Tommy Kono

The Life of America’s Greatest Weightlifter


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About the Book

In a career spanning three decades, weightlifter Tommy Kono won three Olympic medals and eight world championships, captured 11 U.S. national and three Pan-American titles, and set 26 world records—all before the advent of steroids. A Nisei American, Kono was interned at Tule Lake, California, during World War II. Weighing only 105 pounds at age 14 and suffering from asthma, he began competing at a time of heightened racial and political prejudice against Asians, and in an era predating modern coaching techniques, nutritional aids and training facilities. This definitive biography covers the life and career of an exceptional athlete who defied disadvantage and achieved international renown.

About the Author(s)

John D. Fair is a retired professor of history from Auburn University and Georgia College, and currently an adjunct professor of kinesiology at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of eight books.

Bibliographic Details

John D. Fair
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 284
Bibliographic Info: 66 photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2023
pISBN: 978-1-4766-8958-6
eISBN: 978-1-4766-4727-2
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Preface 1
Introduction: “Go for Broke” 5
I—Early Life  11
1. From Tule Lake to Helsinki 13
2. Ascent to Olympus 31
3. A Living Legend 55
4. Descent from Olympus 73
II—From Amateur to Professional  89
5. Olympic Coach 91
6. Public Servant 114
7. Retro Coach 134
8. Political Quagmire 153
III—Athletic Immortality  171
9. Rising Above the Din 173
10. Weightlifting Sage 185
11. A Heroic Ending 204
Epilogue and Conclusion 219
Appendix I: Tommy Kono’s Record of Achievement 233
Appendix II: World Records 235
Chapter Notes 237
Bibliography 261
Index 267

Book Reviews & Awards

• “Tommy Kono was one of the most influential figures in American weightlifting. With an origin story fit for a Hollywood blockbuster, Kono was a dominant weightlifter, who later became a highly recognised coach. With the typical depth and empathy we come to expect from John Fair, this book is a much needed and insightful account of the great Tommy Kono. Fair’s tenacity for research and love of weightlifting combine to create a work which will no doubt become a classic in the field of sport history. For fans and academics alike, Fair has provided a thought-provoking account of one of weightlifting’s greatest ‘rags to riches’ stories. Kono is arguably America’s greatest weightlifter and only John Fair could do his history justice.”—Conor Heffernan, lecturer in the sociology of sport, Ulster University

• “John Fair has just given us the next seminal book in physical culture studies with this magnificent biography of America’s greatest weightlifter, Tommy Kono. Fair’s biography traces Kono’s introduction to weight training in a WWII internment camp for Japanese Americans; to his three Olympic Games appearances where he won two gold and one silver medal; and he then explores the “afterlife” of this champion athlete who struggled to find ways to make a living even while regarded by everyone as the best weightlifter the world had ever seen. Based on Kono’s private papers and interviews with dozens of lifters and other individuals who knew Kono, Fair’s intimate biography of this American icon is a revelation. His depth of research and his nuanced text makes this book a must read for strength enthusiasts, lovers of the Olympic Games, Cold War scholars, and those who simply want to know more about this amazing sport hero. I highly recommend it.”—Jan Todd, Ph.D., Roy J. McLean Fellow in Sport History, The University of Texas at Austin

• “Not very often, along comes the exact biography that we need. It’s rare and wonderful when this happens, and John Fair’s biography of Tommy Kono is a rare, wonderful, and badly needed book. …compelling prose and impeccable research… Kono’s 85-year life, including his coaching, his innovations, and his role as an international patron of strength sports, finally has the narrative it deserves. John Fair has produced the book of record on Tommy Kono, and it is as excellent as this nation’s best weightlifter deserves.”—Charles Kupfer, Penn State Harrisburg