The last time I attended nationals was 10 years ago in 2007, coincidentally, the last time it was held in Las Vegas. I was barely competitive and only had a few contests under my belt, but got an invite by showing up to a last minute contest held by the NAS Arizona state chair in Phoenix. I remember waking up at 4am and leaving Southern California with 6 of my close friends, nervous at the thought of performing in front of a crowd and potentially earning a spot into 'the Big Show' to be held the following month. We made it to the venue with just a few minutes to spare, pulling up in a residential cul-de-sac where the promoters house was located. Mildly confused, I asked, “where's the event being held?”. “You're here, we're just getting started.”
There were 2 contestants in this event: 1 heavyweight, and 1 light weight, and they were both members of the state chair's training crew. There were no booths, no crowd, and no other competitors. This event wasn't intended to be an event at all, but rather an easy Strongman Nationals invite for a couple of buddies of the state chair. It just so happened that I was better than their token lightweight, and 90 minutes later had secured my place in Las Vegas. That was enough at the time to overshadow the disappointment of driving a cumulative 8 hours and dragging my friends across state lines just to lift in a neighborhood street.
In hindsight, I can recognize the complete lack of quality control in the governing body. I was naive at the time and, like so many lifters today, just excited to be a part of something new. But as time went on and experience grew, I developed a sense of business and how it should be done. It raised an interesting question: what is the obligation of a sanctioning body to the athletes they represent when the same athletes are the consumer? Athletes pay entry fees to compensate the promoter, and the athletes get the benefit of a standardized competitive avenue; capitalism at it's finest. But the dues paid to the governing body implies some form of quality control. Anyone can get a group of lifters together and call it a contest, but if a sanctioned meet is to hold any value that merits an entry fee and membership dues, standards must be enforced. When dues are paid to the governing body and there is no minimum threshold of quality for equipment, venue, or even a minimum number of contestants, something is wrong.
Earlier this year, 2017, I was at a contest governed by the same organization, ran by a relatively new gym in Southern California. The ever-popular 'car deadlift' was on the list of events and the 60 some athletes were excited to get at it. Halfway into the contest, a bystander-veteran of the sport took a look out back to scope out the equipment. The deadlift frame? A mess of dried out wooden planks that resembled something salvaged off of the Black Pearl. It was brittle, rickety, and loosely held together by half inch screws. The best case scenario happened where a bystander with a modicum of experience spoke up and said 'This ain't gonna cut it', resulting in a last minute change from a frame to a barbell. Worst case scenario, one lucky lifter would have been the guinea pig in an experiment to see what happens when a wooden deadlift frame explodes mid-set. Sure, responsibility falls on the shoulders of the actual host gym, but this is a sanctioned meet, and with a surge of newbies to the Strongman realm, these contest follies are becoming more the norm than the exception.
I last attended NAS Nationals the month after the Phoenix 'contest', November 2007, in the parking lot of Circus Circus. My entourage grew this time, partly because it was a high level event and they wanted to lend their support, and partly because it was, well, in Las Vegas. There were just under 90 competitors in my weight class alone, pushing the 5 event series to over 10 hours. Quite a few details stand out in my mind about that day. Like how the event was hidden in a back parking lot with no hopes of foot traffic or a crowd that wasn't comprised of friends and family. Like how the biggest show of the year offered no prizes or incentives, aside from a 'Pro Card' which grants access to more Strongman Corporation events with no prizes. Like how 3/4 of the entries weren't nationals level athletes at all. Like how Muscle Driver sponsored the event, which lead the promoter to swap a standard Strongman overhead press event for a silly 88lb kettlebell clean and press for reps in a minute (ties abounded between the 22-24 rep mark; it was described by one spectator to be like watching competitive jump roping).
I realized quickly that nationals was not the penultimate amateur strongman experience I had hoped for. The appeal of the NAS/Strongman Corporation structure was a clear cut path to the top: compete amateur, win a pro-card, compete at American pro shows and in international competition. But the inclusion of so many athletes in one location, without the crowd or incentives that follow similar events in other sports, reeked of a cash grab dressed up like a viable athletic event. At this nationals, and in the shows that followed year after year, event selection included strange mashups that benefit the heads of NAS/Strongman Corporation but seem to have no relevance on the pro-circuit. Kettlebell presses. One arm deadlifts. MAS wrestling. And now a love affair with Mike Bartos and his Powercenter equipment has resulted in EVERY SINGLE PRO QUALIFIER having a stone of steel instead of the traditional concrete stone with tacky. Prior to the SoS event at the last pro-level contest I attended, a rather large international competitor turned to me and inquired in a thick, Russian accent “What the fuck is this?”. Silly Western bullshit, comrade. Silly Western bullshit.
Let's forget about the fact that pinching a slick metal sphere with no grip aid poses a huge bicep risk in a sport already rife with bicep tendon ruptures. The fact is, Stone of Steel pops up NOWHERE in competition outside the scope of Strongman Corp. The internationally accepted tradition of the sport has, and will continue to be, concrete stones lifted with the aid of tacky. What are the odds of getting the best in the world, most of whom have already had their biceps reattached at some point, to try their hand at lifting world record weights with a slick metal stone? Absolutely zero.
So here I sit, 5 months out from Nationals which is once again in Las Vegas, Nevada. With a surge of popularity over the last several years, participation in Nats has skyrocketed, undoubtedly tacking on to the already bloated experience. Up from $100 in years past, this year's entry is upwards of $180, and in an especially ballsy twist, athletes not staying at the designated contest hotel (which is near $500 for the weekend, after taxes and fees) are to be taxed an additional $100. The claim is that discounts were given by the hotel for the contest venue, so they are enforcing this tax on the participating athletes. I'm by no means an expert on event/venue negotiations, but this just feels like a bullshit tactic by the promoter to avoid blowback for an aggressively greedy move. And since a contest that takes one day to get through is arbitrarily being stretched to three (mandatory rules on Thursday, events split between Friday and Saturday), the competitors are forced to take more vacation time and spend more money on hotel rooms.
For all of my gripes with the organization, I'm by no means protesting against profit being made by those who stage these events. Having promoted a few smaller scale contests myself, I have an appreciation for how much time, effort, and collaboration goes into putting on such an event. I'm a capitalist at heart, and if the organizers are giving the consumers an experience worthy of the price, they deserve to profit. But theres a point where the organizers can easily exploit their role as the only game in town. Trends of catering to the masses of low level athletes, unchecked expansion with no quality control, including silly or unnecessarily dangerous events, and now shamelessly cash grabbing via a 'hotel tax' all point to a system that needs to be checked by the consumer.
For many contestants, their tickets are already paid and hotels are booked. But the consensus is that they are 'on notice' for next year's event. The bad taste in their mouths from being cornered into an excessively expensive endeavor have left them hungry for an alternative. US Strongman is still growing, but currently represents the best hope to compete against Strongman Corporation's blatant affronts against their patrons. Hopefully, non-sanctioned superstars like Callie and Nick Best will continue their open 'Sin City Strongman' shows, which featured convenient venues, pro-level equipment, and direct invites to international competitions. Official Strongman has already taken a note from Crossfit by taking video submissions into consideration for their invites to World's Strongest Man sub-events. True competition always leads to a better product, and itt is the responsibility of the competitors and athletes, as consumers of the sport, to support new competitive opportunities as they arise.