Naim Süleymanoğlu and the Importance of Public Histories

As part of my writing with Barbend I’m currently in the middle of an article on Naim Süleymanoğlu, the great Turkish weightlifter from the 1990s. Naim’s story is one of Cold War politics, individual athleticism and raw feats of strength.

The above video, found on the Olympics’ own Youtube channel is such a wonderful idea and something I’d love to see more of in the history of sport. In trying to express Naim’s amazing career and importance to others, the above video gives a succinct, and entertaining example.

This led me to wonder about how the strength community is currently preserving its legacy. As someone who grew up at the very beginning of the internet age – a time when bodybuilding and powerlifting forms were in their infancy, I have always been fascinated with how the history of gym culture – in all its forms – is discussed among weight trainers.

As a historian of physical culture, I am perhaps overly interested in this topic but as the past few years using this website have thought me, the public’s interest in this history is very real. So in today’s post I want to highlight some of the places where this history is being preserved, as well as ruminating on the future of lifting history in the online age.

Websites and Repositories

It is a sad fact that many of the early websites that first brought me into the world of physical culture, websites like Sandowplus.co.uk are no longer active, or indeed online. When I first became interested in the history of physical culture, it was through the Sandowplus website which, for those unfamiliar with it, was effectively a repository of old books and magazines for dozens upon dozens of old time lifters.

Users could scroll through images, learn individual biographers and access their old books. Sadly gone (although still accessible through the Archive.org Wayback machine), the SandowPlus website was illustrative of the first great wave of lifting histories found online.

Nowadays only a handful of websites seem to be active. For those interest, Joe Roark runs the magnificent IronHistory forum which features a great hodgepodge of well known bodybuilders, powerlifters, weightlifters, historians and collectors. Equally worthwhile is David Gentle‘s physical culture forum and library.

The success of Ironhistory and David Gentle’s website speaks to the importance of public history in this field as both are largely driven by crowd sourcing and individual interest. This also explains why former bodybuilder Dave Draper runs a website which has lasted the tests of time owing, in large part, to its forum.

Unfortunately relatively few academic libraries publicize their physical culture collections, a point which puts them in great contrast to the websites outlined above. Without plugging my current workplace too much, the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center is one such exception.

The Stark is the world’s largest repository of physical culture materials and, thanks to the ingenuity of its staff, has digitized some rather unique pieces of history. On the website individuals can access the individual scrapbooks of Professor Attila and George Hackenschmidt alongside scans of early physical culture magazines.

Coupled with this, the Stark Center also offers free access to Iron Game History, the sole academic journal dedicated to the history of physical culture. I stress the importance of both platforms because the Stark Center really helped me in transitioning from someone with an interest in physical culture to someone who could research it for a living.

Outside the Stark Center, small collections can be found online. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France offers a run of La Cultur Physique issues while Ball State University has digitized a run of Bernarr MacFadden’s Physical Culture magazine. This is to say nothing of the materials found on Archive.org which offers free PDFs of old physical culture books.

Why I’ve labored on such points is that I was once in a position where I had little to no access to University libraries or archives. This meant that studying the history of physical culture was a difficult enterprise without online histories and libraries.

A New Medium?

Blogs and forums are relatively old in internet terms. Anyone who used the old muscle forums will appreciate just how crude they once were. One of the more novel developments in the past few years has been the development of physical culture documentaries online.

Rogue fitness has, in conjunction with the Stark Center, produced several wonderful documentaries on famous strongmen and women from the past. Often including previously unseen footage and unknown anecdotes, the documentary’s professional finish have helped expand the remit of physical culture.

Rogue has had to compete with individual collectors and bodybuilders who have taken to video to discuss the history of this field. In particular, Ric Drasin has created some great content, as has Golden Era Bookworm.

Perhaps my favorite thing to do, as has become clear at several points on this website, is to simply type ‘physical culture’ or ‘vintage strength’ into Google and see where British Pathé and a host of other websites will take me.

Such videos help to add visual component to our histories which can be lacking in dryer historical texts.

Who Cares?

This post has become a list of different archives and links – something I was hoping to avoid – but the pertinent question is who care? Why does any of this matter? Public accessibility is at the heart of the matter here.

Fitness and gym going has become incredibly popular in the past four decades. Especially in the internet age, individuals are becoming more and more interested in the history of different exercises, training systems and individuals.

Access to different mediums and sources is crucial in not only informing, but entertaining people. I suspect I’ve missed out on some rather wonderful sources so if I have let me know in the comments.

In the meantime I think that it’s important to share, promote and preserve as many of these sources as possible so that future individuals can engage with and expand this history even more.

As always … Happy lifting!