One man who is often overlooked in our sport is its first post-war superstar and the first man to win eight world or Olympic gold medals who worked as a humble guard at New York’s Riker’s Island Prison for many years.
This man was John Henry Davis, named after the legendary black steel driver. Born on January 12, 1921 in Brooklyn, New York, he would grow up a worthy facsimile of his namesake. He did this in the fore- and after-shadow of World War II, of which he was an army veteran. That war interrupted his and all of weightlifting’s progress for many years. And it is because of this time frame that Davis’ legacy is the subject of some controversy in regard to just how he would compare to other greats, particularly those others that have also won multiple titles in subsequent years. This is often debated since, while he competed mostly in the heavyweight category (over 82.5 kg for most of his career), he stood only 5’8’’ and weighed from 90 to 107 kg, significantly shorter and lighter than the men who would succeed him. Since his lifts do not look so impressive compared to modern performances, many might dismiss him as just an old-timer who was lucky to compete when he did. But is this fair to the man?
Art Drechsler of New York wrote a paper entitled “How Good Was John Davis?” some time ago, where he sang the praises of the man. I myself remember when Davis died (from cancer on July 13, 1984), just a few days before the start of the LA Olympics. I was the Canadian team leader then and remember the discussion among the people there who remembered him, among them Morris Weissbrot, Tommy Kono, John Terpak and Rudy Sablo. In this paper, I will attempt to illuminate the debate so that readers may come to their own conclusions just as I came to mine.
I will start this discussion by quoting a thesis submitted to the State University of New York Empire State College, by Mark Kodya. In it is the following passage:
Gender and Racial Equality
The 1952 Olympics were John Davis’s final success on the international platform. How good was John Davis? Drechsler (2000, p. 2-3) notes “He performed his lifts with no thigh brush (the bar was not permitted to touch the thighs or hips during the pull in those days), used a split style, employed no hook grip (John’s hands were too small to hook comfortably), and lifted on equipment far poorer than today’s (and John certainly used no banned substances)… Davis had won 6 consecutive World Championships and 2 consecutive Olympic Games. Since that time, only two other weightlifters have ever duplicated Davis’ achievement – Tommy Kono and Vasili Alexseev (Naim Sulemanaglou has won more World Championships than this legendary trio and one more Olympic Games, but his victories were not consecutive and Naim’s record was set up 43 years after Davis’). One can only imagine how many championships Davis might have won had the war years not cut 7 years out of the prime of his career.”
It is only on this final point that I disagree. Davis was undefeated for a fifteen-year period, encompassing the war years, so it is logical that he would have won the 5 world and 2 Olympic championships not held, giving him 4 Olympic and 11 world championships, had it not been for the war – a tally unapproached in the intervening fifty years, making a very strong case that John Davis was the greatest weightlifter of all time. Wilhelm (1996, p. 5) notes that “In 1992.[Kono] was acclaimed by… [International Weightlifting Federation] vote to be the greatest weightlifter of all time”. Kono’s obvious achievements notwithstanding, the selection of anyone other than John Davis for that honour demonstrates that he remains underrated and one has to wonder to what extent that is race-based. Perhaps the greatest measure of his ability is that recognizing Davis as an eight-time world and Olympic champion does not give him sufficient credit for longevity.
Before we get too far I must question the idea that the choice of Kono over Davis as the greatest of all time as being “race-based”. That may be true with some but I don’t think that it would be accurate for a majority of the judges. For starters, Davis was very popular with most who knew him in his prime. He had few serious detractors. Most of the judges were born later and never knew him, especially since most probably were from Europe and so may not be quite so informed by anti-black sentiment in the first place. And this supposition also does not take into account the qualities of the other candidates. There is little to choose from when you mention names like Davis, Kono, Alexeev, Suliemanuglu, Rigert and others. No slouches, any of them. You could name anyone of them as the “greatest” and still have much to support your choice. So I don’t think racism can be considered the obvious reason Davis was not chosen. A possible one but not an obvious one.
In comparing him to the other three multiple winners mentioned above it is interesting to note that all four were members of ethnic minorities in their own countries. Davis was an African American, Kono was Japanese in post war Hawaii, and Sulemanuglou was a Turk, an historically unpopular people, in Bulgaria. Since most weightlifting writers who are in a position to grant immortality to such athletes are Caucasian some would wonder why one might suspect racial bias when many of the candidates might be beyond the pale to a potential bigot in their midst.
Bob Hoffman certainly had his share of human failings. His detractors have been as eager to point these out as he was to detail his ever peerless bent pressing, canoeing and polka dancing abilities. But ethnic or racial animosity was not one of these failings. Even if he had held prejudiced views privately (no such evidence), as a good businessman he at least never let anything like that prevent him from fielding his best team possible, as John D. Fair pointed this out very well in Muscletown, USA. In an article in the September, 1966 Strength and Health, Hoffman remarked that he and Davis were indeed refused service in many restaurants in those pre-civil rights days.
It may be interesting to note that the possible snubbing of Davis was not limited to those pundits of more Nordic origins. Even Ebony magazine, a sort of competitor to Life in the African-American community, was unaware of his accomplishments. They did a feature on Black Olympians just prior to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. All of the storied names like Jesse Owens, Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph and Cassius Clay were duly noted. But they missed Davis, who won not one but two gold medals. That can be blamed on our sport’s low profile I suppose.
Moving to the issue of consecutive victories, I believe that Suliemanuglu’s performance should not be denigrated because his victories were not consecutive. The only reason they were not was due to the years he had to sit out due to his defection and citizenship change. His victories, although made decades after Davis’, were made when competition was much tougher and deeper. It should be remembered that he was never defeated in his years at the top. The only mark against him was his ill-fated comeback in the 2000 Olympics.