auditorium, or Pavilion, as it's called, it is a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at
the Mountain Park amusement center in Holyoke, Mass. A roller coaster clatters
up and down a wooden trestle. Children fly around in little whirly things that
look like boats with wings. There are clam bars, pizza stands, dart throws,
cotton-candy booths, a commando machine-gun stall. The sky is raucous blue, the
sun is hot and a lot of people are laughing. Outside Mountain Park, on all
sides, stretches Holyoke suburbia, big homes and fine lawns that make the place
feel mischievous and isolated, an island of gaudery in the midst of all that
yawning green. Especially today. Today in the Pavilion a body contest is going
on, a "Festival of Flesh"—maybe the gaudiest of all sporting events and
strange as a llama race to the average suburban fan. Leon Brown, who works in a
laundry in New York, is in there posing for the 1972 Mr. East Coast title.
Following the din
that greeted his high-chested glide onstage, there is a total hush over the
1,200 assembled. He stands in the center of the stage, illuminated by a single
spot, alone atop the leopard-skin posing dais. He shifts. He fixes his eyes
somewhere at the back of the huge auditorium and slides into his first pose to
a pandemonium of shrieks and applause. Brown's mouth stays a little ajar, his
eyes are flat, concentrating; he looks like somebody might be teaching him
canasta. He shows the judges his breathtakingly graceful legs (you could lose a
dime in the separations between the almond-shaped muscles of each frontal
thigh; the gastrocnemius muscles of the calves bulge like upside-down hearts).
Then he pivots on one foot like a dancer, jiggles the muscles tense and finds a
back pose. It's dynamite: trapezius, deltoid, infraspinatus, the flaring
latissimus dorsi—all the workhorse muscles of the back gleam like oiled
chocolate in delineated, organized mounds above his glare-blue posing trunks.
The response from the crowd is mighty near hysterical. Brown holds the pose and
holds it. It is one of his best and he holds it until the muscles begin to
quiver from the strain; then he flows down the line of the pose into a
"side shot," left wrist clutched by the right hand behind his back,
pectoral muscles of the chest round and dense as grapefruit at the top of the
long concave curve of his rib cage. He turns his stiffened, flexed left arm in
front of the judges, laying all three heads of his triceps brachii on them.
It's too much. The shouts thicken into moans. "Oh my God," says a man
near the front, "omigod, omigod." Brown has them pinned and he knows
it. Watching him finish his routine is akin to watching a hawk plunder a rabbit
in an open field, a clean swooping. There's no necessity for fancy moves.
Body building as
a competitive sport never has had the national sanction or interest that its
participants think it deserves. To most Americans, it just seems so weird, all
those huge people, who seem to resemble ordinary men the way a tattoo does a
birthmark, posing and flexing up there in those little skimpy shorts.
Unflattering myths develop—that they are all musclebound, coordinatively
helpless lumps (body builders who are good at other sports are really the rule
rather than the exception); that they will slide to fat the moment they stop
all that unnatural exercise (only if they keep on eating as much); and that
they are all homosexual anyway (you try telling them that one)—and our
collective imagination pictures dark, fleshy exhibitions in seedy Y's and high
school gyms full of wine-drunk voyeurs.
It isn't really
like that, but body building itself hasn't done much to clarify the image. For
years the sport has been too vexed and mired by internecine skirmishes between
its two competition-sponsoring organizations, the AAU and the International
Federation of Body Builders, to worry about many of its larger problems.
Ed Jubinville is
the promoter and emcee of the Mr. East Coast Contest, an IFBB event. He also
has held the title of World's Greatest Muscle Control Artist for 25 years. He
can make his muscles dance like no other man in the sport. Jubinville has put
on 43 contests at Mountain Park. The Mr. East Coast is not one of the most
important annual events—not in the same league, say, with the Universe, or
America, or World—but it always is a classy competition and some big dudes are
on hand. Mike Katz (the 1970 IFBB Mr. America, Mr. Northeast, Mr.
