Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tommy Kono

Two-time gold medalist Tommy Kono, who overcame asthma as a young child to set 26 world records in weightlifting, died today in Honolulu, according to a family member. He was 85.

Born in Sacramento, Calif., Kono moved to Hawaii in the 1970s after putting together an incredible career that included a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, at 149 pounds. He then won another gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics at 182 pounds and captured a silver medal at the Olympics Games in Rome at 165 pounds.

Kono is the only Olympic weightlifter in history to have set world records in four different weight classes: lightweight (149 pounds), middleweight (165), light-heavyweight (182 lb) and middle-heavyweight (198). He was named to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame on July 6, 1990 in Minneapolis, Minn., and the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame in 1994 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Kono was named the top weightlifter of all-time by the official magazine of the International Weightlifting Federation.

“He is in my opinion the greatest weightlifter of all-time,” former Olympic weightlifter Pete George told the Honolulu Advertiser in 2003. George also won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics and a silver in 1956. “He would always go where the competition was the toughest. Some of us went where we thought we’d get a medal.”

In addition to Olympic success, Kono won six world championships in events that included the clean and jerk, clean and press, and snatch. Kono was the head coach of the United States’ Olympic weightlifting team in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

He was also a successful bodybuilder, winning the Iron Man Mr. World title in 1954.


Kono did not live in Aiea and train at the Nuuanu YMCA until after he’d won his first of two Olympic gold medals, in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. So sometimes people question why Hawaii lays claim to him as one of its favorite sons and finest athletes.

The answer is Kono fit in while standing out. He immediately took to Hawaii and its culture upon his arrival to work in the office of a friend, Dr. Richard Yu, when he wasn’t training.

“He was already famous, but he didn’t make high maka maka. That’s why people in Hawaii embraced him. He didn’t come over acting like a big shot,” said Gus Rethwisch, a power lifter, actor, event promoter and University of Hawaii baseball player who lived here for 12 years and knew Kono well. “When I met him in 1973 he was humble but still a tremendous presence.”

Kono had retired from weightlifting nine years prior, but remained active as a coach and doing anything to help anyone interested in power lifting or bodybuilding (sometimes people forget the man who was voted the top Olympic weightlifter of all-time in 1998 also won four Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles from 1954 to 1961).

He and his wife, Florence, were raising their family in Aiea. “He didn’t want to go back to California because he was more accepted here,” his daughter, Joann Sumida, said.

Kono said it himself in a 2009 Star-Bulletin story:

“At competitions I’d be introduced as the ‘Hawaiian, Tommy Kono,’ and I never corrected them,” Kono said. “I looked like I came from Wahiawa. I blended right in from the start.

“On the mainland I was an Olympic and world champ but never got the publicity like I got here. … Being adopted by Hawaii is really something, and interestingly, of my 26 world records, 21 were in foreign countries and five in Hawaii. Nothing in the continental U.S. It’s why I felt more that I was always representing Hawaii than the U.S.”


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