Posts Tagged ‘weightlifting’

Doug Hepburn and Buck, c. 1955

Doug Hepburn loved animals. Here he poses with his husky, Buck, c. 1955.

I came across a marvellous little vignette of Doug Hepburn at Geist: North of America, a Canadian literary site (click the link to read the story). The writer, Stephen Osborne, does a great job of portraying the unique strongman in a style that fits perfectly with Doug’s character.

I remember very well the place described in the story. From there Doug moved shop and living quarters to West 4th Avenue for a number of years, and then to his final workshop on West 5th Avenue. He continued to sell protein supplements and weightlifting equipment, and to invite guests in to discuss anything and everything. When I took my daughter there once for a visit in January, Doug was wearing four heavy sweatshirts and sweaters, because, as he put it, “I’m beating B.C. Hydro!” Times were often tough for him.

The description of Doug’s estimation of a tranquil life lived under the beneficent rays of the sun is classic Hepburn: “’I’ve seen life,’ he would say, with a sweep of the hand, ‘and nothing gets better than this.’” One is reminded of the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel (or jug, or tub, depending on the version of the story) on the outskirts of Athens. One day while leaning against a rock, enjoying the sun on his body, he observed Alexander the Great riding toward him on his horse. Alexander approached him and expressed his admiration for the philosopher about whose simple way of life he had heard many impressive tales. He offered to grant Diogenes anything he wished for. Diogenes merely replied, “Stand aside, for you are blocking the sun.” Alexander is reported to have said as he rode off, “If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes!”

The folding deck chair mentioned in the story followed Doug to West 4th Avenue and then to West 5th Avenue. In fact, he had more than one chair, and the last time I visited him on 5th Avenue, I found him sitting in the laneway parking area behind his shop, enjoying the sun on his bare upper body. Beside him was a second chair, unoccupied. He looked at me, said nothing, but pointed to the empty chair. I took the hint and sat down, ready for a typical philosophical encounter with the Master. I had planned on a half hour visit, but as it turned out I sat there listening and exchanging ideas for more than two hours. As I got up to leave, Doug said, “That was good! You know, you’re one of the only guys I can have a proper political discussion with these days!” I felt honoured to hear him say that, and I waved a good-bye, saying I’d come back soon. I had no idea that I would never see him again. Within a few months he had died of a misdiagnosed perforated ulcer, otherwise still strong of mind and body. Given his strength and the fact that his mother had lived into her mid-nineties in spite of having smoked cigarettes throughout her life, we all thought he’d live past a hundred. A lot of people felt the loss. They still do.

The story contains a couple of inaccuracies. First, neither Doug nor any strongman untainted by heavy steroid usage ever held “a hundred and fifty pounds in one hand straight out from the shoulder”; Doug did, however, perform a strict, straight-arm (locked elbow) holdout with one hundred and twenty pounds, a feat which may be unequalled by anyone since (I’m not counting, of course, the walking drug-stores posing as natural strength athletes).

Secondly, the actual year of Doug’s victory in Stockholm was 1953, not 1958.

A point of clarification: The name of the narrative poem mentioned in the story is “Chinook,” a poem about the friendship between a wolf and a prospector in the Klondike, during the gold rush, written in the style of the Canadian poet Robert Service. I don’t recall Doug’s ever having sung it, let alone its playing on the radio, but it certainly could be put to music. Doug took pleasure in reciting the poem aloud to guests. I enjoyed that pleasure more than once.


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Doug Hepburn, c. 1954

Nowadays one doesn’t know whether one is competing with a man or a drugstore.
~ Doug Hepburn

In Stockholm in 1953, Doug Hepburn became the only Canadian ever to win the World Weightlifting Championship. In fact he did more than this. As winner of the heavyweight division, he became officially the “Strongest Man in the World.” And yet he accomplished still more. By virtue of the strength feats he performed between 1952 and 1955, he became, in Joe Weider’s words, the “strongest man who ever lived.” It is only natural, therefore, during the current period of widespread use of anabolic steroids and other strength-enhancing drugs, that some should have been led to question the sources of Doug Hepburn’s success.

Indeed, one can find many commenters on YouTube or weightlifting web sites asking whether, or suggesting that, steroid use was (at least in part) responsible for Doug Hepburn’s incredible strength. Fortunately for Doug’s reputation as one of history’s greatest strongmen — and perhaps still history’s strongest ever natural strength athlete — it is possible to answer this question definitively.

