« It’s a fun sport » … The arm wrestling hunts for clichés and dreams of the Olympic Games

This is the big day. After a year of eclipse due to Covid-19, the 2021 world arm wrestling championships begin this Thursday in Bucharest to stretch until December 2. From -55 kg to +110 kg, from subjuniors (-15 years old) to veterans, men and women, able-bodied and disabled, right arm and left arm… It’s going to sweat a lot, in the corridors of the Pullman World Trade Center hotel in the Romanian capital.

If France is represented, it does not apply in each category, far from it. “40 countries and 800 athletes are expected. We will have 18 representatives, against 160 for example for the Kazakhs. We’re in the infancy, but I’m leaning on the World Federation [WAF] which is very developed ”, assures Aymeric Pradines, tutelary figure of the hexagonal sports arm wrestling. The world bronze medalist of -100 kg in 2015 occupies the post of vice-president of the French Federation of strength, to which the discipline is attached.

« We are 300 licensees this season, for 22 clubs, and between 400 and 450 practitioners », details the 35-year-old physiotherapist domiciled in Brussels, who has worn his discipline at the end of his biceps for ten years. « We have to stop believing that it’s a thing of peppers who challenge each other on a barrel or anything else in a bar, warns the one who is also president of the Toulouse Armwrestling Club (TAC), in the city where he is from. It is a fun sport, which requires a lot of learning time. We adapt to the templates, to a technique. Even for children, it can be interesting. « 

Right arm or left arm, it doesn’t matter (or almost)

The TAC trains very precisely in Villate, a peaceful village south of the Occitan capital, where we could attend a demonstration given by Vice-President Thor Boutet. Computer engineer, the young man of 29 years, several times champion of France, will compete in Bucharest in the -75 kg. In left arm as in right arm. « Most people are right-handed, and therefore stronger in the right arm, but those who do only one arm are very rare », indicates the native of Nice. The ferrists therefore link the two competitions, and in the process avoid an unattractive asymmetry …

Thor Boutet could talk about his discipline much longer than the 10 hours of training he does (including weight training) each week, while paying attention to his nutrition and sleep.

“It’s like boxing, both strength and combat. And to progress, you absolutely need a sparring partner. In English, we say « armwrestling », in other words « arm wrestling ». It is very telling. You have to have a strong hand and fingers. It all starts from there. It is a complete sport. It uses a muscle chain that runs from the fingers to the leg, passing through the wrist, forearm, arm, shoulder and back. The leg allows you to push and to be stable. That way, we can better apply our strength. « 

And no question of defying oneself on a barrel, but on a standardized table, with identical dimensions from Kinshasa to Vladivostok (1.02 m high, 65 cm wide, 91 cm long), with two « elbow pads » (one for the elbow of each participant) and two “winpads” (or “victory cushions”), one on each side. « The one whose wrist touches the » winpad « or passes under the imaginary line between the two » winpads « has lost, explains Thor Boutet. Two elbow faults [le coude décollé de « l’elbow pad »] are also eliminatory. In competition, there are two referees to see everything. And doping controls to try to catch cheaters.

Thor Boutet in front of some stars of the discipline.
Thor Boutet in front of some stars of the discipline. – Nicolas Stival / 20 Minutes

No need to hope to shine if your biscotos remain as flat during the effort as a stage of the Tour de France linking Dax to Bordeaux. But, among fellows, it is not always the strongest who wins, insists Aymeric Pradines: “It’s a sport of strength. That said, like in judo, you can be less athletic but better because you have a better neuromuscular connection. You will know how to do the movements better, and you will be faster, more explosive. « 

Be careful, it can go very quickly!

It is better not to fall asleep on your « elbow pad », because the fights often do not last more than a few seconds. During the world championships, the loser is transferred to repechage and a second defeat is eliminatory. As in judo, there too.

The beginner will tend to force like a workhorse. The best way to hurt yourself, although serious injuries, such as fractured humerus, are (luckily) very rare. Thor Boutet, who like many of his colleagues also practices another strength sport (street lifting as far as he is concerned), puts on his teacher’s outfit to describe the “three main techniques”.

First, the « hook »: « We will enter the opponent’s arm by making a hook with our wrist, to bring him towards us. « Then, the » top roll « : » We will deflect the strength of the opponent. We will go to the outside of the wrist to be able to open the fingers and the wrist of the opponent. Finally, the press: « We will try very quickly to pass our wrist and that of the opponent behind our shoulder, in order to be able to press with the shoulder and the triceps, like a hammer. « 

The ferrist vocabulary borrows a lot from English, even if the discipline is also very popular in Northern Europe, and especially in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. On the celebrity wall painted in the premises of the TAC, Aymeric Pradines rubs shoulders with his compatriot Jozsef Lovei, the Russian Dennis Cyplenkov, the Ukrainian Andrey Pushkar, the American John Brzenk or even the Canadian Devon Larratt, king of trash talking. These last two are figures of the World Armrestling League (WAL), a North American circuit more focused on the show than the WAF.

WAL star-studded duel between American Michael Todd (left) and Canadian Devon Larratt on September 5, 2018 in Atlanta.
WAL star-studded duel between American Michael Todd (left) and Canadian Devon Larratt on September 5, 2018 in Atlanta. – David Goldman / AP / Sipa

The fights between these legends are those that every good ironworker likes to infuse from time to time on the Internet. YouTube is also full of resources on the subject with, to stay in the chauvinistic register, the channels France Armwrestling (by Allan Barberis, the best current French), Bras de fer sportif or that of Aymeric Pradines, decidedly indefatigable when it’s about promoting your sport.

« I am waiting for the ministerial delegation that I should have in December, » continues the boss of the French arm wrestling. This is the second level after the accreditation obtained in 2019 and before Olympic sport. This gives more aid and subsidies. “No luxury when you shoot with an annual budget of only 10,000 euros, or 5% of what Levan Saginashvili, a huge star of the discipline in Georgia, can touch between bonuses and advertising contracts.

Bridges with rugby

“It’s like football, everyone had a standoff, continues Aymeric Pradines. Now, the federation must develop, just like an economy in this discipline. “If, personally, he paused competition mode, the Toulousain from Brussels tirelessly continues to spread the word across France. “Federal patents are going to be put in place. We are meant to be a university sport. We must also return to the UNSS [le sport scolaire]. We need to change the image with the general public, that people identify arm wrestling as a sport. At the level of the authorities, it is acquired. As for other athletes, they also see the discipline in another way. For example, there are Top 14 players watching the showdown. « 

Aymeric Pradines is himself a former rugby player in Blagnac. « The project is to make a demonstration at half-time of a Top 14 match », adds the one who is in contact with the Stade Toulousain so that the TAC integrates the omnisports, alongside rugby therefore, but also tennis, fencing or Basque pelota. Another challenge: feminization. In France, club members can be counted on the fingers of both hands.

During the Russian U21 Women's Championships, February 21, 2020 in Yekaterinburg.
During the Russian U21 Women’s Championships, February 21, 2020 in Yekaterinburg. – Donat Sorokin / TASS / Sipa USA / Sipa

But a future event could well take off the discipline for good. “Our sport was on the short list of the Paris-2024 Games, observes Aymeric Pradines. He has not been selected, but it is almost certain that he will be on the program for the Paralympic Games in 2028, in Los Angeles. »Before also going to the able-bodied? Everyone in the arm wrestling is crossing their fingers.

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