Strongest Man deaths place BBC under fire

FOLLOWING the death of American strongman Johnny Perry just weeks after taking part in the World’s Strongest Man contest in Malaysia late last year, the BBC, which broadcast the heats and grand final over the New Year holiday has come under fire from the head of the UK Sport anti-drugs unit, whilst the competition’s Scottish-based governing body was this weekend contemplating the prospect of legal action from the Perry family.

The World’s Strongest Man was organised under the auspices of the Glasgow-based International Federation of Strength Athletes by the Mark McCormack-owned Transworld International, which sold the UK TV right to the Factual Programmes unit of the BBC.

Two half-hour programmes of the heats were transmitted on Monday and Tuesday on the BBC1 network, followed by a one-hour highlights programme of the grand final on New Year’s Day, presented by John Inverdale in the early evening slot aimed at family audiences.

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The International Federation of Strength Athletes is based in Carmunnock, near Glasgow, and the President is Dr Doug Edmunds, the former Scottish international hammer thrower; the Federation is outwith the aegis of the mainstream sports governing bodies.

Dr Edmunds said: "We are devastated and saddened by the news of Johnny Perry’s death. There is a history of heart problems in his family and there is no evidence of drug abuse at this time."

However, Perry is the second IFSA athlete to die in a year. He died in his sleep, apparently from a heart attack, aged 29, on 20th November last year, less than two months after finishing fourth in the 2002 World’s Strongest Man contest staged in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, whilst in January 2002 his compatriot Rick ‘Grizzly’ Brown, another recruit to the WSM circus died of a heart attack at the age of 32.

Former World’s Strongest Man Jon Pall Sigmarsson died, again from a heart attack, in January 1993 at the age of 32, with anabolic steroids confirmed as a factor in his death, whilst four years earlier, a 21-year-old strongman died during rehearsals for another TV programme Pure Strength at Stirling Castle.

Michele Verroken, Head of Drug Free Sport at UK Sport said: "The problem with commercial events of this nature, like Gladiators, Superstars and the World’s Strongest Man is that they are conducted outwith the aegis of the mainstream sports structure, and they are therefore not subject to the rigorous testing regimes, disciplinary sanctions, integrity and transparency required by Olympic sports.

"Many of the competitors come to these events from sports such as powerlifting and weightlifting where they have been caught taking banned substances such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormones. I spoke recently to Paul Dickenson [ex-international hammer thrower turned BBC commentator] and he said ‘of course everyone is on drugs’.

"For the BBC to be transmitting events such as The World’s Strongest Man, especially as family entertainment during the holiday period with impressionable youngsters watching, is worrying, especially as it portrayed only the positive images of the [implicit] use of drugs, conveying these men as successful role models, without any balance on the potential downsides of taking dangerous substances."

Dr Edmunds, whose son Gregor competed alongside Perry in Malaysia, insisted there was drug testing at the event. But when asked about the duty of care offered by event organisers, and the possibility of litigation over her father’s death, Perry’s daughter, Taylor Land, said: " That’s something we will be looking at."

A BBC spokeswoman said that they would be, "looking carefully at all aspects of the event and the programme before considering whether to cover the 2003 World’s Strongest Man competition".

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