I’ve encountered at least once the suggestion that Doug became aware of steroids when he visited York, Pennsylvania in 1951. There are several reasons, however, why such a supposition is untenable. In the first place, it wasn’t until 1954 that Dr. John Ziegler discovered (at least, so his story went) that the Russians had used testosterone injections in preparation for the world championships that year. With the cooperation of a few bodybuilders at York, Ziegler began experimenting with testosterone use; but the results were disappointing and the side-effects potentially serious. So the experiments ended. Within a short time, along came the oral anabolic steroids Nilevar (1956) and Dianabol (1958), and by 1959 Dr. Ziegler began encouraging a few American lifters to try Dianabol (Bill March, Louis Riecke, and Tony Garcy, in particular, allegedly used Dianabol under Dr. Ziegler’s guidance). The results were more encouraging, and within a few years — by the early 1960s — general steroid use by lifters other than the Russians became commonplace. By that time, however, Doug’s best lifts had long since been performed. Thus there was no steroidal link between his trip to York in 1951 and his subsequent success, though Doug was undoubtedly inspired by his encounters with other lifters and bodybuilders he met there who recognized the uniqueness of his immense strength.

We might add that even if steroids had been known about and available in York by 1951 (which, as we have seen, they were not), the last person Bob Hoffman and the York lifters would want to inform about them would have been Doug Hepburn, a man with the potential to dethrone the reigning American world heavyweight champion, John Davis. In fact, it was Doug’s victory over Davis in Stockholm two years later that allowed the Russian lifters to win the team title for the first time in history.

The fact of the matter is that Doug didn’t even know of the existence of steroids until many years after his greatest strength feats were performed. At the age of 18, I joined the Doug Hepburn Gym on East Hastings Street in Burnaby and trained under Doug’s supervision during 1963 and 1964. During that time, one of Doug’s aims was to prepare a team of lifters who could beat the best of the rest of BC’s lifters and win the team title at all major meets. Never once did Doug or any other lifters training at his gym mention the word steroids or any specific form of them, such as Dianabol. One would think that had Doug known about these pharmaceutical aids to strength-building, he would at least have let his lifters know of their existence. The reason he did not, of course, is that he knew absolutely nothing about them; nor, in fact, did any other lifters in the gym. Yet by following Doug’s training routines, there were, by 1964, five of us lifters in Doug’s gym who could perform a standing press with 300 pounds or more (including Doug himself, who at 38 years of age could still press 420). At the time, no other gym in Canada could make a similar claim.

I first heard about steroids in the locker room of the American Can Company, where I worked from 1965 to 1966 — not from a lifter, but from a junior football player who, during a coffee break, pulled from his locker a small bottle containing little pink pills, one of which he placed on his tongue and swallowed with a gulp of water. When I asked him what he was taking, he said simply, “Dianabol — it’s a natural male hormone; it helps me gain weight and strength.” Now this was half a dozen years after Dr. Ziegler had begun to encourage Dianabol use by the few lifters mentioned above. It was also a couple of years after the Tokyo Olympics, where, in retrospect, one can see from the lifts performed that steroid use had already become widespread at the international level. One can also see that BC weightlifting, and Canadian lifting in general, was a bit behind the times, pharmacologically speaking.

When Doug eventually learned a few years later about steroid use in lifting, he was very disappointed. He considered himself in the direct line of descent from the great strongmen of the past — Louis Cyr, Arthur Saxon, and Hermann Goerner — and he saw steroid use as an unhealthy, artificial route to strength, one which not only altered the whole dynamics of the sport of weightlifting, but which placed pressure on everyone to maximize their intake of a potentially devastating chemical compound. For Doug, a training aid was a thermos full of coffee and honey, not a chemical that shrunk one’s testicles, made one’s hair fall out, covered one’s body with acne, and played havoc with several of the body’s fundamental physiological systems. Doug denounced steroid use until his dying day, countering with his long-standing advocacy of sensible, natural training methods still capable of building great strength, even if insufficient to win world titles and break world records.

Those who are inspired by Doug Hepburn’s great strength feats and his overcoming of adversity can take comfort in the fact that, like all the great lifters of the 1940s and 50s, he did all of this in as natural a way as possible. In building his great power, he consumed nourishing food and drink, trained hard according to the system he had invented, focussed the tremendous positive power of his mind, and reached the ultimate pinnacle in his chosen sport. He believed implicitly in a natural mode of living, and he encouraged others to do the same. Steroids were as alien to his way of being as anything could be. As a friend of Doug’s once said: “Hepburn take steroids? Hell, Doug wouldn’t even take an aspirin!”

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