While many Olympic athletes can trace their path back to high school gyms or playgrounds, weightlifting legend Tommy Kono began his journey to the Games in a most unlikely setting — a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans.
A six-time world champion and the only lifter to set world records in four different weight classes, Kono captured medals at three consecutive Olympics, winning gold in Helsinki and Melbourne in 1952 and 1956, respectively, before taking silver at the 1960 Rome Games.
Competing in an era when strength and physique sports overlapped, Kono also won three “Mr. Universe” bodybuilding titles and inspired a young Arnold Schwarzenegger to pursue a bodybuilding career in the United States, according to the movie star and former governor of California’s own account.
The son of migrants from Hiroshima Prefecture, Kono was born in 1930 in Sacramento, California, and grew up the youngest of four boys in a neighborhood populated by new arrivals.
“We were in what they called the lower end of town in Sacramento,” recalled Kono, 85, in a recent telephone interview. “Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos (lived) there. And we knew that the white kids would go to certain swimming pools but we weren’t allowed to.”
A “sickly” child, Kono missed around a third of his elementary school days because of chronic asthma.
Following the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Kono family was forcibly moved in 1942 to the Tule Lake internment camp in Northern California as part of a mass relocation that saw more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans interned.
It was at the camp, built on a dry lake bed high above sea level, that a 12-year-old Kono began his gradual transformation from a “skinny kid” into one of the world’s strongest men, pound for pound.
A neighbor at the camp owned a set of barbells and introduced Kono to weight training, and he was soon hooked.
Life at Tule Lake had another unexpected benefit, with the region’s dry climate helping him overcome his respiratory problems.
A resident of Honolulu since 1955, Kono does not show any bitterness while recalling the hardships faced by his family because of the internment.
“It’s a case of shikata ga nai,” he said, using a Japanese phrase meaning “it can’t be helped.”
“I’ve accepted the fact that they (the U.S. government) had to do it, you have to live with it, and that’s it.”
After the end of the war, as Japanese-American families across the West Coast set about rebuilding their lives, Kono began weight training at the Sacramento YMCA.
Unable to afford a car, he would bicycle to the gym each day, taking side streets to avoid being seen by his peers at a time when many Americans regarded bicycles as children’s toys.
“I just didn’t like to ride a bicycle in front of all those people, it was embarrassing,” he said.
Winning a succession of local and then national meets, he quickly established himself as one of the country’s top lifters. But his burgeoning athletic career was almost curtailed by the Korean War.
After being drafted into the U.S. Army, Kono was set for deployment to the Korean Peninsula as a cook.
The role of army cook, despite being noncombat, had become increasingly hazardous during the war in light of tactics employed by North Korean forces.
“They’d heard the American army moved on its stomach, and if you killed the cook, it would destroy their morale. So they were shooting off all the cooks,” he said.
On the brink of deployment, Kono received welcome news — Army command had learned he was a candidate for the Olympic team and decided to keep him stationed in the United States to focus on qualifying for the Helsinki Games.
“So in a way, weightlifting saved my life,” he said.
Kono took gold as a lightweight in Helsinki after recording the heaviest total from the three lifts: the clean and jerk, in which the bar is first raised to the shoulders, then above the head in a second explosive motion; the snatch, in which the bar is raised above the head in a single movement; and the clean and press, a lift no longer included in Olympic competitions, in which the bar is raised to the shoulders and then “pressed” overhead using only the upper body.
Kono had no chance to celebrate the victory with friends and family back in Sacramento, having received orders to report immediately to a new assignment with the occupation forces in West Germany.
Word spread among the West German weightlifting community about the Olympic champion stationed there, and Kono began receiving a steady stream of invitations to give demonstrations at weekly meets around the country.
This period helped him hone his training, focusing on perfecting technique and avoiding fatigue to perform in peak condition every weekend.
After nine months in Europe, Kono returned to Sacramento, but would soon after relocate to Hawaii.
“I had a request to give an exhibition in Hawaii, so I came . . . and thought, ‘Wow, this is where I belong.’
“The majority were Oriental or Asians . . . so I felt perfectly at home.”
In 1956, Kono gave what he considers his best Olympic performance, winning gold with a world record total as a light heavyweight in Melbourne.
A knee injury kept Kono from qualifying for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Competing in Japan would have had special meaning due to his heritage, he said.
He retired from competition a year later, but maintained involvement in the sport as a coach, leading the Mexican team to the 1968 Mexico City Games, coaching West Germany at the 1972 Munich Games, and guiding the United States team at Montreal in ’76.
As a competitor, Kono and his national teammates represented a golden generation of American weight lifters, repeatedly topping Olympic and world championship medal tables despite archrival the Soviet Union having a much larger talent pool.
“They had half a million weight lifters registered to train and be on the Olympic team . . . whereas in our case we only had a handful enlisted,” Kono said.
That he is more well-known in European countries, particularly Russia, than in the United States underlines weight lifting’s status as a fringe sport in his home country, despite a recent resurgence in popularity.
While Russia and other former Soviet Bloc nations have continued to produce successive generations of elite weight lifters, the United States has seen little recent success in the sport.
Kono blames training programs that prioritize high-volume training over mental preparation.
“Fifty percent of weightlifting is mental, 30 percent is technique, and only 20 percent is really power. So in other words, the more you train doesn’t necessarily mean you get better and better,” Kono said.
The author of two volumes on weightlifting, Kono recently began writing his third book, an autobiography.
He retired from coaching and officiating commitments earlier this year to concentrate on writing the book, working from the Honolulu home he shares with Florence, his wife of 54 years.
In addition to recording his life story for future generations, including his children and grandchildren, Kono wants to share the mindset that helped him succeed.
“I want to write about overcoming obstacles, that nothing is impossible if you really put your mind to it,” he said.