1972 Olympics, the consensus of weight-lifting experts being that it was too difficult to judge.)

Meanwhile, the Camerons moved to Newport, R.I., where Mark entered high school. "I was so introverted," he recalls, "they put me in what was called a 'guidance class' with all the social misfits and weirdos. I never dated, had no friends. What can I tell you? I was a casebook study in isolation." At 16, a reticent but no longer scrawny Cameron entered his first weight-lifting meet in Boston as a 181-pounder, or light heavyweight. He had never seen a weight-lifting event, so he watched the lighter-weight classes compete to find out what he was supposed to do. On his first lift, the press, he had little difficulty raising the weight above his head, but he forgot to breathe. When he set the bar back on the lifting platform he passed out, bloodying his nose and cutting his lip. The meet officials were certain they had seen the last of Cameron. But what Cameron lacked in finesse he more than made up for in determination. A year later, in early 1970, he entered the same meet, his second weight-lifting contest, and took third place. A month later, in March of 1970, Cameron, totally self-trained, won the Junior New England Championship in the 181-pound class. At that meet he was introduced to Joe Mills.

"I remember at all three meets I'd been to there was this old guy around who everybody seemed to listen to," says Cameron. "If a lifter made a mistake, this guy would tell him in plain English what he did wrong. After the meet he came up to me and said, 'You could be a champion if you come to Central Falls.' That was all he said to me. I found out his name was Joe Mills and that he coached the Central Falls Weight Lifting Club, up in Central Falls, R.I. It took me about six months to find the place, but once I did I started driving up from Newport every week. Joe Mills became like a second father to me, and I'd do anything for him. Didn't matter if a guy lifted 100 pounds or 500, Mills treated 'em all exactly the same—he cussed 'em out, yelled and screamed. But everybody knew he really cared about us. He got me to lift more than I ever thought I could. His club is just a rinky-dink, run-down place, but there's more spirit there than in any other gym I've ever seen."

Under Mills' tutelage Cameron won the Teenage Nationals as a 181-pounder in 1971 and again in 1972. In 1973 he moved up to the 198-pound middle-heavyweight class, and in 1974 won a Junior National title, came in third in the Senior Nationals and earned a spot on the U.S. weight-lifting team that went to Manila for the world championship.

Manila proved to be the turning point in Cameron's career. He hurt his lower back and lifted poorly, managing a total of only 699 pounds for 13th place, but he was exposed for the first time to the Eastern European teams and their coaches. He was able to talk with the men who, in the mid-1960s, had revolutionized both the training methods and the techniques of weight lifting. He learned about high-intensity, heavy-load training, and about the double knee bend in the '"pull," called "rebending the knees." (The pull in weight lifting is the move, in both the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, in which the lifter brings the bar from the floor to his chest, while at the same time rising on his toes, shrugging his shoulders and lifting his body completely. It is a total-extension move and considered the most crucial portion of the lift.) "They taught me things that Joe Mills instinctively knew but couldn't articulate," Cameron says. "Now I know in detail the theory of what I'm supposed to do and it's helped me enormously."

Cameron came away from Manila with a new perspective on the sport. Where he had previously trained only for technique, he now began to train for strength. He would isolate each muscle used in the snatch and clean-and-jerk and do "assistance exercises" to build power in each phase of the lift. He would, in fact, perform body-building exercises, which are traditionally avoided by Olympic lifters in this country. "Don't get me wrong," he says, "I still can't stand bodybuilders and all their posing, and that 'Hi, how're your deltoids today?' stuff. If a body-builder ever showed up at Central Falls nobody would have even talked to him."

Before he left Manila, Cameron spoke at length with the Polish coach and Olympic gold-medalist Zygmunt Smalcerz, who persuaded him to move up to the 242-pound heavyweight class. Three months later, in December 1974, using the Eastern European training routine and cramming in food and supplements at every opportunity, Cameron had pushed his weight up to 211 and had a 740-pound total for both lifts. A month later his total was 771, and in June of 1975, at the Senior Nationals, he had increased it to 804.

At this point he was forced to make a crucial decision. He had just graduated from the University of Rhode Island and had the choice of continuing his education in graduate school or accepting a temporary job with the York Barbell Company, in order to spend a year training for the Olympics in the company's York Barbell Club.

"I'll be honest," Cameron says, "I wanted to go to school, and I was prepared to skip the world championship in Moscow to do it, but the U.S. Olympic Committee wouldn't let me show up just to compete at the Pan-Ams in Mexico. They said I had to be at the entire Games from start to finish, so I was faced with not only skipping the worlds but skipping the Pan-Ams, too, if I wanted to start grad school. I said to heck with it and decided to come to York for a year and postpone school. Then when I got to Mexico I counted 37 athletes who showed up just to compete like I'd wanted to do, and I knew the USOC had lied to me. As far as I'm concerned, they gypped me out of a whole year of my education. The whole thing made me very bitter."

