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Τhe three cannons

Αn unregistered competition

“Fear is just like fire. It can be helpful if you know how to use it. If not, you ‘ll get burned”

Mike Tyson

It is known that sports gradually began to be organized from the end of the 19th century onwards. From that time, and especially after the first Olympic Games in 1896, various sports began to enter categories, acquire rules and, in general, receive forms of execution very close to the ones we know and admire today.

Before 1900 professional athletes were only few and their skills could only be enjoyed in circuses and fairs. They usually – if not always – belonged to two categories, the acrobats and the wrestlers who were also weightlifters. This second skill of wrestlers, weightlifting, developed as a sport because it was and still is a serious part of a wrestler’s training. In other words, these two sports were absolutely intertwined, because a good weightlifter was inherently strong and therefore capable of fighting. All he needed was his technical training, which he would acquire by fighting. Therefore wrestlers were originally weightlifters and not the other way around. A catalytic factor in the development of an athlete’s skills back then was his professional occupation. Often the weightlifters came from the ranks of the hamalis (heaver), people who are in charge of transporting goods and luggage. Among them, those who simply had the ability to finish their work faster, moving the largest amount of things in the shortest possible time, were easily distinguished. But there were other types of professionals whose hard working conditions tired them out a lot, but at the same time endowed them with excessive strength. Examples of such professionals were butchers, sailors, horse tamers and many others who, if they did not have strength and endurance, it was impossible to cope with their professional duties.

But what happened when these professionals were called upon to compete in front of the public? How could the best stand out?

Would the butcher bring his knackers and the heaver his trunks and various loads from his workplace to the playing field which was usually a theater or a circus?

As one can easily understand, such  thing could not happen.

Objects that today everyone can easily find, in those distant times were extremely difficult to obtain.

It must be understood that the dumbbells and the bars on which the various weights are attached, were hard-to-find and very expensive gym equipment. Only by order could someone get this kind of equipment to work out, and this meant that he would have to pay a fortune for it.

Usually the weightlifters solved their differences by lifting the heaviest objects that were around them at that moment. That is, they solved the problem of their competition on the spot, trying to pick up objects that were in the surrounding area. Such were, for example, the barrels, which differed in size according to their use. The biggest were the water storage barrels, because then there was no water supply system and the need to store water was essential. In the smaller barrels that some called portolezas, wine, beer and other spirits were kept. So here’s an easy means of competition with consistent volume and weight! During a race, the strongest athlete was the one who could lift the most barrels that were gradually placed on top of each other, and with this reliable method, the limit of each person’s endurance could be shown.

Οld barrels (portolezes) stacked in Varvakeios market somewhere in the center of Athens.
Some people’s imagination was enough to turn two old wine barrels into a seat and a table. The photo was taken in the picturesque harbor of the island of Nissiros.
Old-time athlete type. Notice the improvised
way it adjusts the various weights on it.

Other such items that could be found in almost every large city were cannons. These were almost always located in the battlements of the castles and even varied in size and units. There were then certain athletes who, in addition to strength, stood out for their daring and bravery. They not only had the strength to carry the cannons on their shoulders, but also enkindled them while carrying them.

An old cannon in the medieval castle of the island of Lefkada.
The old cannons that completely lost their original usability have been turned into decorative elements of various public spaces. On the island of Tinos, next to a marble monument, this particular old cannon rests.

But there were other such objects which the whole world recognized as too heavy and which were usually easy to find to perform such feats.

In the harbors one could find large marble mortars in which salt was rubbed as well as large anchors with thick chains which were commonly used on steamships.

Two old stone mortars have been turned into decorative elements of a corner on the island of Nissiros.
An old stone mortar resting somewhere on the island of Nissiros.

It is known that large cities were always built on the banks of rivers, in order to meet the basic needs of citizens in water. In the beds of these rivers there were always – and still are – large rounded stones of various sizes, which owe their smooth shape to their constant friction with the water. The smooth surface of these rocks makes them suitable for lifting, precisely because the athletes did not injure themselves trying to hug the stone and lift it.

A typical example is ship anchors that differ in size. In fact, some sources state that Koutalianos realized how strong he was, when he managed to lift a large anchor by himself that a dozen sailors could not carry together.

A large iron anchor resting somewhere in the port of Tinos.
A large anchor decorates the entrance to a museum on the island of Spetses.