International, etc.), who ranks among the top four or five body builders in the
country, world, universe right now, won it two years ago. He is a judge this
time. Gordon Babb (best back, Mr. America) is in the audience, and so are
Warren Fredericks, often called the Human Anatomy Chart, and 1969 Mr. World
Tony Carroll, who is giving out catalogs for his Muscle Hugger Torso
begins onstage at a body contest, the audience always knows who is there. You
spot them as they walk in. Body builders are often individualistic to the point
of kinkiness, and they have a way of standing out. As Mike Katz says, they are
the only athletes whose sport you can tell by looking at them. It's not just
their size that accounts for this, or even their fabulous proportions (Katz'
chest is 58 inches and his waist is 31, a difference of 27 inches as compared
to the average of seven or eight; his biceps is 21 inches around, about the
size of a small woman's waist). It has more to do with an odd variety of
self-consciousness, a highly developed esthetic sense of self that comes from
having more or less the same relationship to your own body that an artist does
to his artwork. A body builder's body is the product of what he does, and when
he walks around he is not just getting from one place to another, he is
exhibiting the results of his labor. (For Mike Katz to get those mind-boggling
pectoral muscles that push his chest out so far he can balance a glass of water
on it, he has pumped iron four hours a day for 10 years.) So generally he
doesn't walk at all, he struts, putting it all out front, chest high, arms
bowed slightly away from the body to show the spread of his laterals. It is a
wonderful movement. It makes you realize that, as Katz says, "Most people
walk around looking like pieces of junk."
The Mountain Park
Pavilion is about 150 feet long and shaped like a barn. Beams studded with
light bulbs traverse the domed ceiling. The audience sits shoulder to beefy
shoulder in rows of connected wooden chairs. They are animated, noisy and big,
these fans, maybe in the same vicarious way that a lot of hockey fans are mean.
To the left of the stage is the warmup room or "pit," where the
builders prepare for competition, anointing their shaved bodies with baby oil
to bring out highlights under the spot and "pumping-up," blitzing the
muscles with dumbbell and tension exercises that oxygenate and swell them and
bring the veins closer to the skin. Veins are very important here. Behind the
screen the 22 builders getting in last minute pull-ups, triceps presses, flyes
and curls, mutter and shuffle like cattle in a boxcar. They have been divided
into three height classes, those under 5'7", those over 5'9" and those
in between. There will be five trophies for each class, plus overall awards for
Best Poser, Most Muscular and, of course, Mr. East Coast.
announces the shorts. They file onstage from the pit and stand facing the
audience, arms bowed, chests out, under the full glare of the house-lights.
There are eight of them, ranging in size from Kennedy Gomez, a slender,
wistfully smiling boy, to Buddy Lando, who is as heavily muscled as a water
buffalo, but even the most untrained eye can pick out the class: it's the sixth
man in line, Leon Brown. The others might as well have stayed behind the
From their table
at the foot of the stage, Katz and the other judges gaze up at the shorts.
Officially they are looking for three things: general appearance, symmetry and
muscularity. But what they actually appraise is how big the muscles are, how
well proportioned and how cleanly each muscle group is defined, or
"cut," from the ones around it. Jubinville has the shorts make four
quarter turns to the right, pausing between each to give the judges a shot of
both sides and the back. Then he sends them off and brings them back one at a
time for two- to three-minute individual posing routines under the spot.
It is in these
routines that body contests are won and lost, and where the peculiar essence of
the sport best manifests itself. Good posing is partly a technical matter of
knowing how to exhibit your strong points and obscure any weak ones, but beyond
that it is an ability like diving or hitting a baseball that depends on
intuitive resources of timing and coordination. If it is done as Leon Brown
does it during the couple of minutes he occupies the dais, with perfect dignity
and finish, there is nothing ridiculous or even remotely embarrassing about it.
Suddenly it is no longer a greased, nearly naked man you are watching, but a
clean, hard geometry of circles and curves. Even Brown seems detached from what
he is: looking down at his flexed biceps, his face shows no recognition of the
flesh. He seems to be looking at just an arrangement of stresses.