Is the Mr. America Contest an Athletic Event ?


The following article, written in Peary Rader’s Ironman magazine in 1964, deals with a question most bodybuilding fans have to answer. Namely, whether or not the pursuit of muscle building can be viewed as a sport or athletic event in its own right.What differentiates Rader’s time from now is that back then, physique competitors were also expected to perform weightlifting feats as part of the competition. A stipulation one could hardly think possible in today’s Mr. Olympia competitions. Nevertheless the article raises and answers some interesting points from one of the industry’s most respected figures. Enjoy!

The controversy over phyisque contests has become one of the touchiest events you can discuss and perhaps for this reason we should keep quiet, and yet we have some convictions about this thing that we feel ought to be presented. It has been some years since we discussed the problems of phyisque contests in Iron Man and perhaps it is time to bring it up again since, instead of lessening, the difficulties seem to be increasing.

Each year we hear more criticism of the man who has been selected, or of the judges for selecting him, we should say, and of the system used to select such a man, and of the qualifications for such a title.

Each year there are hundreds of such contests held in the USA an dmany more all over the world. Some of them seem more satisfactory than others but surely no contest provokes more comment than the A.A.U. Mr. America contest.

Certainly there are differences of viewpoints. The A.A.U. considers this an athletic event — they have to consider it as such because they want to keep jurisdiction over it. If they were to admit it was not an athletic event then they would find it difficult to justify their control of it. In order to qualify it as an athletic event to a greater extent they have set up requirements of athletic ability and points are given for such ability.

There are others who feel that a phyisque contest cannot be considered an athletic event by any strech of the imagination. Theyfigure that this is a male beauty contest. This is exactly true. The other faction by plitting some fine hairs claim it is a contest and that it is purely physical so then it must be an athletic contest.

I, personally, feel that it is not an athletic contest. Actually it came into being and associated with athletics only because barbells were used to develop the size and shape of the muscles and these same barbells were used to develop athletic abiltity for lifting and now for other sports. Also because bodybuilding and lifting were at one time almost synonymous and since physique contests displaythe results of bodybuilding it seemed only natural that lifting and physique contests should be held together. Today there is very little in common between bodybuilders and weighlifters. Bodybuilders cannot reach the maximum of developement and shape with pure lifting training and lifters certainly can’t attain their maximum in lifting ability through bodybuilding. In fact, I’m coming more and more to believe that certain bodybuiding methods are a hindrance to the attaiment of greatest strength. I’m referring particularly to the pumping or flushing methods so popular with bodybuilders in trying to reach the maximum of size in their measurements. Experiments we have carried out show that we can put an inch on the arms in a short period of time by pumping methods along with special protein feeding, but that when this size is attained the arm is not one bit stronger. On the other hand we can, by training on an entirely different system with the same barbells, develop 10 or 20 per cent more strenght without one bit of increase in the size of the arm. Now this sort of ruins the popular theory that muscle strength is in direct relation to its size. This theory was developed by taking thousands of measurements and strength tests and then striking an average. This “seemed” to indicate that muscle size was directly related to strength. Their system was a little more elaborate than this but this is a simplified explanation. Their method of arriving at such a conclusion was faulty. We have seen lifters who wish to remain in one bodyweight classification over the years nearly double their strength but not gain a pound or an inch in measurements.

Now I presume that since the power lifts (which are bodybuiding movements) are being recognized as athletic events, that this will tend to bind the phyisque contests closer to the athletic concept. Still, the movements as used by many bodybuidlers, while being the same as the power lifts, are applied differnetly and for an entirely different purpose. The power lifter will use the smae system as the Olympic lifters; that is, very low reps, very heavy weights and many sets. The bodybuilder will use compariatively light weight, higher reps and high sets and whereas the bodybuilder will seek all the pump possible in his musles, the power lifter or Olympic lifter will attain very little pump of his muslces during a workout. Power lifters will bulk up on this program but they will not attain the shape and comparative size of muscle-joint measurements that the bodybuilder will and which he must have to succeed.

I know of few, if any, bodybuilders who approve the athleteic points used in selecting a Mr. America by the A.A.U. They themselves can see no connection or any necessity for such points.