Cameron went to Moscow, snatched 352 pounds and clean-and-jerked 458 for a total of 810 to finish fifth, then came apart in Mexico and lost to Russ Prior of Canada. But last December, at an invitational meet in Montreal, he lifted 837 pounds for the best total by a heavyweight in the Western Hemisphere since the press was eliminated.

Cameron came to York with reservations. Joe Mills had warned him that lifters had become trapped in the York system, had sloughed off, gone stale and been used by the organization; friends had cautioned that he would be without a coach, that "the Barbell," as lifters call the York complex—Barbell Company, Barbell Club and Bob Hoffman Products (health food supplements)—never produced champion lifters, merely imported them. But the saloon where Cameron had been working as a bouncer closed down and he needed a job. He was convinced he had enough sense of direction to make York work for him. "I came for one year, to train as hard as I could for the Olympics," he says. "I do my job [Cameron is assistant editor of Strength and Health magazine, the Barbell's publication], work out five days a week, three hours a day, and that's about all. When the year is up, it's goodby York."

Most of the afternoon regulars have finished their workouts, showered and gone home to dinner. The York Barbell Company gym, a low-ceilinged room about the size of a basketball court, is cool and quiet. Mark Cameron sits in a folding chair at one end of the gym near one of the two 13-foot-square wooden lifting platforms, attacking the calluses on his thick, chalk-covered hands with sandpaper. Sweat drips from his shaggy brown hair onto the floor where it forms a glistening puddle. His thumbs are taped, his knees wrapped in special elastic bands, ordinary ones being too small to fit around his legs. He wears a pair of $65 lifting shoes, with built-up heels for balance when he squats and with straps over the metatarsal arch for support. He has just tried to snatch 352 pounds, the most he has ever attempted in training, and missed. He is talking to himself, making low guttural sounds in his throat as he sands.

About 30 feet away, near the dumbbell rack over by a row of mirrors, Smitty, the trainer, stretches out the knotted arms and shoulders of Lee James, a 22-year-old Olympic hopeful in the 198-pound class, who is sitting on a bench. "C'mon, Mark," James yells at Cameron. "You can do it. Ram that weight up there." "Go get that weight," Smitty shouts. "Attack it, Mark." Another lifter, who has been doing sit-ups, stops and hollers, "Through the roof, Cameron. Put that weight through the roof." Cameron gets out of his chair and moves slowly onto the platform with the stiff-armed, rolling lifter's gait. At the far end of the gym two young women sitting in the varnished bleachers stop talking and move closer together. The noises Cameron has been making in his throat have gotten louder and are now audible throughout the gym.

He positions himself over the bar, shoes precisely lined up with the stripes as they are for his every lift. His hands are spaced wide, the grip hooked, with thumbs wrapped around the bar first and fingers curled over the thumbs. His back is straight and angled, with the hips lower than the shoulders. He looks up and away from the weight for an instant, then drops into a squat and pulls, lifting his whole body and driving his hips forward as the bar flexes coming off" the floor. And suddenly—so fast it seems there was no motion at all, but only a sharp expulsion of breath—he is down again in a full squat, his arms locked straight above his head, the weight held high like an offering. Then he stands with it, rises carefully from the squat and pauses, every vein in his face and neck bulging, his breath coming in tortured bursts. With a cry he drops the bar, turns on his heel with a matador's disdain and walks away.

After shaking his hand and slapping him on the back, the others leave the gym. Cameron remains, doing squats and some light assistance work, recording every lift and exercise in his blue log book. "The snatch takes speed and balance," he says on the way to the shower. "The pull is the most important part. I pull along an elliptical path. I go down the back half of the ellipse and come up the front, and if I pull correctly I almost always make the lift. From the top of the pull I'm really dropping under the bar when I lock out my arms. The clean-and-jerk's the same; same pull, only after you pull you flip the weight onto your chest as you squat. Then you stand up with it, drop under the weight again while you lock your arms and split your stance at the same time. You know, the snatch, done by a world-class lifter, is one of the fastest moves in all of sport. How does it feel with all that weight over my head? Euphoric, man, I feel euphoric."

