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Bodybuilding is many things to many people. To most of us who've undertaken the task of building our bodies to reach their utmost potential, it is an endeavor of the highest order. You get out of it what you put
into it. It's you against the weight. One on one. Let's see what you've got.
Bodybuilding competitions, on the other hand, are an arcane source of entertainment enjoyed by a select group of fans. To the general public, these spectacles have never been considered a legitimate sport. There are no field goals, no hits or strikes or foul balls. No distance is run, no speed is exceeded. There isn't even any weight lifted. It is a contest based on appearance, determined in a subjective manner by a panel of varying personalities who have their own tastes and fluctuating perspectives. One may say it's more a beauty contest than an athletic event. And even the staunchest bodybuilding fan would be hard pressed to find a strong argument disputing that.
The bodybuilding contest has always been and most likely always will be a quirky, cult like exhibition shared by a select few. Still, there are those who feel competitions are a reflection of bodybuilding itself and believe that they can and should be more popular. There are several theories on how this can be accomplished. Some believe that bodybuilding needs more exposure and if it were better promoted, more people would be interested. Others say the stigma of steroids is keeping the sponsors away and if the contests were drug tested, bodybuilding would be found more acceptable (however, it might be noted that there are many sports that thrive despite rampant drug use). Ben Weider thought it would gain popularity if only it were an Olympic sport. And he died trying to make this happen.
Maybe it's time to face the cold hard facts. The reason that bodybuilding competitions are not tremendously popular in 2005 is the same reason they weren't popular in 1965. To most people, even some bodybuilders, physique competitions just aren't all that exciting once you get past the initial curiosity of it all, and with every passing year they're getting less and less interesting. The bodies look so similar that by the time the fourth contestant comes out, it's hard to tell the difference from one to the next.
It seems to me that there is one thing, and one thing only, that will turn what is essentially a boring event into something tremendously popular to the general public. And that is a superstar. By that I mean someone who is more than a champion. He must also have a quality all people can look up to; whether he is obviously attractive or mysteriously magnetic, there must be something extraordinary about him. And, right now, bodybuilding does not have this person.
There have been many cases of other sports that weren't especially popular yet gained enormous commercial appeal once ai interesting figure appeared. Soccer couldn't have been further down on the list of interest for most Americans until Pele came along. Then it boomed. Now that Pele no longer competes, soccer is slowly dwindling in popularity among the non-European masses. Golf was a game for the country-club elite until Tiger Woods became a household name-then golf memberships soared. Even baseball was losing revenue after fans had been turned off by mismanagement and player strikes, until Mark McGwire threatened to break the home run record.
Bodybuilding is an especially hard sell because it's an individual's pursuit. It's not a team sport. There are no game rules, nor do competitors "battle" each other in any test of strength or skill. It's no wonder that not too long ago weight training was shunned by the public and bodybuilders were considered freaks and outcasts. Then it all changed. A dynamic young man with boundless charisma by the name of Schwarzenegger brought attention and dignity to the art of growing muscles. His body was admired by men and women alike, but beyond that, he had an infectious personality coupled with an undeniable charm. He was, quite simply, a superstar. And still is. Sorry to say, Ronnie Coleman is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. And that's the problem.
In the 30-plus years I've been involved in bodybuilding, I've seen a lot. I've experienced some terrific times and have developed a deep love for its history - especially the heyday of bodybuilding circa 1965 to 1975. Nonetheless, I've tried not to glamorize this era to such an extent that I wind up getting stuck in it. Every era has its appeal and every generation its heroes. Having said that, there is a certain undeniable mystique to that golden era that isn't just a nostalgic notion. It was a special time because the game was still new, yet its popularity was growing. And although many would like to dismiss it, it was a time when drug use was quickly turning a new crop of muscle men into supermen. This was a phenomenon that had never been witnessed and one that can never happen again. Back in 1965, the audiences were a little more naive. As a kid I just assumed the reason the contestants were leaps and bounds above those of just a few years past was the "new and improved Weider Super Pro 101!" (Aah, the innocence of youth.)
The competitions of that time were also special because few people weight trained, and the contests were a chance to meet fel-low devotees. It's ironic that from bodybuilding's inception until just 20 years ago, bodybuilders wanted to gain acceptance and understanding, yet the very fact that back then it belonged to a select few is what made it so special. And of course, witnessing men like Scott and Draper and Sergio on stage was a mind-boggling experience for no other reason than that there was no one who looked like that, anywhere. It was awesomely inspiring. It was something to strive for. After all, who wouldn't want to look like Dave Draper? 3ut there's a trap to this rose-tinted remembrance. It gives some older iron agers the ridiculous assumption that if the judging of bodybuilding competitions rewarded more aesthetic bodies like those of the 1960s and '70s, it would somehow generate more interest. That, to be blunt, is a pipe dream. If anything, it would generate less.
