Dan Palmer

Whisper the name Magnús Ver Magnússon to British people of a certain age and it might cause them to think about Christmas.

The Icelandic behemoth has become synonymous with the World's Strongest Man competition which, for one reason or another, has become a festive television favourite in the UK.

Magnússon won the title four times in the 1990s and for many, watching strong men pulling cars or buses or lifting the mighty atlas stones is just as important a yuletide tradition as tucking into the turkey.

Some might mistakenly believe that the competition also takes place in late December, but in fact the action is usually done and dusted months before.

This year's edition, won by Britain's Tom Stoltman, took place in May in California but passed the vast majority of people by when it actually happened, before they all got up to speed while stuffed to the rafters on Christmas chocolate and beer.

There was mild indignation when Stoltman featured in the charity Soccer Aid match in June, where he played in goal and was announced as the World's Strongest Man. 

The World's Strongest Man is a Christmas television favourite in the UK ©Getty Images
The World's Strongest Man is a Christmas television favourite in the UK ©Getty Images

This was unwittingly a spoiler for those planning to watch his exploits nearly half a year later, but maybe they had forgotten by then anyway?

Britain's Christmas connection to these giant athletes perhaps means that Strongest Man competitions are viewed simply as entertainment rather than a fully fledged sporting event.

I had the opportunity to watch competitors up close this week during a trip to Manama, where the strongest men of both Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council were being crowned.

As someone who has heard of Magnússon I was keen to see what these guys could do and it was certainly an impressive display of sheer brute force and power.

Five disciplines have been contested here, including the car yoke which sees competitors hoist a car into the air and walk along a track with it.

The car leg press, meanwhile, is exactly how it sounds. Imagine a leg press machine but, instead of a stack of weights, a car is suspended instead.

Also contested were the log press, power stairs and max deadlift. On the power stairs, competitors had to lift big cube-shaped weights which got increasingly heavier up four levels in a race with their opponent, before they could celebrate at the top.

Several people were required to place the weights back at the start again and a forklift truck was needed to remove them from the top of the stairs.

Impressive displays of strength were shown outside a shopping mall in Bahrain ©BOC
Impressive displays of strength were shown outside a shopping mall in Bahrain ©BOC

These colourful blocks would not be out of place if they dropped onto the head of Wile E. Coyoteand an enthusiastic compère urged the men on to add to the excitement.

The power stairs was a fantastic spectacle with the race between the two athletes bringing a definite sporting element to proceedings.

Elsewhere, the loud grunts and groans from the competitors, and the anticipation as they prepped themselves for extreme tests of strength, meant it really hit home just how impressive these feats are.

What was also notable was how many people had packed in to watch. The action is part of Bahrain's "Strength Week" - which has also featured weightlifting, powerlifting, cross fit and arm wrestling - and organisers have done a good job of bringing the competitions right to the masses. 

A temporary pop-up arena, installed outside of a huge luxury shopping centre with massive footfall, welcomed the action and plenty of interested observers squeezed into a scaffold grandstand or craned for a view around the edges.

Among them were plenty of kids, which got me thinking about the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) favourite buzzword - "youth".

Could a strong man - and strong woman - event ever work at the Olympic Games? It immediately sounds ridiculous, but modern pentathlon is about to introduce a Ninja Warrior style obstacle race to sport's grandest stage and that seems to be the way things are heading.

If you ask a youngster if they would prefer to watch a strong man pulling a bus or one of the more traditional Olympic sports, I would not be surprised if the Magnússons of this world came out on top.

The power stairs pits two competitors against each other, carrying massive weights ©BOC
The power stairs pits two competitors against each other, carrying massive weights ©BOC

The potential for social media traction - a strong man carrying a car in front of the Olympic Rings, for example - is also huge.

There is of course no recognised governance for this sort of thing at the moment, and you have to believe that drug testers would be on high alert.

Power sports such as weightlifting would inevitably be nervous, but Bahrain has proven that there is an appetite for these events, so is a strength pentathlon or decathlon as far-fetched as it might seem?

"Stronger" is, of course, the third word of the Olympic motto unless IOC President Thomas Bach decides to tinker with it some more.

Organisers here have really shown the value of taking events to the streets.

A number of those watching probably did not know Strength Week was taking place, but became hooked as they went to the shops and then found themselves in the stands.

Advertising, social media posts and press and television coverage can only do so much to boost a sport's popularity so plonking it straight in front of people's eyes seems like a good move.

How many kids who have seen the action here have been inspired and now want to head to the gym? It can be tough work encouraging people to go to an arena to watch your sport, so thinking outside of the box can be a useful weapon.

Bahrain's best results on the sporting stage have come from imported overseas stars ©Getty Images
Bahrain's best results on the sporting stage have come from imported overseas stars ©Getty Images

Many sports could be set up in a city's streets or a public park, perhaps ensnaring people who had no idea they would enjoy it. 

Could some sort of street world tour, with free of charge events and top athletes, help with the promotion of those sports which are in a constant battle for eyes and ears?

In Bahrain, youth and getting people involved are of big importance.

This small island nation only boasts around 1.5 million people and is dwarfed by its massive neighbour Saudi Arabia, which has found a newfound appetite for sport and hosting goliath events. But the archipelago has a passion of its own and has won four Olympic medals, including two golds.

All of these, however, have been won by runners imported from Kenya and Ethiopia and a homegrown superstar on the biggest stage is something they would dearly love.

At the strong man event, I am fairly sure I spotted Pasha Kharkhachaev, a Russian-born sambist and two-time amateur MMA world champion who now competes in Bahrain colours.

I also spotted him in Abu Dhabi in January last year when I went for a swim during the International Mixed Martial Arts Association World Championships, when he was shadow boxing in the pool.

The foreign legion of Bahrain have brought the country a lot of pride, and perhaps successfully inspire the local population who want to follow in their footsteps.

But "ringers" such as this will always lead to criticism from elsewhere and some of the arrivals have notably fallen foul of the doping testers.

If Bahrain hopes to produce its own stars, a youth appealing event on the city streets is a power step in the right direction.