Cheick Ahmed al-Hassan Sanou was always overweight, but he didn’t know how strong he was until he threw one of his tormentors across a room. Here is the remarkable story of how a bullied teenager became a serious contender to become the World’s Strongest Man.
If you are 16, weigh 19 stone (122kg; 268 lbs), measure 6’2″ (190cm) and boast a 48-inch chest, the chances are that you will stand out – and Cheick Ahmed al-Hassan Sanou certainly did.
Born in Burkina Faso in 1992, Biby as he is fondly called, noticed aged just five that he was different to his siblings due to his weight, and that it was a bit of an issue.
“My mum said I was big from birth – weighing almost 5kg and breathing heavily – not like a baby,” he laughed as he reminisced about his childhood.
‘My body would wobble’
Cheick had always been interested in sports and was always an eager volunteer at school.
“I wanted to be a sprinter – I had a bit of speed even though I was big,” he told the BBC.
“But whenever I ran, and my body would wobble, the kids at school would laugh so much and point at me calling me ‘Fat Boy’. It was as if I was entertainment to them, so I gave up on that – but I never stopped wanting to be an athlete.”
Gymnastics also caught his eye, but for every summersault he did, the sound of his body hitting the mat was met with an exaggerated reaction and body shaming, which meant that too was off the cards.
His desire to be able to do back flips and somersaults was so strong that he would practise at home with his brother until he learnt how to do it – which explains how a 27-stone man can now do a flip after pulling a truck or lifting giant dumb bells.
‘He never bothered me again’
By the time he was nine, Cheick had become accustomed to being made fun of and bullied.
“I hated myself for being that way – I was the youngest in my class, yet I looked four years older than everyone else, including my older brothers.
“People tend not to be so big in Burkina Faso, and the girls in my year preferred the slim guys too. The older girls would talk to me and be polite, but as soon as I showed any kind of interest, they would decline.”
He endured the abuse without confrontation until his teenage years when he discovered just how strong he was – much to the surprise of an older boy who had been taunting him.
“I was frustrated – I said: ‘Leave me alone,’ and pushed him away, but he flew across the room and he was shocked. I was shocked too, but I knew that day that I had some power – he never bothered me again.”
Even so, he was still fed up. So, when his brother travelled to Canada in 2007, he begged him to send a slimming device he saw in a magazine advert, which promised to make your stomach fat disappear.
But as his brother was unable to find the device, he remained big, and desperate to lose weight.
The more conventional route to weight loss, he said, lacked appeal.
“I tried eating lettuce and banana and stuff, but they didn’t work for me as an alternative to food, so I kept eating normal Burkinabe food – rice and peanut butter soup and lots of carbohydrates, but that is what everybody else ate and they are not fat.”
On the team, finally
Then in 2009, a 17-year-old Cheick was sent to Canada to complete his secondary education.
The move brought with it a new determination to lose the weight. He joined the gym on his very first day – but something was about to happen which would affect him for the rest of his life.
He was selected as part of the basketball team – and for the first time in his life, Cheick made the cut to be part of something that he really cared about.
What’s more, he realised being big and strong were features which were actually endearing him to both his teammates and coaches.
A major shift had taken place. Now, the child who used to see a fat person in the mirror saw a strong man – someone who could lift heavier weights than his peers, or the teaching staff.
But weight training did not become an obsession until university.
“I noticed that a lot of people in the gym struggled to lift the heavy weights, but for me they were relatively easy.”
Meet Iron Biby
Cheick soon become a star within the local gym circuit, lifting the same weights as professional powerlifters.
In 2013, he entered his very first powerlifting competition and won it, followed by victory in the national championship later that same year.
And so, Iron Biby the strong man was born.
“My brothers used to call me Biby and the name followed me around, but when I started becoming known for power lifting, I became Iron Biby,” he recalled.
International contests followed and so it was that Iron Biby – with his perpetual smile, core strength and a summersault after every event – was introduced to the wider world.
For a relative newcomer, Iron Biby is a contender as he has already beaten some big names at their favourite events, and he is not intending to stop here.
“My plan is to be the strongest human being on earth and to take the title of world strongest man to Burkina Faso,” he said.
His show of strength has inspired young Burkinabes, most of whom used to aspire to be footballers, to also consider becoming a strong man (or woman).
He has gone from Cheik Sanou, the boy who was bullied for being fat, to Iron Biby, one of the strongest men in the world.