The A.A.U. maintains that a Mr. America should have athletic ability and be able to use his muscles for something besides to look at. The general public can’t understand why a man who looks tremendous may not win over a fellow who has a physique that seems inferior in appearance. The difference may be in athletic points. Then too, the A.A.U. also considers a man’s education, personality, character, etc. Here again the points may be unbalanced in the direction of an inferior physique. Again the public does not understand and so diagrees with the judges decision. I’ve known men to lose the Mr. America title for this reason alone. These are intangible things that the public does not and cannot see and apparently couldn’t care less about. I can agree with the A.A.U. point of view and at one time pushed for adoption of such rules and points, for it seemed to me that a man bearing the title of Mr. America should be truley representative of ideal American manhood in every respect — mentally and morally as well as physically. I still feel this way but appaently Mr. Public does not agree with me, for he voices vociferous objection to the slectio of anything but a physical speciman (irrespective of other qualities or weaknesses the man may have).

There is still antoher and perhaps very compelling reason the A.A.U. is loathe to give up the Mr. America contest. This is the financial aspect. For years it has been believed (and apparently proven) that people wil not come to weightlifting contests but that they will turn out in large nubers and pay good money to see a good physique contest. All you have to do is announce that Bill Pearl, Reg Park, Larry Scott or some of the other top men will be on hand an you get a big turnout, a full house. This means the promoter can at least break even whereas if he had just a lifting contest he would most certainly lose money. This, of course should not be. It is not necessarily because physique contests are so outstandingly wonderful but rather that lifting contests are so outstandingly dull and boring to the average man and even the most enthusiastic lifting fan cannot sit through the marathon of affairs we have to endure in this country.

Now this whole mess is the fault of lifting — or rather the fault of those running the shows, making rules and setting inflexible patterns for the conduct of lifting contests. Until these things are changed, we will not get a crowd out to lifting contests in general. The only thing that will really pull is the promise of an occasional battle between two top heavyweights and even here people find it hard to wait through hours of boredom for the big event. Americans are a hurried and impatient people and whether we like this situation or not, it does exist and we must adapt to it IF we want lifting to be popular and profitable.

Most physique shows are comparatively short, so to fill out an evening, special acts of strongman work, tumbling, balancing, dancing, magic, etc., are included in the program, all of which adds to the interst of the event and helps bring out sell-out crowds. This is done only when they are not held in connection with lifting shows.

Invariably when physique contests are held in connection with lifting shows, people will come late, hoping the lifting will be over and they can see the physique contest. America is the only place in the world where they have used physique contests as a crutch to finance their lifting contests. Yet we are rapidly reaching the bottom of the ladder in world lifting. Certainly physique contests have not given us much help in that respect.

I do not disapprove physique contests. I do think, however, that there are too many of them for the good of the game or for the good of the participants. I feel that a few such contests each year would be sufficient. Area contests, Jr. and Sr. Mr. America contests should be sufficient. Any more than this tends to place too much emphasis on narcissism or, as the dictionary says, “self-love; excessive interest in one’s appearance, comfort, importance.” Vanity becomes the dirivng force in the lives of some of these fellows. What real value has a 19 or 20 inch arm or the most beautiful physique in the world ? Seemingly a man with a 20 inch arm should be extremely stong but we see featherweights and lightweights who have 14 or 15 inch arms who are stronger. There should be some other incentive for winning a physique title than just the title. There should be some other objective than this. It has never been proven that a man with a 20 inch arm is any healthier than a man with a 15 inch arm. Many physique men when asked why they wish to win the Mr. America title will reply that it is the ambition of their lives; the most wonderful thing that can happen in their lives. Truely, it is an accomplishment, but to what end ? Some of them say they want to be an inspiration to youth to improve themselves physically. Improve themselves physically for what ? To win a few physique contests — a Mr. America contest ?

Now all this may seem to indicate that I’m opposed to a fine physique or that I’m oppsoed to phyique contests. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve dedicated my life to teaching methods for these very things but I cannot let it be believed that I consider this the all-important objective in life. Let’s develop fine physiques; let’s have physique contests and let’s have lifting, but we must keep it in balance with other aspects of personal development.

