About three blocks
southwest of respectability in downtown Los Angeles a little bar called Lang's
is MB A lodged like a Formica pebble in one corner of the old Embassy Hotel.
One evening last August some of its patrons were discussing the long line of
people ranging up Grand Avenue from the entrance doors of the Embassy
Auditorium. "What's going on out there?" the bartender asked a
middle-aged woman whose angularity was emphasized by heavy horn-rimmed glasses.
"I'll tell you what's going on out there," the woman replied. "It's
those muscle men. You know, the men with the biggest muscles in the world. I
wouldn't go to see them for nothing! Not for nothing!"
As Lawrence Welk
beamed down from the bar TV, the woman's escort favored her with an
appreciative smile. "I'd kinda like to see 'em," he said, in a voice
inviting further denunciation. "Forget it, honey," the lady said,
clutching an arm that emerged like a bent chopstick from her friend's sport
shirt. "Oooh, are those guys going to hurt in 20 years. You just wait until
they get old and their muscles get flabby. Oooh, are they going to ache all
Lang's is a bar
for regulars, for the disinherited—financially or physically. It is a
comfortable Archie Bunker-type bar, where prejudices are welcome but not
dissent. "Vunnerful! Vunnerful!" a salmon-pink Lawrence Welk
Outside, in the
deepening twilight, the crowd had begun to move into the auditorium, passing
between posters proclaiming THE GREATEST MUSCLE SHOW EVER! Ranged below the red
and black headline were silhouetted photos of six extravagantly distended
figures—Arnold Schwarzenegger (five times Mr. Universe, four times Mr.
Olympia), Franco Columbu (Mr. Universe, Mr. World), Frank Zane (Mr. America,
Mr. Universe), Lou Ferrigno (Mr. America, Mr. Universe), Serge Nubret ( Europe's
Greatest Bodybuilding Star) and Ken Waller (Mr. America, Mr. World). By the
time The Greatest Muscle Show Ever began, there was no standing room left in
the 2,100-seat auditorium. Two hundred people were turned away.
In most ways this
was an unexceptionable crowd—courteous and responsive, but also discriminating
and critical. The racial mix was about what one would expect in a city as
variegated as Los Angeles, and the income levels as expressed by dress seemed
just as various. There were girls who obviously hoped to be mistaken for
starlets, and men in well-tailored suits. There were lots of sports shirts (it
was a sultry night) and hundreds of pants suits. There were a few apparent
homosexuals and a scattering of female groupies. Almost without exception this
was a crowd whose members knew how to look at what they were about to see.
There was only one distinguishing thing about the group: it was the largest
ever to see a bodybuilding contest in Los Angeles, though it numbered only
2,300 people from a metropolitan area of seven million. The Little League in
Inglewood draws more.
This weekend in
Madison Square Garden in New York another small crowd, perhaps too small even
to fill the 4,500-seat Felt Forum, will gather to see the superstar of the
Embassy show, Arnold Schwarzenegger, defend for the fifth time a world
championship—Mr. Olympia—that 99% of Americans have never even heard of. Just
to be in the new Garden and not the soiled old Embassy in Los Angeles or the
Brooklyn Academy of Music is a leap forward for a sport that has languished for
half a century in the subcellar of U.S. esteem. Those who do attend will see
the exemplar of bodybuilding at the absolute peak of his powers. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, the 27-year-old "Austrian Oak," may be the most
extraordinary athlete anywhere today as well as the most perfectly developed
male in history.
Yet on past form
it seems unlikely that local newspapers will even mention the event, although
there is always the possibility that one of them will send a feature writer to
deride "the male beauty contest." For the voice of Lang's bar is the
voice of America, and not just blue-collar America. Americans unite routinely
to denounce bodybuilders as narcissists, exhibitionists, degenerates—freaks.
(Although, like the lady in the bar, most have never seen one—and never will,
not for nothing!) The bodybuilder is at once said to be musclebound and the
possessor of fictional muscles ballooned by drugs; he is both a cretin and a
cunning egomaniac with evil intentions (name your evil). To the considerable
reassurance of the golfers and bowlers and round-the-clock TV football fans in
their lives, women usually can be counted on to indict bodybuilders as
stereotypes seem all the more curious in a society that in the last 20 years
has elevated physical fitness to the level of a national concern. Bodybuilding
is simply one of three branches of intense weight training, and there is no
orchestrated denigration of the other two, Olympic and power weight lifting.
The followers of all three disciplines "pump iron" in the same
gymnasiums and follow strict nutrition programs. Many other sports have for
years relied on weight training to condition or rehabilitate participants. Such
exercises are, indeed, highly approved if their purpose is to return a man to
the kind of action in which he may again be ripped apart.
Some of the
derision can be traced to the Olympic and power lifters themselves, whose
specialties place no emphasis on symmetry of body. Their distaste for
bodybuilders dates from the '20s, but it was given the force of gospel after
World War II by Alistair Murray, national coach of the British weight-lifting
team, who denounced building as "muscular development without purpose."
The Olympic lifter consoles himself with the notion that bodybuilders lack the
speed and thick-waisted stability required by the two Olympic events, the
snatch and the clean and jerk. The power lifter, whose only goal is sheer
strength, frequently cultivates a barrel belly, one he can bounce against his
knees as he hoists 700 or 800 pounds from the floor in the dead lift. To him a
34-inch waist under a 57-inch chest is a sign of weakness, and he pretends to
have no respect for a man like Schwarzenegger, who has labored 12 years to
achieve those precise dimensions. To thus sculpture his body, Schwarzenegger
has pumped more iron than most power men could lift in two lifetimes—but so
what? As one paunchy power lifter said recently, "What the hell do they do
with all those muscles? I'll tell you what they do. They get up on a little
velvet platform and pose! That's right, pose! La-di-da!"
Certainly one of
bodybuilding's liabilities in the public mind is the fact that its achievements
are demonstrated on the posing platform. The very word "pose" is a
semantic disaster derived as it is from the French poseur, suggesting phoniness
and nothing more strenuous than the languid lift of a monocle. It hardly
describes the bodybuilder's act, which is about as la-di-da as a 100-yard