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Original Issue


The author offers an elegy to heavyweight lifter John Davis

I thought the caption accompanying the photograph in the Los Angeles Times had to be a misprint. In the picture sat a hunched man wearing pajamas, his face and body emaciated and showing the pain of years of brain, bone and lung cancer. His glazed eyes stared into nothingness. The caption revealed that he was 63-year-old John Davis, who had been called the "strongest man in the world" when he won the Olympic heavyweight weightlifting gold medal at the 1948 and 1952 Games.

Davis now weighed 130 pounds, almost a hundred less than in his glory days, when he was perhaps the greatest weightlifting champion the U.S. ever produced—undefeated in 15 years of national, international and Olympic competition. As I stared at that picture, it was difficult to believe that this was the same magnificent athlete who had been responsible for my becoming a filmmaker more than three decades earlier.

When I read the story on Jan. 27, 1984,I was in Los Angeles preparing for the production of 16 Days of Glory, our $4 million, five-hour film on the 1984 Olympics, which would start in six months. In 1953, I had produced my first film, a 15-minute short subject based on John Davis's career. It was called The Strongest Man in the World, and it cost $5,000.

I met John in the spring of 1948 when, as the 21-year-old sports director of radio station WHN in New York City, I had invited several U.S. Olympians to be interviewed before they left for London to compete in the first Olympic Games since the outbreak of World War II. I was surprised when John told me that he stood only five foot nine inches tall but weighed 230 pounds. So finely honed was his body that he seemed much taller and appeared to weigh no more than 190.

After the interview, John stayed with me through the afternoon, listening to Red Barber's account of a Brooklyn Dodger game broadcast by our station. At one point Red talked about a ballplayer who had recently died and who after his death had received accolades that were far greater than the acclaim accorded him during his lifetime. "If you're going to give someone flowers, make sure he's around to smell them," Barber said in his familiar homespun style. For the first time I heard John laugh.

"You know, I won my first world championship in 1938, 10 years ago, when I was 17," John said. "Since then, I've won two more world championships and seven national titles, and I've been undefeated in 10 years. But outside of weightlifting, I don't think 15 people ever heard of me."

John was in the Army during World War II and served in the South Pacific. He won national championships in 1941, 1942 and 1943, but international competitions were suspended. "The war really was costly to every athlete," John said. "There were no world championships from 1939 to 1945, and the Olympics were called off in 1940 and 1944." His implication did not escape me. He believed that if there had been no war, he would be leaving for the London Games with two Olympic gold medals and nine world championships under his belt.

John took first place easily in London, and the international press greeted his victory with headlines and feature stories. The French called him L'Hercule Noir and offered him citizenship, as well as a home and a business. England, Germany, Sweden, Spain and Egypt gave him the kind of reception usually reserved for their own champions. However, his gold medal was not a major accomplishment to American sports fans. Promoters occasionally called on him, but only to have him perform such stunts as lifting small trucks and automobiles. These overtures went unanswered. Davis believed in the purity of his sport and turned down all offers to exploit his great strength.

He had other pet peeves about his sport. He disdained the 300-pound heavyweights with big bellies, and took particular pleasure in photographs of himself on the top step of victory platforms flanked by paunchy runners-up. Many times John's competitors outweighed him by more than 100 pounds. He was equally disdainful of "Muscle Beach" bodybuilders, who paraded bodies that seemed chiseled in granite. "They can't lift their own weight," John said.

It was something of a surprise when, a year after his Olympic victory in '48, John accepted an offer by the French Athletic Association to try to lift the famed Apollon Railway Wheels. John's rationalization was that he was a national hero in France and had great respect for Louis Uni and Charles Rigoulot, the two French strongmen who were the only ones to have lifted the massive wheels over their heads. The Apollon Railway Wheels were actual train wheels connected by a thick axle. Together they weighed 365 pounds, but the weight was not John's biggest problem. The massive axle was. Both Uni and Rigoulot had large hands and wrists and could grab the bar from the top and then raise it overhead. John's wrists and hands were small for a heavyweight. They were large enough to grasp a normal barbell, but getting a firm hold on the Apollon axle would be far more difficult.

In each of John's first three attempts, the bar slipped from his grasp before he could raise it to his shoulders. John then performed a feat that can only be believed if you view newsreels of it frame by frame. On his fourth try John again grabbed the bar from the top. As he raised the wheels off the mat, he almost imperceptibly released his hands. Three frames of the film show the Apollon wheels suspended in the air without John's hands on them. The next few frames show John's hands beneath the axle. He literally had flipped his hands from atop the axle and caught it from underneath in a fraction of a second. With his hold now secure, he easily hoisted the massive wheels above his head as the entire audience roared its acclaim.