I have, as mentioned before, been a judge at nearly every Mr. America contest held in the past twenty years or more. This means I have judged more such contests than any other man, yet I’m never completely satisified with my own ability as a judge, nor do I always agree with the final decision. I recognize that the biggest problem with such contests, as with all contests of this nature is the difference of opinions of the various judges. Each man has a different idea of what a Mr. AMerica ought to be like. These opinions have been developed over a period of many years. Sometimes they are very faulty but the man himself doesn’t realize this. Then too, I have observed many judges being influenced. They certainly didn’t intend to be. I’ve never known a judge I thought was deliverately dishonest. They all try hard and sincerely, but I have seen them influenced by background remarks (this is very subtle), or by previous conversations, or byapplause of an audience, or by opinions voiced by other judges, or by something they have read. Many men are inapable of objective thinking at a time like this and should not be made judges. Judges are picked too casually, indifferent to their knowledge of the field or their accomplishments in the past which would indicate they are qualified to judge.

Being a judge is one of the most difficult and responsible tasks that a man can be called upon to assume. Last week I was a judge at the International SPeech Contests of the Dale Carnegie Alumni in SPringfield, Illinois and I found the same problem exists in this field as exists in the physique judging field. Too many judges have varying opinions as to what a good speech should consist of. Some judges will rule against a speech that has any emotional effect on the audience (in spite of the fact that people ARE emotionaly beings — not logical). Others will similarly rule against a speech that has all logic, so to speak, and no emotional appeal. There are hundreds of other things that judges can differ on. The same thing hodls true in physique judging. I make no claims to being a good judge either in physique contests or in the field of public speaking in spite of the many times I’m called on to officiate in this capacity in both fields. I do try my best to be objective and balanced in my viewpoints; even so, or because of this, my selection swill not meet the approval of many people. And do you know, ten years from now my own opinions may have undergone changes just as they have in the past twenty years.

There is no solution to the porblem of judgin where personal opinions are the bases of a verdict. We can, however, do something about a more uniform opinion among judges in general by having trainign clinics where all judges can gather to discuss the various aspects of the situation. We can do something about it by having printed instructions and directives which can be given to judges for their study that they might be guided in a more uniform manner of judging. You see, a judge needs to know just what “Most Muscualr” means. He needs to be able to recognize this when he sees it. He needs to know what “General Appearance” means and how to judge it. Similarly with the other headings of the point system.

We have so often seen inexperienced judges give high points for the first men out. Then when the others come out who may be even better, and in some instances far superior, they have voted too high for the poor physique and have no point spread left for the superior ones. SUrely they should know that they can go back and reduce the ponits on their first men in order to balance their point spread. We have seen other judges who waited until they had seen all the men, then just sleect the top three or four to give careful analysis to, and just casually throw some points a tth eothers as if they were of no consequence. We have even known judges to suggest that this policy be adopted for contests. This is obviously very unfair to the lesser men for they assume that the judges have done a good job all down the line and they use their point placing as an indication of how good they are in comparision with other men in the contest and in such cases this is no indicator whatever, and is not accurate.

These are only a few of the problems that confront us. As stated before, it seems that the Sr. Mr. America contest has caused more controversy than any other physique contest. It has also seemed to us that the NABBA Mr. Universe in London is the most efficiently run and the most satisfactory to both contestans and the public of any contest in the world. We could do very well to adopt some of their methods of procedure if we wish to improve. Certainly something must be done about the A.A.U. contests or they will cease to be of any significance.

Last year I came to the National A.A.U. convention with two resolutions concerning the Mr. America contest. The first one was that the A.A.U. drop the Mr. America contest and permit some outside group to handle it somewhat in the manner of the Miss America contest. This was to be presented first. If it was turned down then I had another one in which it was asked that a special committe be set up within the A.A.U. to run the Mr. America contests only. This would be separate from any other committee.

Then, failing this we would suggest that a separate committee within the weightlifting committee be set up to run the Mr. America contest. I realize we have a chairman of the Mr. America contest but this is not what I had in mind. I’m thinking of a complete, active and functioning committee which has complete jurisdiction over the Mr. America contests. I have come to believe that both the lifting game and the physique game would be better if they were separated in this manner.

Well, I didn’t even get to present these resolutions. Official red tape bogged them down before they even got started. Of course I’ll try again, but all this takes time. All this ought not to have been necessary. I know that each of you has ideas on this topic. I enjoy and profit by reading your letters, even if I don’t always have time to anser them. They are welcome.


Peary Rader, ‘Is the Mr. America Contest an Athletic Event?’, Ironman Magazine, August/September (1964).