Old iron anchors, having lost their original usefulness, are forever washed ashore and become decorative elements. (Left on the island of Paros, right on the island of Kalymnos).
Coutalianos lifted such large anchors by himself, leaving the spectators who watched him speechless.
An old anchor and a heavy cannon, like those lifted by Coutalianos, decorate the forecourt of a museum on the island of Spetses.
The bust of Emmanuel Xanthos on the island of Patmos is flanked by two cannons, one large and one smaller.
An old cannon abandoned somewhere in the port of Myrina, on the island of Lemnos.

Other suitable such items were the millstones used in flour mills, water mills, oil mills, etc. These were very handy because they had a hole in the middle, which under normal conditions was used to fit the shaft of the mill on the stone and give it movement. So when the weightlifters wanted to use these kinds of stones to prove their strength, they detached them from the mills and through the hole they had in the center, they passed thick ropes which served as handles to lift them.


Above. Old millstones and stone weights forgotten by time on the island of Nissiros. Through the hole that these objects have in their center, the old weightlifters used to pass thick sheets and practice their favorite sport.

In fact, millstones were also suitable for an additional reason. The weightlifters could either by tying them next to each other, or by passing a thick iron bar through the hole in their center, to facilitate the lifting method, increasing if they wanted to the weight they were trying to lift.

Various weightlifters who performed with one cannon.

There can be no doubt that of all these exercises, the most spectacular was that of the cannons, and this is because the few athletes who attempted to lift them had them fired at them. The sight caused immense wonder and admiration. To this day, beautiful lithographs (engravings) have been preserved in which famous athletes are shown performing this impressive number. Among them stand out names such as the Italians Felice Napoli and Pablo Raffetto, the Turkish Riza Bey, the Belgian Henry Toch, Bazin and some others.

Poster with the gyms of the famous Felice Napoli.
Among others, the exercise with the cannon stands out.
George Coutalianos (son of Panagis) holding two cannons

The famous Frenchman Louis Vigneron was one of the first to attempt to perform this number and who succeeded several times. But at some point he was unlucky, because during the execution of this very project he was killed.

The grave of the famous Louis Vigneron who was killed while performing the cannon exercise.

We note this to give our readers an understanding of the danger that athletes ran when attempting such an accomplishment.

However, the number with the cannons had another dimension that should not escape us.

It was common for the crenel of each city’s castles to have permanently mounted brass cannons. The value of these old places, today, has changed from a strategic one that it once was, to a tourist one.

There is no tourist who has not visited such old fortifications, without seeing and touching these old bronze cannons scattered around the environs of the old medieval castles. These very heavy war materials, which today have only a decorative use, were once the basic means of defense or attack of every people.

Paris, 1858: the “man-canon” at Cirque Imperial.” Le Monde Illustré”.

Many are those who, out of curiosity, touch these antiques, which have long since completely lost their usefulness. Visitors to archaeological sites smile next to these massive objects, taking commemorative photos. Among them there are some more daring ones who test their strength by trying to lift the cannon from the ground even by a millimeter, but soon their expectations are confuted and their efforts prove to be in vain.

In the previous centuries when these cannons were functional, people’s experiences were more closely tied to them. There was not a soldier, in other words a man, who was not called upon to transport such a cannon from one place to another with other colleagues. Moreover, everyone knew the terrible intensity of the discharge and its deadly effect, either when it found a target, or when accidents were caused by the incorrect use of the cannon.

We point out all these so that our readers will understand that when in the old days an athlete appeared before the public holding such an object, everyone was able to know more or less the degree of difficulty of his undertaking. So let’s imagine the surprise caused by an athlete lifting a cannon in his hands, which, however, required the joint effort of at least six men to move.

And if we accept that “the breath” of the spectators was taken away by the sight of a great and daring athlete who accomplished such a thing, it is worth asking what might have happened to the “breathes” of the reputed weightlifting champions, when they saw a colleague of theirs, lift not one, not two, but three such cannons firing at him simultaneously. That was Coutalianos.

An old cannon in the port of Mazatlan, Mexico. Panagis also passed through Mazatlan (Thanks to Gabriela Valdez Carrizosa for sending the photo from Mexico.)
Panagis Coutalianos holding three cannons. A large one on the shoulders and two more hanging on.
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