Smudge pots glow
on the valley floor down below, giving off heat to save the pear buds. To call
this morning would be premature. It is frosty nighttime in Talent, Oregon. Up
on the hill a barn light goes on. A man walks to a scale, weighs himself and
records the weight on a nearby chart. Two hundred and thirty-four pounds.
This is no common
barn; it's chockful not of hay and Holsteins but of barbells and exercise
machines. The man moves from the scale to the radio, turns it on to a country
music station, adjusts the volume and then sits on an exercise bicycle. His
breathing gradually quickens, coming in steaming puffs in the unheated building
as he drives the pedals down. It isn't quite 4 a.m. This is no ordinary man,
but for him it's an ordinary morning.
His name is Bill
Pearl, and he's the Sam Snead, Bill Tilden, George Blanda, Gordie Howe of
bodybuilding. He has what they all had, what few athletes ever have—an ability
to perform at the highest levels of a sport at an age when most—if not all—of
their original rivals are long retired. Pearl was only 22 years old in 1953,
the year he won both the AAU Mr. America and the National Amateur Bodybuilding
Association Mr. Universe titles, which were then the premier events in amateur
bodybuilding, and he was 47 when he gave a historic exhibition in Indianapolis
at the 1978 Mr. America contest on the 25th anniversary of his earlier win.
Normally, when a
revered old star is to present such an exhibition, his appearance is saved for
last on the program, but in 1978 it was decided to feature Pearl first. Roger
Schwab, writing in Iron Man, reported: "There would be no dramatic
anticipation. When the curtain opened at the start of the show, there was Bill
Pearl on the dais, looking finer than he did 25 years ago. Let me reflect for a
moment back to the spring of 1964 in Philadelphia at Town Hall. Bill posed
before a full house that night of enthusiasts who realized they were seeing
perhaps the best in the world. In an unforgettable display, laced with the
glare of flashbulbs exploding nonstop, Pearl presented all he had to offer
before a standing audience, wildly applauding. This night the scene was
identical. Pearl was magnificent. He displayed great roundness and mass of
muscle and beautiful skin tone.... Pearl was the class of the physiques
appearing this evening and would have won this event...if circumstances had
allowed. (There are no repeat winners in AAU Mr. America competition.)"
appeared three times since that night in Indianapolis—at the Mr. Olympia event
later in 1978, in Munich in 1980 and in Australia in 1981, when he was 51 years
old. And even now, as he approaches 53, with his roseate skin he looks to be 30
and altogether capable of competing with men young enough to be his grandsons.
Leaving aside for a moment the critical matter of will, how is such a thing
possible? How can a 52-year-old, no matter how dedicated, retain for so long
the appearance of young manhood? Is he some sort of physical anomaly or is he a
window through which we may see the future?
Anyone who has
spent much time in what is sometimes called the Iron Game has, of course, seen
weight trainers over 40 whose physiques were, if not up to Pearl's standard,
surprisingly youthful. Apparently there is something about the act of regularly
stressing the body with heavy exercise that gives it the wherewithal to resist
the visual manifestations of advancing age, which such sports as distance
running, cycling or swimming, whose cardiovascular benefits are unquestioned,
clearly do not. Consider the way aging ironfolk look, compared to, say,
middle-aged runners, who sometimes appear to be older than their years. What
else could account for the proud sweep of a veteran lifter's haunch—the first
part of the body to slacken—compared to the dwindling thews of most men beyond
40, or even 30?
research in this area suggests that men and women of middle age will respond to
systematic progressive resistance with weights by becoming more powerful and
more flexible, with more endurance and less fat. The reasons why this is true
are rather complicated, having to do with the body's biochemical goings-on
following stressful exercise of this sort. Some of the studies indicate that
one of the reasons workouts with weights cause middle-aged men to gain more
power and muscular shape than workouts on the jogging track or handball court
may be that the stress of progressive resistance weight training causes the
body to produce more than the normal amount of the male hormone, testosterone,
whereas the stress of the other exercises doesn't.
bodybuilding, with a few notable exceptions, has been since the beginning a
young man's game. The Greeks, in their fascination with the ideal male body,
always linked physical perfection with youth, and until the 1970s people in the
modern world of weightlifting automatically expected the best men to be in
Pearl dealt this
thinking a killing blow even before his 1978 exhibition. In 1971, at the age of
40, he entered the professional division of the London-based NABBA's Mr.
Universe competition. He'd won the event first in 1961 and again in 1967, but
it was his appearance in '71 that symbolized his and, by extension, everyone's,
ability to hold back the hands of the clock.
The occasion was
especially significant in that it was intended to be a showdown of the
superstars of the sport: Pearl, Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, Reg Park and Arnold
Schwarzenegger—Schwarzenegger had won the event the three previous years.
"I was training as hard as ever," Pearl says now, "but I really
didn't figure on competing again until I began to read the challenges being
issued by some of the other top men. They were claiming—or others were claiming
for them in the muscle magazines—that I was too old. Anyway, they gave me a lot
of heat about it, and I guess it bothered me a little, because I decided to
give it a shot." It should be explained that in those days, as in these,
the world of bodybuilding was riven by factions, and bringing all the best men
together in one competition, which rarely happens, was bound to stir up the