At the end of the nineteenth century a new interest in muscle- building arose, not muscle just as a means of survival or of defending oneself, but a return to the Greek ideal-muscular development as a celebration of the human body.
The ancient tradition of stone-lifting evolved into the modem sport of weightlifting. As the sport developed, it took on differ-, ent aspects in different cultures. In Europe weightlifting was a form of entertainment from which the professional strongman emerged-men who made their living by how much weight they could lift or support. How their physiques looked didn’t matter in the least, so they tended to develop beefy, ponderous bodies.
In America at this time, there developed a considerable interest in strength in relation to its effect on health. The adherents of “physical cultureII stressed the need for eating natural, unpro- cessed foods-an idea that took root in response to the increasing use of new food-processing techniques. Americans were begin- ning to move from farms and small towns to the cities; the auto- mobile provided a new mobility. But at the same time, life was becoming increasingly sedentary, and the health problems that arise when a population eats too much of the wrong food, doesn’t get enough exercise, and exists in constant conditions of stress were just becoming apparent.
The physical culturists were battling this trend with a belief in overall health and physical conditioning, advocating moderation and balance in all aspects of life. The beer-drinking, pot-bellied strongmen were certainly not their ideal. What they needed was a model whose physique embodied the ideas they were trying to disseminate, someone who related more to the image of the an- cient Greek athlete than the Bavarian beer hall. They found such a man in the person of Eugene Sandow-a turn-of-the-century physical culture superstar.
Sandow made his reputation in Europe as a professional strongman, successfully challenging other strongmen and outdoing them at their own stunts. He came to America in the 1890s and was promoted by Florenz Ziegfeld, who billed him as “TheWorld’s Strongest Man” and put him on tour. But what really set Sandow apart was the aesthetic quality of his physique.
Sandow was beautiful, no doubt about it. He was an exhibition- ist, and enjoyed having people look at his body as well as admire his strongman stunts. He would step into a glass case and pose, wearing nothing but a fig leaf, while the audience stared and thewomen “oohed” and “aahed” at the beauty and symmetry of his muscular development. This celebration of the aesthetic quali- ties of the male physique was something very new. During the Victorian age, men had covered themselves in confining clothing, and very few artists used the male nude as a subject for their paintings. This is what made Sandow’s appeal so amazing.
Due largely to Sandow’s popularity, sales of barbells and dumbbells skyrocketed. Sandow earned thousands of dollars a week and created a whole industry around himself through the sale of books and magazines. Contests were held in which the physical measurements of the competitors were compared, then Sandow awarded a golden statue of himself to the winners. But, ultimately, he fell victim to his own macho mystique. It is said that one day his car ran off the road and he felt compelled to demonstrate his strength by single-handedly hauling it out of a ditch, resulting in a brain hemorrhage that ended the life of the man who King George of England had appointed “Professor of Scientific Physical Culture to His Majesty.”
George Hackenschmidt earned the title “The Russian Lion” for his performance as a weightlifter, winning the Russian weightlifting championship in 1898 and various world wrestling championships, and eventually made a fortune after emigratingto Great Britain. He was also a fluent orator and a prolific writer, who turned out philosophical books such as The Origins of Life, debated intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw, and even chal- lenged Albert Einstein to an exchange of ideas.
And there were many more-Professor Attila, Arthur Saxon, Herman Gomer, Oscar Hilgenfeldt, and W. A. Pullum, an illus- trious tradition of men of strength that continues right up through Paul Anderson and Alexeev and other weightlifters of our day.
One of those for whom the pursuit of physical culture became practically a religion was the publisher-businessman Bernan Macfadden, a man who could serve as the prototype “health nut” of all time. To promote the idea that physical weakness was actually immoral, he founded the magazine Physical Culture. Later he went on to publish the New York Evening Graphic-anewspaper aimed at an audience that possessed as little education as he did.
Macfadden also presented a series of contests at Madison Square Garden to select the “Most Perfectly Developed Man in America.” The first one was held in 1903, with a prize of one thousand dollars la small fortune in those days) along with the title. Both the contests and the magazine were successful for decades. And he continued to practice what he preached-walk- ing barefoot every morning from his home on Riverside Drive in New York City to his office in midtown and appearing bare-chested in his own magazine, an example of health and fitness until well into his seventies.
Macfadden probably would not have approved of modern body- building with its emphasis on the visual development of the body rather than athletic skill. However, Macfadden and other physi- cal cuIturists played a big part in the evolution of bodybuilding. His contests helped to promote interest in how the body looked, rather than simply how strong the muscles were, and thereemerged from these contests a superstar who was to become one of the most famous men in America for decades to come.
The winner of Macfadden’s contest in 1921 was a young man named Angelo Siciliano. To capitalize on his growing fame, this magnificently developed man changed his name to Charles Atlas and acquired the rights to a mail-order physical fitness coursecalled “dynamic tension.” For more than fifty years boys have grown up seeing the ads for this course In magazines and comic books-the one where the scrawny kid gets sand kicked in his face, sends away for a muscle-building course, then goes back to beat up the bully and reclaim his girl. “Hey skinny, your ribs are showing!” became the most memorable slogan of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history.