After this triumph, John began preparing for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, when he would be 31 years old. Between the London and Helsinki Games he won three more world titles and continued to put together one of the most amazing records in all of sports history. His unbeaten string was approaching 12 years, but recognition by the press and public in the United States remained virtually nonexistent.

Though John and I saw each other often after the 1948 Olympics, each time we met it seemed we were being introduced for the first time. He would always greet me in an aloof manner. His coolness eventually disappeared when he learned that we shared a love of opera and classical music. John always became animated when our discussions centered around music rather than weightlifting.

I had known John about two years before I finally realized his dream in life. We were listening to a recording of La Bohème in my apartment, and I observed John sitting on the floor, with his eyes closed, mouthing the words of Colline, the bass role. Suddenly John was loudly singing the "coat song" in flawless Italian. His rich baritone voice boomed off the walls and overpowered" the recording. Without missing a word or note, John finished the piece and smiled broadly, as if waiting for the bravos and curtain calls. "Where did you get that voice?" I asked in wonder. Now laughing and totally relaxed, John told me that he had been taking lessons for years and had about four roles in his repertoire.

I accompanied John to several voice lessons, and though he knew he wasn't an exceptional talent, he thought that he soon might be confident enough to audition for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and perhaps win a small role. That's when I told John that his story should be told and asked if he would mind if I wrote a magazine article about his career. "Sure, but who will buy it?" he asked.

In April 1952, a few months before John left for Helsinki, the story, which I had coauthored with Ted Shane, appeared in The Reader's Digest. Both John and I received hundreds of letters, most of them asking for photographs of him. To our great disappointment, though. The Reader's Digest editors cut much of what had been written about his singing. In a moment of anger and frustration I said, "I think I'll make a film about you." I was unemployed at the time, and my only association with the motion picture industry was as a moviegoer.

I followed John to Helsinki and picked up a Finnish cameraman and crew. We were not permitted to shoot him during competition, but I bought the footage from the Finnish film company that had those rights. The competition was dramatic. John again won the heavyweight gold medal, and his victory helped give the U.S. weightlifters a 4-3 win over the heavily favored Soviet Union, which was competing in its first Olympics. When we returned to the States. I filmed John singing one of his favorite arias in German, and again I was amazed. His German diction and intonation were as good as his French and Italian.

Television was in its infancy in 1953, and the only marketplace for my short subject was the theaters. I soon learned that theatrical distributors were not eagerly awaiting a film about a black weightlifter. But the U.S. Information Agency saw John's story as a way to counteract Soviet propaganda depicting blacks in America as second-class citizens. They purchased the film, as did the Army and Air Force Motion Picture Service, which showed it to military personnel throughout the world. Finally, Paramount Pictures bought the film to accompany one of its feature movies in theaters around the country.

A few months after the short subject was released, John at last received some national attention, but not because of my film. At a meet in 1953, he was defeated by Norbert Shemansky, a teammate in Helsinki and winner of the middle-heavyweight gold medal there. John's loss shocked the weightlifting world. After 15 years, his undefeated streak had ended.

Though we continued to see each other, our relationship was not the same. Receiving greater attention for losing than he had for winning seemed to disturb John. He began to brood the way he had during the first two years of our friendship. Before long, for no apparent reason, he stopped returning my phone calls, and I finally stopped trying to reach him.

In the years that followed. I heard that he was attempting to make the U.S. team for the '56 Olympics in Melbourne. He was rumored to be in excellent shape and to have a good chance of winning his third gold medal. But in the Olympic trials he tore a ligament in his knee, ending any chance he had of returning to the Olympics.

I had no further contact with John. About 10 years ago I heard that he was divorced and had taken a job with the New York City Department of Correction as a prison guard. I also heard that, sadly, he had given up all hope of having a singing career.

Now, more than three decades after I last saw him, he was here in a newspaper photograph, in pain and dying, alone. He looked nothing like the wonderful athlete of my memory, a man who had shared many moments with me listening to opera and classical music. His hollow, sickly look in the photograph was the final chapter—John died just before the '84 Olympics—but I remember the few times he laughed in my presence. In particular, I'll never forget that time in my office in the spring of 1948 when Red Barber had said, "If you're going to give someone flowers, make sure they're around to smell them."



On his fourth attempt, Davis became only the third man to lift the Apollon Railway Wheels.



This photograph brought back a flood of memories of "the world's strongest man."

Bud Greenspan won three Emmy awards for the 22-part series, "The Olympiad. "