When it comes to feats of strength, Iceland rules the world. With a world-leading eight World’s Strongest Man championships, the country is internationally renowned for its formidable bodybuilding fortitude and virility. Many Icelanders proudly remember when burly Jón Páll Sigmarsson lifted the country up to become an international powerhouse in strength athletics. A master of the dead lift, Sigmarsson won the World’s Strongest Man competition a groundbreaking four times (1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990).
Throughout most of the 1980s, Sigmarsson was a larger-than-life figure with an ostentatious Viking persona. After bountiful powerlifting sessions, Sigmarsson became well known for busting out intimidating, heavily Icelandic-accented one-liners. According to legend, during the 1985 WSM competition, a heckler called him an Eskimo; Sigmarsson turned around, confronted the man and bellowed “I am not an Eskimo! I AM A VIKING!” This authoritative catchphrase, often imitated by WSM fans, would forever be associated with Sigmarsson.
He also, to this day, holds the record for deadlifting at the knees, lifting a gargantuan 523 kg at the 1987 Pure Strength Ultimate Challenge Competition. In 1989, Sigmarsson famously crushed a bicycle with his bare hands on Icelandic television; the twisted metal remains are now on prominent display at the Iceland Sports Museum in Akranes. Tragically, Sigmarsson died in 1993 at age 32 from a heart attack while attempting a dead lift in his gym, doing the thing he loved to do best.
In the years that have passed since his untimely death, Sigmarsson has remained a largely influential figure in the pantheon of Icelandic sport. Iceland’s other World’s Strongest Man, Magnús Ver Magnússon, fondly reflected back upon his old friend, rival and fellow countryman. He vividly remembered how Sigmarsson motivated him to get involved in the sport.
“He’s what you’d call a pioneer; the sport wasn’t so big back then. I was inspired by him,” said Magnússon. “When I started training out on the east coast, I watched him on TV, I said to my friends, one day, like Jón Páll, I’ll be there.”
He remembered competing amicably with Sigmarsson at many events such as the Highland Games and recollected on how he loved to interact with his fans. “I remember that he was lively, he loved to play with the crowd,” said Magnússon.