Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is Bodybuilding a Dirty Word? - By Randy Roach

In most social circles, say the word “bodybuilding” and you will draw reactions rivaling that of a racially-charged verbal epithet. Really, is there any other physical endeavour that possesses such a vast schism or contradiction between the essence of the craft and the way it is played out at the top competitive levels today? The look of the modern day bodybuilder has little support from the public or from its own industry, yet many of their tools are still used by millions worldwide to improve physical appearance, fitness, and as a training adjunct for enhanced sports-performance.

Believe it or not, there was actually a time in a by-gone era when the look of the bodybuilder was more highly sought since its participants were believed to be practicing Physical Culture. They were a breed of strongmen who demonstrated their strength, displayed their physiques, and wrote books and pamphlets on how to live a healthy lifestyle. The most prominent of these pioneering bodybuilders was late 19th century vaudeville performer, Eugen Sandow.

Even Alan Calvert, founder of Milo Barbell, said almost 100 years ago that for every 1 man who wanted to be strong like Eugen Sandow, he would show you 100 who wanted to look like him. Antithetical to this philosophy was the most powerful man in American weightlifting through the 20th century, Bob Hoffman. Bob didn’t like the notion of building muscle simply for display purposes: he wanted them to perform. Although he wanted those muscles to execute primarily the 3 Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, press, and snatch), he was an early advocate of using weightlifting for improvement in other fields of athletics back in the 1930s. For example, he credited weightlifting for his own success in aquatic sports.

As mentioned, since a good number of early 20th century strongmen performers and weightlifters possessed impressive physiques, weightlifting and bodybuilding do in fact share some common historical roots. The entwinement continued when the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), the most powerful amateur sports governing body in America up until 1978, began officially sanctioning bodybuilding contests, specifically the Mr. America event in 1939. The contests were tagged to the National Weightlifting Championships and thus pinned under the thumb of Bob Hoffman who was a very powerful figure within the AAU. Although the Mr. America entrants were not required to participate in the AAU weightlifting contest, they were still under the watchful eye of Hoffman who favoured any contestant who possessed a weightlifting background.

The argument between “muscles for show” versus “muscles for go” inevitably led to the decades-long debate over whether bodybuilding was pageant or sport. Bob Hoffman wasn’t alone in his concern over bodybuilding becoming a totally autonomous adventure. Iron Man magazine publisher, Peary Rader, shared Hoffman’s fear over the physique stars mutating into what he called “strutting egotists.” With the influence of both men within the AAU, the Mr. America contest was judged for many years not simply on muscularity and proportion, but equally on general appearance and athletic ability. Although the general appearance points were to carry only 25 percent of the scoring, many felt it was used far too much as the deciding factor as to who would wear the coveted Mr. America crown.

The pageant/sport debate wasn’t the only issue forging the dichotomous craft of bodybuilding. Many a sport traversed their share of evolutionary hurdles to survive and grow through the years when sport did not receive the recognition it does today. That began to change from the 1960s onward. The dynamics between corporate America and the world of athletics changed dramatically as technology altered the landscape of social economics.

Both the athlete and the sport became supercharged commercially and would receive a level of recognition never experienced before. Even competitive bodybuilding enjoyed its years of glitter during the 1970s and 1980s, but the awkward sport just seemed to encounter bigger hurdles, serving only to heighten its self-contradiction.

Technology didn’t stop with facilitating an explosion in sports media through television; It offered advancements in many of the hardware tenets of the various games. From the playing fields, ice surfaces, and combat rings, to the bats, pucks, balls, and protective gear, industrial engineering was carving new markets in the arena of athletics.

Bodybuilding and the fitness industry certainly benefited from these advancements considering the myriad of more complex machinery that entered both fields, from Harold Zinkin’s Universal machine to Arthur Jones’s Nautilus invasion and all its derivatives that followed over the years.

Along with the resistance equipment, the evolution of bodybuilding through the 20th century did in fact contribute much to the birth and growth of the enormous fitness industry. Through its more natural years, the bodybuilders themselves offered a look desired both openly and secretly by many. However, this ended when they chemically morphed themselves beyond any cultural context.

It was this more dubious use of pharmaceutical technology that further disassociated bodybuilding from the general public. Yes, baseball, football, wrestling, and track and field have all come under scrutiny regarding the use of anabolic steroids by their athletes, but it is the top competitive bodybuilders who became the walking billboards for chemical abuse. In their blind pursuit of sheer, lean muscle size, the drug arsenal these men have engaged has become mind-boggling! Some of their antics have made a mockery of the sport and fall in line with what could more suitably be referred to as, “bodystuffing.”

Compounding and further exacerbating the dilemma has been the decades-long association of a questionable sexuality with the bodybuilders. Avoiding the controversy surrounding that topic, it is unfortunate that these antics, accusations and the resulting outlandish appearance of the top physique competitors have become tightly identified with bodybuilding. Some in the industry have begun to refer to this aberrant faction of the sport in other terms, thus allowing the craft of bodybuilding to return more towards its original Physical Culture roots. So then, just who are the real bodybuilders? It has always been deceptively simple. Any individual, athlete or laymen, who partakes in resistance training with the intent to change the appearance of their body and to improve their well-being is, in essence, a true Body Builder. Not such a dirty word, is it?

Randy Roach is the author of the 3-volume book series, “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors.” The project entails a comprehensive history of bodybuilding and all its relative issues such as diet, weightlifting, fitness, drugs, and even global politics which took five years to complete through extensive interviews, research and analysis. There is a heavy emphasis on nutrition as it relates historically to the fitness industry and the general public. Volume I was released in June of 2008 at 562 pages. Volume II is expected in late 2011. Reaction to Volume I has been extremely favourable with endorsements coming from both the general reader and professionals in the field. David Epstein of Sports Illustrated has commented on the “unbelievably extensive research.” Many facets of this intriguing history are reveled for the first time, not to mention an amazing cast of characters whose diets, philosophies and even idiosyncrasies alone make good reading.

Randy is a retired computer programmer who spent over 15 years developing systems in both the museum and environmental engineering professions. He has written and been published in 3 different fields. Randy now makes his living as an author and private health and training consultant in his home in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached through his website where you may also view the amazing feedback for Volume I of the “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors” project. This website will allow the purchase of Volume I through Author House.

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