Once people have become accustomed to seeing freaks, they're not going to pay to see guys who look like male models. Every time an "old timer" uses the aesthetic argument, I draw his attention to natural physique contests. If that's what people want, where are the audience members? Even a major natural contest can barely get enough asses in the seats to fill a high school auditorium. Nope, that's not the answer. At the same time, there's no reason why younger bodybuilders can't learn some appreciation for history. A perfect analogy that perhaps both sides can understand would be to compare bodybuilding in the '60s to the Big Bands of the 1940s. I can imagine my father or grandfather thinking that it was wonderful to be young and swinging and sweating to the sound of a 19-piece band with hundreds of other people. But you know what? The Big Bands aren't coming back. And neither are bodybuilding competitions with 190-pound contestants.
The idea of reverting back to a 'better day' under the guise that it possessed a higher ideal is preposterous. You can't go backward. Wouldn't it be ridiculous to mandate that all basketball players be less than six feet tall to bring back the initial intention of having to throw a ball high in the air in order to score? The same goes for bodybuilding. It must continue to get more extreme because that's what it is. It will succeed or fail on its own terms. But it cannot be saved by limiting its progress.
I get flak from both sides of the fence. Young people have accused me of dismiss-ing those whom they believe are the all-time greats. And to that, I have little rebuttal. Today's champions are far more accomplished than those of just a decade ago and that's the way it should be. Records are made to be broken. But we must consider how well someone excelled compared to others of his era. Barry Bonds may have hit more home runs than Babe Ruth but when the Babe hit 60 home runs, it was more than the rest of his entire team hit all year! Comparatively, Coleman may be the best, but he doesn't crush the competition the way Arnold or Sergio did.
I also get a fair share of dissension from older bodybuilders. I've been criticized for denying my roots and for supporting the decriminalization of steroids, which they feel is an abomination to the sport. Some see me as a traitor to the aesthetic ideal for not petitioning for drug testing in the IFBB. And they see me as apathetic for my lack of interest in the latest contest results or my lack of outrage that a formless blob will win over a more symmetrical physique. The old time advocates exclaim, "Where is it leading? What's to become of our beloved sport? How can you reject the greats of the sport for the drug-bloated monstrosities of today?" I have no answer, no excuse, no apologies. I see both sides of the issue and agree and disagree with both.
Maybe time has made me pessimistic. Maybe it's too many years in the game. Maybe it's being exposed to too many people starting out who want to know which steroids to use before they know what a hack squat is. Maybe it's the advent of the Internet, which has made every kid with a computer a self-stated expert. Maybe it's the sleaziness of the business. Maybe it's the outrageous egos of the people whom I once thought so smart but turned out to be con artists. Maybe it's the sad fact that so many people can talk about only bodybuilding when there is so much more to life. Or maybe it's the fact that in the end, it's just lifting weights. We're not doing anything progressive or artistic or noble. And the images of the men who in-spired us are just that - images. They weren't great men because they had muscles. Many were great people, but it wasn't because they worked out. They were just people - people who wanted a better body just like you and I do. So after all is said and done, maybe body-building is really just meant to be a personal endeavor. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Bodybuilding is a magnificent hobby and, in my opinion, the closest thing we have to the fountain of youth. I'm glad I grew up at a time when it was less tainted - or so I thought. But as much as I miss the innocence of the old days, I don't miss the lack of reliable information, or the lousy supplements, or taking two buses and a train to find a gym. I love the fact that it's still somewhat of an underground activity shared by a brethren. I'm not going to reject my sense of aesthetics because others think I need to be bigger. And more significantly, I'll be damned if I wind up like one of these old codgers who start every sentence with the line: "Back in my day ..."
Well, this is my day - today, tomorrow and as many as I can get afterward. I don't want to spend them looking backward, nor do I want to spend them debating how some contests with guys posing in bikini briefs should be run. We must move with the times, albeit without being a slave to the trends. And as long as I'm going forward, I'll still be making my stops at the gym - trying to stave off time. Trying to get even better. That's my vision for the future of bodybuilding.