The huge muscles. The steroids. The disturbingly orange fake-bakes that make House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) look positively wan.
The baby oil — oh, so much baby oil.
It’s all coming back to television this fall. NBC Sports will air the Mr. Olympia competition for the first time since 1984. But in airing the competition, now in its 50th year, what does NBC hope to gain? Outside of its niche community, are people really that excited about professional bodybuilding?
Something about the sport feels so retro — and it’s not just that it’s heavily associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s heyday. In stark contrast to the range of physiques in this ESPN the Magazine’s annual Body Issue, bodybuilding is a platform for the swole, swole-er and swole-est. Endurance is not the point. Dexterity, quickness or strategy isn’t, either. Even strength takes a backseat, working in service to muscular abundance rather than any particular skill.
Granted, bodybuilding is not easy. It demands discipline and a dedication to a regimen of lifting, protein consumption, and sleep (because your muscles actually grow while you’re sleeping) that few are able to maintain. But today, the country is in the throes of a Crossfit craze — new boxes seem to spring up in D.C.’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods quicker than crabgrass grows in its languishing ones. But even with its focus on Olympic-style weightlifting, Crossfit aims for functional strength, not just traps that look as though you’ve got two skin-covered mountains erupting from your clavicle.
“You’re most unhealthy that day of the show,” professional bodybuilder Colette Nelson told HBO’s Bryant Gumbel. “You’re dehydrated. You’re limited food. You’ve been over-trained. You’re taking some type of diuretic, whether it be natural or not. That day of the show, I gotta tell you, you look like perfection. Inside, you are just — you’re barely hanging on.”
And while men with bursting-through-their-clothes cut bodies such as Joe Manganiello, Chris Hemsworth, Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill remain more traditional sex symbols, their form is secondary to their acting — Hemsworth even dropped 30 pounds of “Thor” muscle to star in “Rush.” Meanwhile, stars such as Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger found success in the movies thanks to their backgrounds as bodybuilders.
Maybe it’s not even fair to target bodybuilding for its reputation for rampant — and rather obvious — steroid use when the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs has made its way through other sports as well, most notoriously cycling, track and field, and baseball. But while cheaters in those sports are running a constant hamster wheel to find the newest stuff that will go undetected by regular PED screens, anabolic steroid use in bodybuilding is widely regarded as de rigueur.
Can professional bodybuilding ever transcend its reputation as a sport for the “I-pick-things-up-and-put-them-down” set? Does it even want to?
And what of the Miss Olympias? The women who compete for that title are even bigger societal outliers than their male counterparts — and like women in almost every other sport, make significantly less money than them as well. Marvel’s new female Thor (not “She-Thor,” not “Thorita,” not “Lady Thor” — just “Thor”) looks nothing like the current Miss Olympias, driven by what Nelson calls “bigorexia.” Instead, she sports a smaller, more traditionally feminine physique — and a highly endowed, if unrealistic, chest plate — that’s once again becoming the preferred standard on the women’s side of the sport (think Rachel McLish, crowned the first Miss Olympia in 1980).
“They [the International Federation of Bodybuilding] want to make this mainstream,” Nelson told Gumbel, who described her as “a cross between Britney Spears and Thor.” “They want to move it to a more attainable look so it will attract more people. It’s actually smart business. It’s tricky. It’s up to you to say I’m done competing, I’m going to market myself another way. Because right now, they’re really the only game in town … I don’t want to do that. I think I would have an issue with downsizing, seeing myself lose that muscle. It would almost feel like I was losing a piece of myself.
“I don’t want to be like everybody else.”
NBC Sports is airing the Mr. Olympia international bodybuilding contest in two 90-minute specials, the first on Oct. 18 and the second on Oct. 25.
h/t The Wrap