Tommy Kono: Out of an Internment Camp Rises Arguably the Greatest Weightlifter of All Time

Tommy Kono Iron Man cover

One of the greatest weightlifters the world has ever seen started his career in an internment camp during World War II.

Tommy Kono, the only Olympic weightlifter to have set world records in four different weight classes, won gold in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, gold in the 1956 Melbourne Games, as well as silver in Rome in 1960.

But at the age of 12, Kono and his family were removed from their home in Japanese Alley in Sacramento, California, and relocated to Tule Lake Segregation Center, which is at the northern-most part of California, near the Oregon border.

Kono and his family were assigned to Tule Lake because of geographically proximity to Sacramento. But of the ten concentration camps designated to hold over 110,000 Japanese or American of Japanese ancestry upon enactment of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Tule Lake was the maximum-security camp that came to house those considered most disloyal or disruptive. (The order was issued exactly 74 years ago on February 20, 1942.)

Little Tommy Kono, skinny, terribly shy, and sickly due to asthma, had to grow up in a camp that housed the most disruptive inmates in a facility that was overpopulated, unsanitary and squalid.

Strangely enough, it may have been the best thing to happen to him personally.

Tommy KonoPhoto by Y Ishii Jan 19 1957
Tommy Kono Photo by Y Ishii Jan 19 1957

Tule Lake is high above sea level, and as Kono told me, “it was a dried up lake, where no bushes or trees would grow.”For the first time, Kono could breathe free and easy, and enjoyed good health for the first time in a long time.

At the age of 11, Kono was 4 ft 8 and a half inches tall and weighed 74 and a half pounds. In other words, he was scrawny. But his friends in the camp were weight training enthusiasts, and as this article explains, they “gave him a fifteen-pound barbell and the advice, ‘It’s good for you, keep lifting it up, lots of times.'”

Weight training was an activity he could do to improve his health, see measurable results, and feel good about himself. Kono told me this was the positive side, the meritocratic side of camp life for him. “There was nothing there (to distract me). No stuff hindering me. You have to understand when you’re in Tule camp you are like everybody else. I got to be in pretty good shape.”

After World War II ended, Kono and his family were not compelled to go to Japan. Kono went back to high school in Sacramento, continued his weight training at a local YMCA until he was drafted into the US Army. So despite the fact that his loyalty was questioned only 8 years earlier, he was considered loyal enough to join the US military in 1950. That was when the Korean War was raging. Kono was targeted to be a cook in South Korea in support of the troops. He had heard that North Korean snipers were targeting cooks in particular – the logic being that if the cook went down, so too would morale.

Fortunately, Kono was breaking California weightlifting records and winning tournaments. When the US Army found out Kono was a really good weightlifter, they decided to move him to safer grounds where he could train for a possible spot on the US team in Helsinki.

Kono had come a long way. He told me that he had difficulty explaining what it was like to lift 300 pounds to a layman in the street. To show how strong he was, he instead would take a hot water bottle (those thick red rubbery things that kept you warm when you were sick as a child) and blow them up. “I blew up hot water bottles with my mouth. First they’re red, then it becomes pink, then white, until it finally bursts!”

This from a boy who had trouble breathing in asthmatic fits.

Kono admits to having an inferiority complex as a teenager, being so small and sickly. And not only did weightlifting improve his health and strength, it introduced him to the world of body building. Kono not only was an Olympic champion, but he was also a body builder champion, who won three Mr Universe titles in 1955, 1957 and 1961. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger considered Kono a role model.

“In Europe, everybody lifts weights.” Kono told me. “It’s a common thing. Arnold was a weightlifter living on the outskirts of Vienna. He saw me in 1961. He was 13 years old. He decided that ‘if that little guy can win Mr. Universe, I could do that too.’ He started training hard, he won Junior Mister World, and eventually he won the big one.”

Kono Schwarzenegger

Tommy Kono passed away April 24, 2016.