My forthcoming book Keeping US Strong centers on the life and times of Tony Fitton, aka the “Godfather of Steroids.” But there is a cast of characters who color its pages. In the upcoming weeks, I shall write a number of posts as introductions to several of these individuals who play an important role in the text and those who had a great impact on the sport of powerlifting.
I begin this series with none other than Bob Hoffman, “The Father of Weightlifting.”
Born in 1898, Hoffman, who established his fortune when most lost theirs, possessed a “me first” attitude. After settling in York, PA in the 1920s, he soon began producing weights and created the York Barbell Club. His products would revolutionize America’s relationship to strength training and what it meant to be a man.
Bob’s “man” was self-made and he gave many a promising weightlifter a job at his plant so they might train at his club in preparation for international weightlifting competitions. In Bob’s eyes, Weightlifting was a means by which a country could demonstrate its strength. Victory in Weightlifting meant your country was stronger than the losers.
Magazines like Strength and Health and Muscular Development featured articles on strength training, editorials and other articles on politics as well as being a manly man.
To be a man meant one was healthy, fit, and strong. Achieving athletic supremacy for Hoffman not only helped one attract the opposite sex, but dominate other men as well.
And of women? Well they should stay fit too. They should also stay in the kitchen and the bedroom, ever available to please their men.
A staunch patriot, Hoffman aimed many of his editorials during World War II at the Japanese and Germans. He even went so far as to visit Washington D.C. and spoke to War Office officials, military leaders, and congressmen to press upon them the import of weight training and when the United States entered the war, he supplied the military and colleges with weights and fitness training programs. In Bob’s mind, to be a strong country required strong men.
After the war, sales of Bob’s York Barbell equipment skyrocketed and York became the Mecca of the weightlifting culture and in the decades to come, he spewed his vitriolic at the Russians as well as his fellow American citizens.
Bob was the coach of the U.S. Weightlifting team. Year after year, they got their asses whooped. They got their assess whooped by countries like Russia. Nothing could cause Hoffman more dismay. Losing meant one and only one thing: America was weak.
And whom did he blame? The 1960s counter-culture and their drug use. Women who went sans bra and exposed their sagging breasts. Perky breasts were okay for Bob. But sagging breasts? No way. The “gay set” was perhaps the most horrific, for gay men were not manly men, they were not strong men. They hardly qualified as men at all. Hoffman saw in the counter-culture a lack of morality and was a primary sources for America’s weakness. Men were no longer “men” and he did not condone drug use.
Ironically, he was blind to the drug use in his own backyard. York weightlifters drank, smoked weed, took acid, and copious amounts of steroids. All the while, his magazines depicted York’s weightlifters as paragons of health. In time, Bob and his hypocrisy became the butt of many a joke.
In 1969, Tony Fitton prompted the first powerlifting contest between Britain and America, specifically a team from southern California. Hoffman’s main rival, Joe Weider, funded the 1970 contest and not to be outdone, Hoffman put on the first World Powerlifting championship a year later.
After a second world championship (which really only amounted to a bunch of Americans with a handful of powerlifters from other countries) delegates from those other countries convened in the restaurant at a Howard Johnson’s Inn.
Upon the meeting’s conclusion the International Powerlifting Federation, or IPF, was born.