About an hour later Cameron is working on his fourth beer down at Murph's Study Hall, the lifters' bar in York. He is still fired up from the 352-pound snatch. "Another beer or two and I'll be nice and relaxed," he says. "Today I worked real heavy. Tomorrow I'll do all assistance work—lots of squats and power pulls, where I hold the weight at hip level and whip it straight-armed over my head. I'm using a combination Bulgarian-Russian program, with some improvisation. The further I am from a meet the more I emphasize conditioning. Then as the meet approaches I do more power work and increase the intensity of the lifts. Phew! Let me have another beer and a plate of those wimpies." The beer and some fried, highly spiced, breaded balls offish arrive, and Cameron digs in.

"That's the good thing about being light for a heavyweight," he says. "I can eat anything and still make the weight. Now where was I? Oh, yeah. We got a meet in Toronto next weekend and ordinarily I'd slow down, but I'm not peaking for it. I'm aiming for the Olympic Trials in June, and then, of course, the Olympics. What the heck, you can peak for just so many meets a year, you know. But my friend Al Starck'll be lifting there and so will a lot of the other guys who'll be on the Olympic team, so it should be fun. Peaked or not, I'll go all-out. Always do. Think maybe I'll go for a United States record."

The crowd at Murph's disperses, and Cameron steers his car in the direction of a York steak house. "Listen," he confides on the way, "I don't want to sound like a complainer, because I'm young and I don't have a family to support, so I can lift full time. But I'm all by myself here. In Russia and Bulgaria all of the lifters are medically monitored constantly. Heck, I know that hard training affects my kidneys and raises my blood pressure and increases the white blood cells, but what am I supposed to do, take my own blood count? They won't pick the U.S. team until a month before the Games, at which time we'll get a big two weeks to train together. In Eastern Europe they live and train together all year long. How the heck can you compete against that?"

From the time it was accepted as a sport by the AAU in 1929, weight lifting has occupied a paradoxical position in American athletics. There is hardly a sport that doesn't recognize its value as an adjunct to training, hardly a school athletic department, YMCA or professional team without a weight room, yet, as a separate event, Olympic-style weight lifting has suffered ridicule and neglect. In part this stems from misunderstanding. Although it takes the speed and agility of an acrobat to successfully execute the snatch, Olympic lifters have either been lumped together with oily-torsoed body-builders or regarded as circus freaks. In other countries they are respected athletes and are paid well. Vasili Alexeyev, the famed Russian super-heavyweight (SI, April 14, 1975), reportedly receives $2,000 from the government every time he breaks the world record, which he has done like clockwork, one kilogram at a time. In this country past Olympic champions such as Isaac Berger, Norb Schemansky and Tommy Kono, the current Olympic weight-lifting coach, are unknowns. It is not surprising, then, that men dedicated to weight lifting would be grateful for any support they could find, and if that support comes from only a single source, that source will, in effect, control the sport.

The York Barbell Company has been instrumental in the development of Olympic weight lifting in the U.S. from the sport's beginnings in the 1920s and '30s through the postwar years of American world dominance that ended at the Oslo Olympics of 1952 with the first Russian victories, until today, when our lifters are ranked behind such countries as Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Russia and Poland.

Bob Hoffman, 77-year-old founder and owner of the Barbell, self-proclaimed "World's Healthiest Man" and author of 5,000 maxims for better living, has, over the past 50 years, contributed a great deal of his time and considerable money to Olympic lifting. He has come to view lifting in this country as an extension of his own ego, referring to himself as "the father of world weight lifting." Hoffman and his small, close-knit group of associates, most of whom were once champion lifters themselves, have dominated the U.S. weight-lifting scene and have been accused of stifling both change and competition in the sport in America. As one member of the U.S. Olympic team puts it, "You don't have to lift for the York Barbell Club, but face it, the Olympics are only one year out of four. York is the only club that pays lifters' expenses, and what are you going to do the other three years if you don't have the money to travel to events?"

Bill Kowaloff, a fine lifter of the 1960s who was not associated with the Barbell, gives Hoffman credit for supporting lifting. "But if you weren't one of their boys," he says, "you didn't make it. I showed up for the world championship tryout in 1963 and wasn't allowed to compete. I think the sport should not be controlled by so few."

To see how the cliquishness of York has worked against lifting in this country one need only examine the case of Sandor Gere. Gere, now a prominent New York engineer, was the former Hungarian national coach. He came to America after the 1956 revolution, bringing impeccable credentials and the most advanced training techniques, but he was ignored by the York Establishment and the AAU. "When I came here," Gere recalls, "I went to every lifting event on my own money and I offered my services as a coach, but the AAU and the York people would have nothing to do with me. In a way, I can't blame them, because I was to them a foreigner, but the training techniques I advocated, which they laughed at 12 years ago, are the reason the Eastern Europeans are now breaking records. I told them about supertraining, about two workouts a day, six days a week, with very heavy weights, when they were working out three times a week for. an hour and a half. York has done some good, but there is much they can be criticized for. They are primarily businessmen, not research men and not coaches."

