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Tommy Kono (1930 - 2016)

AP Photo / Marty Lederhandler

Tommy Kono (1930 - 2016)

Tommy Kono, an Olympic champion weightlifter, died April 24 of liver disease in Honolulu, Hawaii, according to multiple news sources. He was 85.

The 5-foot-6 weightlifter was regarded as one of the greatest of all time in his sport. Over the course of his career, he lifted in four different weight classes and set world records in all of them. He would gain or lose weight to compete in whatever weight class would give the United States the best chance at a medal.

The strategy proved successful. Kono won two Olympic gold medals for the U.S., one at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, and one at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. He won a silver medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. He also won six consecutive world weightlifting championships from 1953 to 1959 and three Pan American Games championships in 1955, 1959, and 1963 before an injury halted his competitive career.


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Kono was born June 27, 1930, in Sacramento, California, to parents of Japanese descent. During World War II, he and his family were forced to live in an internment camp by the U.S. government. It was there that he became interested in weightlifting as a way to stay healthy and combat his childhood asthma.

In addition to competitive weightlifting, Kono also participated in bodybuilding competitions, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1954, 1955, 1957, and 1961. He also served as an Olympic weightlifting coach for teams from Mexico, West Germany, and the U.S. between 1968 and 1976. He wrote and spoke extensively about weightlifting and helped to promote the sport as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Kono served as an inspiration to future bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who watched him compete in Vienna, Austria, in 1961. “He told me he was a 13-year-old boy in the audience that day and was so inspired he ran home and started working out,” Kono told The Sacramento Bee in a 2005 interview.

Kono also was an equipment innovator, helping to develop supportive knee and elbow bands that later became standard weightlifting gear.

He was elected to the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame in 1993 and was named Lifter of the Century in 2005 by the International Weightlifting Federation.

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