A Champion Through Adversity: The Late, Great Tommy Kono

The world of Olympic weightlifting was forever changed by the greatest lifter of all time.

On April 24, the world lost a man many regard as the greatest weightlifter of all time: Tamio “Tommy” Kono.

Kono held eight world championships, two of which coincided with Olympic gold medals. If you are unfamiliar with his exciting career and life, check out this excellent tribute on the USAW website written by my friend Art Drechsler, author of The Weightlifting Encyclopedia.

I am one of the fortunate people who knew Tommy. He would occasionally comment on some of my writings, and I finally got to meet him at the 2005 World Masters Games in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His appearance was not advertised, not even in the entry information. Competitors were surprised to learn the world’s greatest lifter would be there to help officiate, and even more surprised at his patience with the many requests for photo opportunities.

Tommy Kono’s legacy reaches far into the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Olympic lifters and anyone who has ever entered a gym can take inspiration from his life.

Tommy Kono helped to change the face of Olympic weightlifting in the United States.

Aiding Ethnic Tolerance

Tommy Kono was a Japanese-American who started lifting in World War II internment camps. At this time, mainstream sports in America were still getting used to the idea of ethnic integration. Jackie Robinson had only cracked the color bar in baseball in 1947 and basketball was still mostly a white man’s sport. Football was marginally better, but there were obvious unwritten rules with regard to the number of black players that were allowed on a team. Hockey was also a white man’s sport, but that had more to do with the Canadian demographics than any real racial policy.

The more marginalized sports were often tolerant of diverse populations. Weightlifting was one such sport. While the sport’s kingpin Bob Hoffman may have had his share of human flaws, ethnic animosity was not one of them. He was interested in winning athletes, not what they looked like or where their parents came from.

Tommy Kono took advantage of this more-inclusive environment and rose to the top in a relatively short period of time. He was respected among his teammates, and was even asked to carry the United States flag at the opening ceremony of a World Championship only a handful of years after the end of World War II. Despite lingering anti-Japanese feelings among much of society, his teammates decided that Kono deserved that honor. It was at this point when Tommy Kono felt like he was an American again.

Redefining the Image of a Lifter

While Kono was primarily an Olympic weightlifter, he did have a few successes on the bodybuilding platform. He was named Mr. Universe several times by the International Weightlifting Federation. Kono’s well-proportioned and athletic physique enabled him to prevail over full-time bodybuilders. This gave the public a much more balanced and positive view of the body types seen in weight sports.

Unwavering Commitment

Even after his competition days were over, Kono never abandoned the sport. He remained a major player in the sport of Olympic weightlifting and wore many different hats. He coached three different national Olympic teams, wrote The ABCs of Weightlifting, was an accomplished photographer, and gave countless clinics. He was an international committee member for the sport and an international-level referee. He was involved everywhere and his world titles gave him credibility in all ventures.

A Champion Through Adversity

Tommy’s home overlooked Pearl Harbor and the events in 1941 changed his life forever. His life teaches us what can be accomplished in the face of adversity. Kono suffered from asthma and was small as a child, even by Japanese standards. The likelihood that he would become a successful athlete was a pipe dream. Ironically, it was the dry air of the Tulelake internment camp in northern California that cured him of his asthma. It’s also where he first started to lift.

Despite these hardships, he became the greatest lifter in the world. The same adversity that made Tommy Kono’s life difficult also made him a champion. Most of us have no such impediments, and therefore, no excuse for giving anything less than our best. One thing is certain: Whether or not we succeed is up to us.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.