Gere was surprised that Tommy Kono was picked to coach the Olympic team. "He is the only coach qualified in this country besides myself," he says. "But how much has he worked with his team?" Gere was told that the meet in Toronto would be Kono's first look at the current crop of U.S. Olympic lifters.

The members of the U.S. weight-lifting team selected for the Toronto Invitational meet lie sprawled around Tommy Kono's room at the Westbury Hotel, waiting for the team meeting to begin. Most of them, like 165-pound Jim Napier, a 31-year-old IRS accountant from Dallas, or 181-pound Al Starck, a student at the University of Maryland and Central Falls alumnus, are on the lean side, and would pass for wrestlers or track men sooner than weight lifters. Only Phil Grippaldi, a middle heavyweight with gargantuan muscles protruding from his T shirt, and Bruce Wilhelm, the 326-pound superheavyweight who lies on one of the twin beds like a beached whale, give the crew away. The Westbury is located in what once must have been a fashionable section of Toronto but is now overflowing with massage parlors, leather shops and porno movie houses.

Kono, an intense, soft-spoken man who has flown to Toronto the day before from his home in Hawaii, calls the meeting to order and starts talking about the lifters' choice of weights. He uses Cameron as an example of proper starting weight. "Mark has written down that he'll start with a 347 snatch. This is good, because it is a lift he can do easily, but it isn't so light that he'll have to make too big a jump for his next two." (Competitors are allowed three attempts in each lift, a fourth if they are going for a national or world record.) Kono goes on to say that several lifters have made poor choices and that he wants to see them privately. The meeting breaks up after some routine discussion of team spirit, and Cameron and Starck head for the movies. In general the lifters are impressed with Kono and like his low-keyed approach. "I'm not sure the Eastern European system would work with our lifters," he says later. "The stringent discipline over there is not really suited to our way of life." Nor, Kono believes, is an extended training camp, at least not for weight lifters. "Those guys are all individuals. They'd be sick of each other after a month and wouldn't want to train."

The following day Cameron sits in the locker room of the high school where the Tri-country (United States, Canada and Puerto Rico) Pre-Olympic Competition is being held, munching a candy bar while coaches, other lifters and assorted officials swirl nervously through the corridor leading to the lifting area on the auditorium stage. Cameron has just scandalized a weigh-in official with his tattoo and is waiting for Karl Faeth, the team's volunteer trainer from New Jersey, to rub some Atomic Balm on his lower back. Just then Russ Prior, Cameron's bull-necked, mean-faced rival in the heavyweight class, strolls past, looking somewhat like a carnival strong man. The meet has been billed as a grudge match between Cameron and Prior, but Cameron is unimpressed. "He beat me in Mexico when I was at my worst, but I wiped him out in Montreal," he says. "I've been lifting lousy all week, but I always do my best in a meet. The crowd and the competition turn me on. Besides, my right shoulder aches and that's a sign that I'm ready."

Cameron is more than ready. He snatches 369 pounds, clean-and-jerks 479 and sets a U.S. record with an 848-pound total. Neither Prior nor any of the superheavyweights at the meet (won by the U.S.) comes close to Cameron's total. In his first attempt at both records, Cameron had missed, then psyched himself into such a frenzy "backstage" (weight-lifting terminology for the room where competitors take their warm-up lifts) that he could probably have yanked the weight overhead with all three judges sitting on the bar. Afterward Tommy Kono calls Cameron "the fastest heavyweight I've ever seen," but Mark, though elated, is far from satisfied. "Christov's still the best in the world, and I've got to lift over 60 pounds more to catch him," he says. "And Yuri Zaitsev and Vasili Mozheikov of Russia are ahead of me, too. I have a lot of work to do between now and July."

That night, in the bar of the Westbury, Cameron is consoling Starck, who had not lifted well. "You have to believe you can do it, Al," he says. "Like I tell myself every day that I'm going to total over 900 by the Olympic Trials. I gotta convince myself if I'm gonna make it."

"Mark has confidence," Starck says. "I might have had more material things as a child, but he always had his family behind him 100%. His folks are super people. They came to every meet he was in and cheered for him even in the beginning when he was unknown. Heck, they even supported me more than my family did when it came to lifting. He's an only child. Maybe that has something to do with it."

Cameron, a little embarrassed, sips his beer and says nothing. Whether he wins a gold medal in Montreal or not the has come a long way from the trailer-park laundry room. When he quits lifting he wants to give something back to the sport that has helped to show him who he is. He wants, in fact, to coach some shy, awkward kid to break his records and go on to become the Strongest Man in the Free World.