Born in Scotland in 1874, Launceston Elliot is perhaps more famous for his contributions to the world of weightlifting than bodybuilding. His fame in the weightlifting community, as readers of this blog will be aware, came from his gold weightlifting medal at the 1896 Athens Olympics. Similarly the course of his athletic career saw the powerful Scotsman set and break, a number of weightlifting records.
Nevertheless, Elliot’s achievements were far reaching as he appears to have been the first man to win a physique contest in Great Britain. While much has been made of Sandow’s Great Competition (1901) and its role in furthering bodybuilding’s status amongst the general public, it is arguable that without Elliot’s precedent, Sandow’s idea may never have come to the fore.
The tournament in question, titled the ‘Best Developed Man’ contest, was held in 1898, three years before Sandow’s own contest. The tournament’s patron, a Sir John Atkinson, was a bone-setter by trade who displayed a remarkable interest in all matters physical culture. Aside from sponsoring the aforementioned contest, Atkinson was president of ‘The Athletic Institute’ which operated in Kinnerton Street London.
The contest in question appears to have been a relatively small affair, held after that year’s weightlifting competition. So small was the event, that many English newspapers chose to report solely on the weightlifting as opposed to the physique contest. This silence has unfortunately limited our knowledge regarding how many competed and what attributes the judges were searching for.
Nevertheless, we do know that Launceston won the event and the silver cup that went with it. The cup complimented an already impressive year for the Scotsman, who months prior had set two new records in the one-hand lift. With relative ease, Elliot had bested the previous record by twenty pounds.
Displaying the small pond in which strength men operated during this period, the man whose record was surpassed by Elliot was none other than Eugen Sandow!
Returning to the subject at hand, we find that although no photographs exist from the tournament, Elliots’ measurements give some idea of his physique’s impressiveness. In 1896 when he won gold at the Olympics, Elliot boasted a 48 inch chest with 17.5 inch arms. Two years after the physique contest, Elliot weighed in at 224 pounds with a 50-54 inch chest depending on who you asked. Similarly his arms were now closer to 18.5 inches.
While Elliot’s physique would not have adhered to the strict guidelines of Sandow’s bodybuilding contest, which stressed balance, proportion and a good level of leanness, it was enough to win Britain’s first recorded physique contest. That his legend in the bodybuilding community has been forgotten is a shame as all sports need a pioneer. Sandow’s legacy has in many ways overshadowed the other leaders of the sport.
Chapman, David L. Sandow the magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the beginnings of bodybuilding. (University of Illinois Press, 1994), 130.
Webster, David, and Doug Gillon. Barbells and Beefcake: Illustrated History of Bodybuilding. (DP Webster, 1979), 36.