by Chris Shugart
Sometimes, it's a journalist's job to speak for the devil.
That's what an editor of a popular men's magazine once said. He's right. Some things just have to be said, damn the consequences. Most of the time, people will be shocked, offended, and even pissed off. Yet most of the time, what's being said is exactly what they'd been thinking all along, despite their public show of righteous indignation.
Take competitive bodybuilding, for example, or what's left of it. There are a lot of things we're not supposed to say about bodybuilding. I'm going to say them anyway. Why? Because it's the truth. And not speaking the truth is just the same as lying.
The truth is that bodybuilding, as a sport, is dead. It's no secret that today's top bodybuilders are using insanely unhealthy amounts of steroids and a host of other drugs to look the way they do. Steroids have been part of bodybuilding since the late 1950's or the early 1960's. I don't know the exact dates, but John Ziegler, the physician for the US weightlifting team, developed a synthetic Testosterone molecule (methandrostenolone) some time in 1955. Today we just call it D-bol. I'm sure it didn't take long for bodybuilders to discover what athletes had discovered just a few years before.
Arnold used steroids. Zane used steroids. Lou used steroids. All of the old-school heroes used steroids. But back then it was still a valid competition, still worthy of being followed. The pros spoke and people listened. Today it's different. The drug use has skyrocketed. Pros seldom cycle off and instead simply add more and more to their drug stacks until they're no longer recognizable as human beings. Then they inject Synthol, a potentially dangerous oil, into their lagging body parts. Milos Sarcev, once known as one of the smarter pros, almost died from this incredibly dumb practice.
Some get artificial calf and pec implants. Glute implants are becoming popular. Hell, at least with 'roids, they were building real muscle, but Synthol and saline and plastic? And let's not forget regular gyno surgeries, liposuction, and ab etching. I have nothing inherently against those things, but when used for a competition (or to sell a fancy ab training book), it goes beyond just insulting the intelligence of the masses, it becomes downright sleazy. Then these drugged-up, surgery-etched, toxic waste factories push pills and powders to teenagers and sell themselves as realistic role models. It's a shame.
A couple of years ago I was walking through an airport with a poplar pro-bodybuilder. He was huffing and wheezing so badly I started to ask him if I could carry his luggage for him. I thought at any minute he was going to keel over dead or fall to the floor and flop like an epileptic fish out of water. This guy, who'd been featured on the cover of a muscle magazine whose slogan is "For Super Fitness and Vigorous Health" could barely walk without losing his breath. This guy, who'd posed in GNC-sponsored contests with that company's logo "Live Well" hanging ironically above his head, was turning bright red (a sign of high blood pressure) just carrying a piece of luggage.
This is an athlete? This is a "star" of our sport? No, this is a walking side effect. And it was embarrassing. Embarrassing because since I lift weights, eat a lot of protein and write for a muscle magazine, I'm lumped into the same category as this panting, balding mound of zits.
Likewise, bodybuilding, as a source of inspiration and motivation, is dead. First, not many people even want to look like the pros anymore. Most people look at today's top pros and come away discouraged, not motivated; disgusted, not inspired. Arnold caused generations of men to pick up the weights, but today's sideshow freaks only make them run away. We all wanted to look like Arnold did in the 70's, but does anyone want to look like today's Mr. Olympia with his distended GH gut and his quads so big he rubs bleeding sores on himself? Yeah, I suppose some do want to look like this, but I have to wonder if they really know what goes into achieving this look.
We get letters all the time from 17-year-old guys wanting to know how to look like their favorite pros. What do we tell them? See, it's a fine line. If we lay out the total truth insane and expensive drug use, health problems, prostitution (more common than most want to admit in high level competitive bodybuilding and fitness competitions), limiting genetic factors etc. we risk dissuading them from starting a weight lifting program. That's the last thing we want to do.
But if we paint an air-brushed Weider-dream for them and tell them that with hard work and discipline, they too could look like Mr. O, we risk causing them to quit altogether out of frustration. Because soon enough, they'll realize this just isn't possible, certainly not naturally, and unless they have the right genetics, it's not even possible with extensive drug use.
Do we tell the 17-year-old kid that he could spend thousands of dollars on steroids, break the law on a weekly basis, give up on the rest of his life, and sell his soul to the "sport" only to win a third place trophy at the Mr. Salt Lake City contest some day? Do I point out how pathetic most retired pros are these days after their few years of "fame," standing at fitness expos hoping someone will come and talk to them and buy an autographed picture from the glory days? In the end, we tell the kid a little of each side of the story and let him learn the rest for himself.
And pro-level female bodybuilding? Please. It died years ago, although its rotting corpse is still lying around stinking things up. And how many women have never picked up a weight in fear of turning into one of those chemical abominations, one of those she-males who go on talk shows and deny that they use steroids. Modern female pro-bodybuilding has driven women away from the gym in droves. And for that it deserves our disdain. Its corpse needs to be embalmed and buried. Hopefully, its lingering stink will dissipate quickly.
Want to hear something else I'm not supposed to say? Competitive bodybuilding is a tad gay. Not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that, as Seinfeld would quip. Really, I have nothing against gays and even have a couple of gay friends. They love bodybuilding even though they don't lift weights. Hey, put a bunch of shaved, oiled up, well-built studs on a stage in tight bikini underwear and what do you expect? After all, when they do this with women during spring break, we call it a T & A contest, right? So naturally, bodybuilding attracts a large gay following and has an active fetish community. An insider in the pro community once pointed to a photo of the top ten bodybuilders and said he knew at least four of them had sucked dick for money. Do I tell the 17-year-old kid about what his heroes sometimes do for drug money? Am I spoiling his dream or am I saving him a lot of heartache?
And picture this. A man, shaved and oiled, walks up on stage and poses. He puts his hand to his ear and beckons the crowd to cheer louder. They're going to have to beg before he gives it to them. They cheer louder and louder and finally he rewards them by ripping his trunks up into his butt crack to reveal the striations on his glutes. The crowd of men goes insane. This happens all the time at bodybuilding contests. Now, tell me if that doesn't look flamin' gay? Not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that.
Listen, I love lifting weights. I love building my body and helping others build their bodies. And I admire those who have the balls and discipline to enter a local contest. It's a good way to test yourself and you'll learn a lot from the experience. Several T-mag contributors have stepped onto the stage themselves and walked off with trophies, and I'm not trying to insult them at all. But even they'll admit that the sport of bodybuilding, at least at the upper levels, has gone too far. And because of that, it's dying. Today, people go to the Arnold Fitness Weekend and don't even attend the bodybuilding show, unless they want to laugh at the carnival freaks.
Training with weights as a means of looking great and being healthy is on the rise. I love it. As annoying as newbies can sometimes be, I like seeing the gym packed with them. I love seeing women losing their fear of weight training and I love seeing the results this time of year as the shorts and baby T's come out of the closet.
Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, athletic preparation, strongman contests, or just lifting weights to look good naked I love it all. But competitive bodybuilding is dead. It died when Arnold retired. It died when Zane and Draper quit competing. It died when Corey and Rachel stepped off the stage. It died when steroid use turned into steroid abuse. And although it could possibly be resuscitated, no one is going to try. And perhaps that's not so bad.
Rest in peace.