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It is said that success has a hundred fathers, but failure is a bastard. The same might well be said of bodybuilding, since there have always been a great many men who have claimed to
have given birth to the sport. One man who probably has as much right as anyone to the title is Edmond Desbonnet. Although he is largely unknown in the English-speaking world, he was
a powerful force in European physical culture when the century was young.
Desbonnet was born in the northern French city of Lille in 1868, the son of a well-to-do family. When he was 13 years old, he was inspired by leafing through an old magazine that pictured the early athlete Triat in a muscular pose. In a blinding flash of inspiration young Edmond immediately decided that he, too, would achieve a build as massive as the athlete in the pictures. His career had begun.
At the rather tender age of 18 Desbonnet sank his entire share of the family fortune into a school of physical culture. It was in this school that he gradually evolved his own particular brand of exercise, which he called "la gymnastique des organes" (organ gymnastics). This was supposed to improve one's internal organs with specific exercises. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of his system, however, was its reliance on weights and other muscle-building apparatuses rather than calisthenics, which popular wisdom decreed was the correct way to improve strength.
After some study in physiology Desbonnet felt confident enough to move his operations to Paris. Once there he quickly acquired a reputation as a man who could build muscular bodies in a rapid and scientific manner. Eventually he became a respected member of sporting and medical society.
Desbonnet used much of his inheritance to bankroll a virtual publishing empire. In 1896 he began a general sports magazine called L'Athlete, and the response was so positive that he decided to create another journal, Education Physique, in 1902. Two years later he founded his best and most famous magazine, La Culture Physique. Finally, in 1912 he started La Sante Par Les Sports (Health Through Sports). While he was running his schools of physical culture and editing his magazines, Desbonnet also found time to write several books.
He was a person of seemingly boundless energy when it came to his favorite subject. Among other duties, Desbonnet sat on numerous committees and boards, he invented several pieces of exercise equipment, and he instituted occasional physique contests. In 1900 he created the prestigious Halterophile-Club de France (French Weightlifting Club), and it was through his organization that he was able to assist many worthy athletes and to sponsor innumerable contests.
As much as Desbonnet looked to the future, he did not forget the past. He was always interested in preserving the memories of deserving strongmen and bodybuilders, and he began a photograph service that sold many athletic pictures to the public. He also wrote one of the best and most complete works on the history of weight training, Les Rois de la Force (The Kings of Strength), in 1913. It remains to this day one of the finest histories of the early days of the sport.
Unfortunately, his work could not possibly last forever, and toward the end of his life Desbonnet's empire gradually began to disintegrate. One by one the magazines folded, until only La Culture Physique was left. His schools limped along as best they could. The final nail in the coffin was pounded in conclusively when the Germans occupied France during World War II. It was a blow from which neither Desbonnet nor his business enterprises ever fully recovered.
By the mid-1950s Desbonnet had become the grand old man of physical culture. Even John Grimek made it a point to pay his respects to the old man when he was in Europe for the Mr. Universe contest. Active and spry to the end, Desbonnet lived until 1957, when he passed away at the age of 85.
One thing is clear about Edmond Desbonnet: If he isn't the "Father of Bodybuilding," he most certainly assisted at its birth