OG Athletes: Tommy Kono

OG Athletes: Tommy Kono

You think you know weightlifting? Then you better know Kono. Let’s take a quick dive into the life of one of the GOATS of the strength game: Tommy Kono

Born in Sacramento, CA, in 1930, Kono was 12 years old when he and his family were interned at Tule Lake internment camp during World War II. Despite the dark circumstances of his internment, Kono has credited the desert air with improving his previously debilitating asthma to a point where he could pursue sports; namely, weightlifting. Kono later said that he didn’t plan on being a weightlifter; he just wanted to be healthy. 

Following the end of WWII and the US Internment Program, Kono returned to Sacramento and high school, where he began entering weightlifting competitions and showed promise. The US invasion of Korea in 1950 nearly derailed Kono’s career path, when he was drafted into the US Army. During his training to be a cook, his superiors realized he had the potential to reach the Olympics, and changed plans. He was instead stationed near San Francisco, where he could continue lifting weights. 

It’s said that the US Army never makes a mistake, and Kono’s higher-ups surely knew what lay ahead of him. In 1952, he qualified for the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, and won a gold medal in the lightweight division of the weightlifting competition. This medal would start an unreal streak of dominance: Kono would go on to win a world championship or Olympic gold medal every year for the rest of the 50’s. This streak only ended at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, when he won a measly silver medal. 

During his competitive career, Kono changed weight classes multiple times. He clearly knew what he was doing: he’s still the only weightlifter to set a world record in four different weight classes. These classes ranged from 149 pounds all the way up to 198lbs. Nearly 50 pounds of difference, and Kono was still the greatest no matter what weight he competed at! 

When he wasn’t dominating the weightlifting platform, Kono was dominating the bodybuilding stage. Between the Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympic games, he won several Mr. Universe titles, one of the highest titles in bodybuilding. For Kono, this was just a side hustle and a convenient victory, since the Mr. Universe was held in conjunction with the world weightlifting championships. 

Even after his competitive career, Kono continued to give to the sport by coaching several national teams, including the United States Women’s national team from 1987 to 1989. Kono is also credited with developing early American prototypes of protective knee equipment (which would become knee sleeves), as well as working to popularize low-cut weightlifting shoes in a time when most lifters wore dorsiflexion-limiting high-cut “boots”

By the 1990’s, Kono would be given his flowers by the various sporting organizations he had been involved with. He was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990, and the IWF Hall of Fame in 1993. In a 2005 celebration, the IWF named Tommy Kono their “Lifter of the Century”. It’s hard to think of a higher honor for a weightlifter to receive, particularly in a century during which weightlifting truly grew and took shape, and produced many of the lifters considered to be the best of all time. Despite this, and despite his youth that was marred by war and sickness, Tommy Kono still rose head and shoulders above the rest. 

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