I have to pee. My vision is somewhat blurred, I'm starving, and I have no appetite. The tip of my tongue has a burn to it, but it's also sort of salty. My head is spinning. I might throw up. I could use a shower. A cold one. My palms are sweaty. I'm pretty sure I'm a writer who's in Columbus, Ohio, to cover the expo at the Arnold Sports Festival for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. But I might also be Billy Jo Robidoux, former Brewers first baseman. Or Zayn from One Direction. Or ALF. I'm not 100% certain at the moment. My head is reeling. My body is addled. ¶ In the name of power, over the course of the last eight hours I've ingested, popped and applied almost everything I received as a freebie at the expo. This is what my body has been subjected to: Nineteen miniature protein bars. / Four unidentifiably coated crispy wafers. / Five glasses of red liquid. / Six glasses of orange liquid. / Four glasses of brown liquid. / Two glasses of milky white liquid. / Three glasses of yellow liquid. / Two Glutamine 2500 Power Chews. / One packet of something called Beast Mode (fruit punch flavor). / One packet of Black Powder Ultra (blue raspberry flavor). / Two creatine tablets. / Two small applications of Liquid Grip. / Two packets of Better Stevia zero calorie sweetener. / One packet of Tribulus Maca Fenugreek (a.k.a. male performance cream). I also had my right arm spray-tanned, which means I look like one of those delicious black-and-white cookies, while smelling, refreshingly, of apricot.
Founded in 1989 by Arnold Schwarzenegger and muscle-sports impresario Jim Lorimer as an elite bodybuilding competition, the Arnold has morphed over its 25 years into a four-day multisport jamboree that draws 175,000 attendees and 18,000 athletes from 81 nations. For many of those on hand, the highlight is the expo, a massive commercial venture in which 700 vendors pitch tent and (with the help of extraordinarily large muscles, extraordinarily large breasts and extraordinarily plentiful free samples) try to persuade the masses that their special product offers the gateway to power.
At first I viewed the myriad giveaways at the Arnold skeptically. I mean, is the world really better served by free samples of horny goat weed? But then, fortunately, I met Phillip, a wrinkled little man who sat behind a table and gave out the creatine tablets as if they were Mentos. "Is this healthy for you?" I asked.
Phillip explained that, really, most drugs are fine, as long as they're not injected anally. (I didn't ask what he meant by this.) He added, triumphantly, "I'm 60! Can you believe that!" (I could.) "Steroids are O.K., too," Phillip added. "People say they're bad, but they don't know."
As I walked away from Phillip's table, creatine in hand, I realized that here, inside the jam-packed Greater Columbus Convention Center, may well be the strangest assembly in the history of human assembly. Think Disney World parade meets Monster Truck show meets Gold's Gym meets gentlemen's club—then quadruple the number of people. So many people that it made me wonder if maybe they understood something I did not about power.
Arnold attendees are not interested in the types of power that move markets and mold the masses. Their pursuits are more personal, and the rewards they seek more tangible. According to seemingly every salesperson at every table, physical perfection is merely a beverage, a cream, a power bar, a pill away. You can get bigger and stronger and faster and fiercer. Women will crave you. Men will envy you. Just take Uncut—"the pure and truly concentrated pre-workout fuel." Just take Defy Black—the "underground performance and recovery booster."
"You'll love Emerge's Watermelon Splash drink mix!" a young blonde in a revealing tank top tells me. (Nearly every woman working the expo is young and blonde, in a revealing tank top.)
"Um, really?" I say.
"Guaranteed," she replies.