Tommy Kono, original name Tamio Kono was born on June 27, 1930, Sacramento, California, U.S.—died April 24, 2016, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was an American weightlifter who won Olympic and world championship medals in three different weight divisions. Kono and his parents were among the Japanese Americans interned at Tule Lake, California, during World War II.
Kono had asthma as a child, but his health improved in the dry desert air. He also began a weightlifting regimen, and by 1952 he was a mainstay of the U.S. national team. He was particularly valuable to the team because of his clutch performances and his ability to increase and decrease body weight without significant loss of strength, thus enabling him to compete in several weight classes.
Tom Kono’s Early Life
Many of the greatest strength athletes in history are defined by a singular trait — resolve.He was born in a Japanese family raised in Sacramento in 1930, Kono was far from a healthy child. Prior to the age of 11, he suffered terribly from asthma and, because of this, was often absent from school.
At times, he was even too debilitated to participate in physical education class. At 11 years old, Kono was 4’8″ and weighed only 74 pounds.
His health and stature would eventually improve, but under strained circumstances. Following the terror of the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941, scores of Asian-Americans were rounded up and interned in camps across the United States. Kono and his family were among those imprisoned.
At the Tule Lake internment camp in 1942, in an effort to combat the monotony and terror of detention, Kono was introduced to the barbell. Despite his father’s reservations, Kono began training several times per week with several boys his age. One of whom, Emerick Ishikawa, would also go on to compete for the United States in the 1948 Games.
Tom Kono’s Success
Kono rose from truly humble beginnings to become one of the United States’ most triumphant athletes. From his contemporaries to big names such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kono was regarded as a highly inspirational figure in American athletics. Fellow Team USA athlete and Olympic medalist Pete George called Kono “the greatest weightlifter of all time.”
Two Olympic gold medals in two different weight classes. Six World Weightlifting Championships gold medals and three Pan-American gold medals. Twenty-six world records and seven Olympic records. Mr. Universe Champion on four occasions. That and more make up the career of Tom Kono, America’s greatest weightlifter.
In 2005, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) dubbed Kono “Lifter of the Century.” What makes these accolades all the more impressive is that Kono came to the sport of weightlifting not through an air-conditioned gymnasium, but in an internment camp during World War II.His larger-than-life story wouldn’t be out of place on the silver screen, but sometimes reality is more extraordinary than fiction.
Life After Lifting
Post-1976, Kono devoted himself almost exclusively to being an educator, author, and public figure in the sport of weightlifting. He did, however, have one last go-round as a competition coach from 1987 to 1989 when he served as a women’s coach for Team USA at the World Weightlifting Championships.
At the time, women in weightlifting were a relatively new but burgeoning phenomenon — female weightlifting didn’t have its own event at the Olympic Games until 2000. Regardless, sports biographer and writer John Fair noted in a retrospective on Kono that during a time in which women were viewed as improper in weightlifting, Kono treated his athletes both respectfully and fairly.
Kono was also an entrepreneur in sports. Prior to his retirement, he in 1964 helped design and create several prominent athletic products such as protective knee equipment. As a homage to York’s Bob Hoffman, Kono called his protective knee gear “Bob Hoffman knee bands” and the product went on to sell over half a million units in 1972.
Consequently, Kono helped establish the idea that strength athletes could rely on external equipment to manage injuries, reduce pain, and remain safe and healthy while lifting weights.
Moreover, during his time coaching for West Germany, Kono teamed up with Adidas to help develop a different style of weightlifting shoe. At the time, most lifting shoes — also called “boots” — were high-topped, with lacing systems that extended up the shin well past the ankle.
A Champion of the World
In 1952, Kono traveled to the Helsinki Olympics where he won his first Olympic gold medal — despite battling both fierce competition and a nasty bout of food poisoning the evening prior.
The following year, buoyed by his success, Kono was discharged from the military, thereby allowing him to truly dedicate himself to his sport. From 1953 to 1959, Kono won gold medals across six consecutive Weightlifting World Championships and multiple weight categories and set new World Records in every division he partook in.
Kono’s athletic prowess stretched beyond the sport of weightlifting. In 1953, he won the Mr. Sacramento bodybuilding competition, which set off a string of successes in physique shows, culminating in a win at the Fédération Internationale Haltérophile et Culturiste (FIHC) Mr. World contest, and its coveted Mr. Universe title in 1954 (lightweight) 1955, 1957, and 1961 (overall).
Kono’s legacy goes far beyond his (admittedly extensive) medal cabinet, though. From athlete, to entrepreneur, to advisor, Kono touched the lives of thousands both in the United States and abroad. The esteem with which he is spoken about resonates to this day as a testament to his profound impact on weightlifting.
Kono passed away quietly in 2016, but his successes and reputation will endure as long as there are record books in which to pen his story.