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Louis Cyr

Cyr or Coutalianos?

Comparisons and criticisms

 
“Knowledge will give you power, but character respect.”
Bruce Lee

Competitiveness is a dominant concept in sports and is of great concern to the sports fans. Whether or not Coutalianos was really the strongest athlete who emerged in weightlifting, is the question that will concern us in this article. In general, the opinion has prevailed that weightlifter Luis Cyr is the one who holds the world record in this particular sport, either because in his time he was more advertised, or because the sources that refer to Panagis Coutalianos, were and remain unknown to the English-speaking public. However, the reasons why the international literature on Coutalianos is limited are not related to his athletic performances, but to other factors which we will analyze in this article. In an old publication (The National Police Gazette 1905-05-20. Page 11), a sportsman who signs with his initials as “W.A.L., Stamford Conn.” addresses the following question “Does anyone know any information about Panagi Coutalianos the “incredible Greek”? I would like to know if he or Louis Cyr was the strongest man in the world” – and concludes his telegraphic letter by saying “1st) About Coutalianos i have no info. 2nd) I believe Cyr was the strongest” . 

So we start from the fact that his question is two-fold, that is, it refers to two specific persons, without involving other contenders for the title. Therefore, according to what the writer in question knew, athletes who today are advertised as invincible, such as P. Pons, Koca Yusuf or G. Hackenschmidt and many others, are out of the competition from the outset. Of course, he come to the conclusion that Cyr was stronger than Panagi, but deep down he has some doubts.  What he knows about Coutalianos does not seem sufficient to him to form a safe conclusion and this is exactly his problem, namely the lack of literature and reliable sources about Panagis Coutalianos. There is even one additional parameter. If the letter writer was sure of his claim, he would not have gone into the process of addressing that question publicly. We are of course able to know how these two athletes demonstrated their skills in the various theaters, performing incredible feats and unimaginable performances. Sometimes you saw them loading entire wooden platforms on their backs with the spectators sitting in their seats, and other times lifting weights that weighed tons with their fingers. But how could we proceed with a safe comparison of the two athletes, at a time when  the sport in those years was semi-professional, without the existence of some global organization to control and record sports performance.

A key question from the past

Some facts we know about the career of the French-Canadian Louis Cyr (1863-1912) are how he achieved lifting 500 pounds (227 kg) with one finger and lifting 4,337 pounds (1,967 kg) on his back (backlifting). In general, he participated in wrestling matches, such as on 25-3-1901 when he defeated the champion Eduard Beaupre, but he was more of a weightlifter than a wrestler. He was 5 feet 8.5 inches (1,740 m.) tall and weighed 365 pounds (166 kg.) when he retired in 1904. Cyr did not travel as far as Panagis, since the latter was a sailor by profession , which allowed him to enrich his experiences by competing against multiple opponents from all over the world. But this great advantage, from another point of view, was at the same time a disadvantage. The world tours carried out by Coutalianos did not help him to develop stable collaborations with theater impresarios, circus directors and managers. Greece, his country of origin was a small state – half of what it is today – and never supported his efforts. Contrary to the neighboring Ottoman Empire, the Sultan took care of advertising the best Turkish wrestlers in the European salons. Experts in the history of wrestling know very well that the French wrestler, weightlifter and manager J. Doublier (1844-1901), was appointed by the Sultan to accompany the best wrestlers of Turkey to Paris, London and America. Accordingly, Cyr’s French-Canadian origin acted as a catalyst in the spread of his fame. The language he himself spoke as well as the records that refer to him, the dozens of French-speaking researchers who dealt with his case, the lasting peace that the Canadian state enjoys and which has the consequence of preserving intact records and relics of the athlete, they are just some of the many advantages that made Cyr famous and Coutalianos … unknown.

Logo of th “Police Gazette”

Greece was, for its part, at that time, a country suffering from poverty and wars and therefore unsuitable for the development of any social and cultural activity. Under these circumstances, the investigation into Coutalianos’ sporting activity was and remains a very difficult and time-consuming process, which we aspire to complete by highlighting every element concerning him. For the Greek athlete Panagis Coutalianos (1847-1916), we are able to know only a few of his gymnastic feats, such as lifting a 130 lb barbell with one hand and with a single lift, hanging on the little finger of the same hand 40 lb (77 kg) barbell. He was carrying three brass cannons which were firing simultaneously. One of the large weights of 300 pounds (136 kg) was resting on the shoulder blade and the two smaller weights of 225 pounds each were hanging from him with straps. In his open palms and arms fully extended, he deftly held two iron balls that each weighed 400 pounds. In fact, at the age of 53, he appeared in the USA lifting a total of 2,200 pounds, being able to move at the same time with this weight on him. He was 6 feet two inches (1.8796 m) tall and weighed 250 pounds (113.3981 kg).

L’ Etoile newspaper

As one can easily see, all these facts that we bring to light about Coutalianos, remained unknown to the general public until today. On the contrary, much has been written about the case of both Cyr and many other athletes of that time, mainly because fellow researchers took care to deal with them. However, there is something more. The countries of origin of these athletes had the institutional infrastructure to strengthen this type of research. However, returning to the issue that concerns us, the comparison of the two athletes, the questions remain. Skeptical researchers could present different opinions and claims, mainly because each athlete appeared on stage performing drills in a completely unique way.This fact, in addition to the size of the weight, makes the comparison unreliable. e.g. How can we compare Cyr who allegedly lifted a 227 kg bar with his finger ten centimeters from the ground, with Coutalianos who lifted a 60 kg bar with one hand while having a 20 kilos weight hanging on the little finger of the same hand ? Could Cyr lift a 136kg cannon, provided it was fired over his shoulder? What kind of strength is needed for such an endeavor, even a modern weightlifter cannot answer us, precisely because he does not have the corresponding experience. How can we know that the weight measurements that each athlete lifted were correct? Why wouldn’t there be factors who sought to mythologize certain individuals for profit? In other words, since the mode of competition is not the same, any objective comparison could be questioned. These situations have been rectified by international sports federations by having athletes compete within frameworks that make their competition credible and results accurate.

The disputed point

In the case of the athletes we are comparing, however, only one condition could provide an answer to the question of that old letter writer, and this is none other than the confrontation between them. But unfortunately, from what we know so far, something like this should never have happened. Nevertheless, the article of an old newspaper that circulated in Lowell, USA and was addressed to French-speaking readers, comes to give another dimension to our research. So according to L’etoile (1901-4-30), Cyr was in that city when Coutalianos was already carrying out a series of demonstrations there, even boasting that he is the strongest man in the world and at the same time challenging anyone to come and face him. We do not know why Cyr did not respond to this public challenge of Coutalianos and may one day learn the reasons and background of this refusal. But traditionally, at least in the sports of wrestling and weightlifting, unnecessary refusal to accept a challenge is equal to a defeat.

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Kostas Michos

Kostas Michos

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