Eat your heart out, Schwarzenegger: It started as trashy television sport, now it's an extravaganza. Lyndsay Russell muscles in on the hunt for the world's strongest man

The giant staggered forward, carrying a 2CV car. 'Why ride, when you can walk?' he grunted. His head and shoulders were stuck through the roof, his feet through the floor. Seventy stone - 445kg - was suspended from his torso via straining shoulder-straps.

The Labours of Hercules look like a shopping trip compared with the physical ordeal faced by the eight international competitors vying for the title of the World's Strongest Man 1993. This year the gruelling event was held at the Roman amphitheatre in Orange, in the south of France. From its origins as a trashy television sport in the early Seventies, the competition has progressed from nightclub bouncers ripping telephone directories in a muddy field to a glitzy Olympian extravaganza costing pounds 750,000 to put on.

Each weighing around 21 stone, the Strong Men's mountainous figures caused jaw- dropping among the mortal observers at the rehearsal. The largest competitors crossed the stage like lumbering dinosaurs, their vast, muscular thighs forcing them into an absurd waddle.

Among the more colourfully named stood Magnus from Iceland (blond Viking), Iron Bear from the United States (Native American) and Manfred from Austria, a 6ft 5in warrior with film-star looks and a pirate bandanna - though what that had to do with Austria was anybody's guess. Manfred dwarfed our British boy, Gary Taylor from Wales, the only entrant with an obvious sense of humour.

'Odd job, this. I woke up and thought 'Oh God, I've got to pull a truck',' he grinned as he grasped the rope attached to a seven-ton lorry. His face puffed up like a pumpkin as he strained to get the monster moving. It finally budged a few yards. Enough. He needed to conserve his strength for the rest of the competition.

'Over here, boys]' shouted kilted Doug Edmunds, a former World Caber-Tossing Champion and designer of the tortuous games. 'See these barrels . . . this event's called the Hercules Hold.'

Standing in crucifix position, the competitors tested the equipment. They had to hold a horizontal pulley in each hand, attached to barrels, each weighing 290lb; then the barrels were taken off their support stands. The longer you hold, the higher your marks. Iron Bear was unimpressed: 'They spiked my ancestors over red ant nests and tied them between two trees. Barrels are nothing.'

'They call me Dr Death,' chuckled Doug. 'But I don't want a procession of successes. I want failures as well.'

Enter a Frenchman, Joseph Goicoetxea, the smallest entrant but with one of the largest stomachs. Laid-back almost to the point of coma, he looked like a garlic-seller straight out of Central Casting. The others eyed him suspiciously. Might his untrained physique hold secret powers?

No. Joseph failed to hold the pulley handles for even a millisecond. In fact he failed every test with an exasperated shrug. This caused much embarrassment. After all, the French were hosting the event. In the land that spawned Asterix, it seemed that Joseph was the best they could come up with.

The competitors were shunted back to their hotel for a relaxing swim. A public relations man gently snoozing by the swimming pool was suddenly scooped aloft by Gary, to find himself in a watery version of tossing the caber. Manfred went one better, fishing out the PR man only to demonstrate that he could toss him further. Afterwards Manfred posed for photos, showing off his staggering, world- record 65cm (25in) biceps. 'Don't flex them any more - you'll tire yourself out,' jibed Gary.

Manfred comes from the same village as Arnold Schwarzenegger and claims to be a close friend. 'We couldn't appear in the same film, though, because the press would say 'Bigger than Arnie'.'

'Competition is serious,' admitted Gary, twice a runner-up. 'You train with weights for two hours twice a day, six days a week, then rest a week before a competition. To build up the body, food alone costs about pounds 1,200 a month.' All this for pounds 10,000 prize money and a silver Tonka toy truck from the sponsors.

'It's knowing you are the strongest on the planet that counts,' Gary explained. And the promise of lucrative sponsorship deals. With the possible rewards in mind, the competitors were eyeing each other's biceps with steady concentration. But although the poolside talk among the personal trainers, hangers-on and accompanying wives and girlfriends centred on who was 'on form', the atmosphere was surprisingly friendly.

As night fell, the arena filled up for the big spectacle. Six 'vestal virgins' trumpeted in the contestants amid much stage smoke and hullabaloo, while Doug Edmunds, kilt flapping in the wind, announced the events with panache: 'The Clash of the Titans]' (a fight with logs) . . . 'Samson's Barrow]' (wheeling a giant contraption containing many vestal virgins) . . . 'The Leviathan Lift]' (bench presses with a massive tree-trunk).

'It's terrible going last,' sighed an exhausted Gary. 'You see the pain on the faces of all the others - and know what you've got to go through.'

A team of doctors was watching like hawks. 'The strain to the heart is enormous. Trouble is, if any have secretly taken amphetamines a heart attack is quite possible.' An assortment of cardiac equipment was stacked backstage.

The medics were kept busy throughout. Four of the eight competitors were injured: a broken ankle, a dislocated shoulder, a wrenched back - and one dramatic backstage collapse. But finally the competition reached an adrenalin-pumping showdown between the last four, Gary and Manfred among them.

To reveal the outcome would ruin the forthcoming television film of the event, but an enthusiastic BBC sports presenter summed things up in the bar later. 'The barrow event involved incredible precision, speed, strength and balance. Watching the winner was like seeing Jeff Capes, Linford Christie and Nigel Mansell all rolled into one.'

'The World's Strongest Man' will be shown tonight on BBC 1 at 6.30pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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