By Pat Bigold
HE was one of history's most versatile weight lifters, a marvel of power in a small package.
Tommy Kono won Olympic medals in three different weight classes from 1952 to 1960: gold in lightweight, gold in light heavyweight, silver in middleweight.
He also set world records in four different weight classes, an amazing accomplishment by today's standards.
The 5-foot-6-inch Japanese-American strongman who spent 3 of his teen-age years in the Tule Lake Relocation Center during World War II was the "Pocket Hercules" of his day.
Pound for pound, he was the strongest man in the world.
In 1956 in Melbourne, the last time the Olympics were held in Australia, a 176-pound Kono lifted a world-record 385 pounds -- much more than twice his body weight.
Along with Peter George, another Hawaii resident who owns three weight-lifting medals (one gold, two silvers), Kono represents a bygone era in which the U.S. was a force to be reckoned with in Olympic weight lifting.
The United States has won hundreds of gold medals since the 1960 Olympics, but only one in weight lifting, and that was this year.
In the first year of women's Olympic weight lifting, Tara Knot got the gold after Bulgarian Izabela Dragneva tested positive for a banned diuretic.
The decline of the United States in weight lifting saddens the 70-year-old retired physical fitness and sports section coordinator for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Tommy Kono set 26 world records in 4 different weight divisions, won three Olympic medals and remains one of the most versatile weight lifters of all time.
Tommy Kono timeline
Olympic gold medal (lightweight)
Mr. World, World champion
Mr. Universe, World champion
Olympic gold medal (light heavy-weight)
Mr. Universe, World champion
Olympic silver medal (middle-weight)
Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
Inducted into International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame
Selected one of 100 Golden Olympians
He said it's because American weight lifters forgot that training was "not about working hard but working smart."
These days, he said, Americans are able to spend more time training because of the easing of amateur rules regarding sponsorships and earning money.
Kono, who turned down a well-paying role in Mae West's Las Vegas revue in 1955 and some Japanese movie offers because of the strict amateur rules of his day, often had to hitchhike to training and competitions.
"You couldn't even instruct bodybuilders at a gym. Anything that had to do with using your title or using the body was banned."
Working 40 hours a week as an employee of the California Highway Department to support himself, he found it necessary to squeeze in "quality training" about three times a week.
He didn't have the time to become Charles Atlas, so he had to develop a scientific approach.
When he stepped onto the mat to lift, Kono never "got mad" at the weights. He never let out the blood-curdling yells you heard on TV coverage of this year's weight-lifting events.
"I never fought the weight; I simply thought, 'Now, how can I lift this?' " he said.
A rival of Kono's said that silence was unnerving, and that Kono's very glance could tear apart the competition.
"When Kono looks at me from the wings, he works on me like a python on a rabbit," said the rival.
Today's techniques flawedKono said today's weight lifters more resemble power lifters and that goes against everything in his philosophy about the sport.
"They go up there grunting, snorting, groaning and then yank up the bar," Kono said. "In Olympic weight lifting, you can't do that. You have to be very composed and know what you're doing. Yelling and screaming, platform-pounding by the coaches, that doesn't do."
In contrast, Kono's success came through technique.
"There is a U.S. way of weight lifting," Kono said. But he feels it's a lost art, and it can't be recovered by European-trained coaches.
He said another reason for the decline of the U.S. program is the incentive provided lifters in other parts of the world, something the United States does not match.
"Tara Knot wins $7,500 (from the U.S. Olympic Committee) for her gold, but in other countries they win three times as much or more," he said. "In other countries, being a world champion or record holder makes you a hero and the government rewards you.
"You know Naim Suleymanoglu, the Turk who was going for his fourth gold medal but bombed? Well, he has 26 homes in Turkey. He's a multimillionaire. The U.S. Olympics does not have government support at all. It's all based on general public donations. So motivation is quite different in other countries."
Weight lifting here to stayOlympic officials have grumbled about the problems with drug abuse in weight lifting in recent years, even suggesting that the very future of weight lifting as an Olympic event might be in peril.
Bulgaria's entire weight-lifting team was thrown out of this Olympics and suspended from competition for 12 months for using a banned weight-losing drug, while two Romanian weight lifters were suspended for failing out-of-competition tests.
But Kono bristled at the suggestion that weight lifting could be eliminated from the Games.
"I don't know if they could ever do that," he said. Weight lifting has been going on since the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Though he is no longer officially involved with the International Weightlifting Federation, he'd get involved if talks ever led to cutting weight lifting from the Olympics.
Kono, who coached the first three U.S. women's weight-lifting teams, said he was glad to see women's weight lifting in the Olympics this year for the first time. He led the women to a second-place finish in the first world championship in 1987, and two more runner-up finishes in subsequent world championships.
He said he liked coaching women because he found they listened better than the men.
Kono remains devoted to weight lifting, partly for another reason.
"I was in the Army between 1951 and 1953," he said. "The North Koreans were shooting off all the U.S. cooks so they had to replace the cooks and they took me off the line and were ready to send me over. But when I reported in to get shipped out, they said there was a change of orders for me. It said, 'Enlisted man is a candidate for Olympics Team.' They asked me where I'd like to be stationed, and it was then I started training for the Olympics."
Kono went on to win gold in the lightweight division in Helsinki in 1952.
"So, I've always thought weight lifting saved my life," he said.