Robert Paris, ‘Defining the Iron Age’, (c. 2003)

fitness-2255626_1280For those of us whose bodybuilding heroes are from the IronAge, finding our place in the land of modern bodybuilding has been tough. We feel out of place. Our heroes and our IronAge ideals often seem incompatible with the world of bodybuilding. As we struggle to reconcile bodybuilding’s past with its changes, it is our own bodybuilding lifestyle that appears to suffer. I have met far too many whom, having lost interest in competitive bodybuilding and with no heroes to push them along, have lagged in their training. We fans are not alone in this struggle.

Many past champions and industry officials have become critical of the changes in bodybuilding’s focus. Cries of too many drugs, near-deaths and too much emphasis on sex can be heard from most of our heroes.

“Today, this stuff you see up there [in women’s bodybuilding] is basically S&M,” laments Steve Weinberger, “No way would I encourage my daughter to be a competitive bodybuilder. I support my children in whatever they want to do, but I would not help her to become a professional bodybuilder today.” His unhappiness with the sport is especially hard on him as his wife, Bev Francis, was one of the sport’s pioneers.

It is not only in today’s environment that it is hard to reconcile our mythic age of bodybuilding, but also in the lives of our heroes. As Mike Katz accepted his lifetime achievement award at the 2003 Brooklyn Bodybuilding Championships, I readied myself for an ode to the glory days. I imagined Katz would reminisce on a lifetime of bodybuilding moments; training with Arnold, competing against Waller – the famous events in IronAge history. To my shock, Katz talked about the importance of family. He spoke of finding a place for bodybuilding as a hobby in your life, not as your life.

“Bodybuilding took me away from my family,” he admitted, “It was my job. I grew up in a time where the man went to work and the wife stayed home to bring up the children, but I realize I missed out on my children’s lives…My advice to everyone is, don’t wait till you’re a grandfather to be a father.”

Now he’d done it. I felt out of place in the modern bodybuilding world, and Katz just removed the shine from the IronAge. Is the IronAge dead? Did it never truly exist? On the contrary, Katz recalls his contests with excitement.

“When I look back and I think of all those crazy crowds going wild it brings back all those emotions, those excited feelings!” I complained that those crowds were a thing of the past. Katz stopped me with the story of his recent trip to a Boston, Massachusetts show.

The show was held shortly after the last Mr. Olympia in 2002. Guest posing for the crowd of over 700 people were modern bodybuilders, Jay Cutler, Gunter Schlierkamp and Dave Palumbo. In the midst of hundreds of screaming, cheering fans, Katz was transported back to the days of his old competitions. As fans called out to Gunter, screamed for Cutler and stomped for Palumbo, Katz felt the same rush of excitement bodybuilding had always brought him. “It was just as phenomenal as when I was competing,” Katz told me, “The audience appreciation is still there!”

I realized I was looking for the wrong things. Rather than look for the IronAge itself, I needed to find the essence of that age, both in peoples’ memories and in everything it runs through today.

It is embodied in the young bodybuilders with the passion of a young Mike Katz; boys who begin in the New York Sports Club just as Katz began in Harold Helland’s garage gym. It is in the audience at the 2003 NPC Brooklyn Bodybuilding Championships where a woman screams out, “Hit it Lenny; that’s my son!” It fills the eyes of Leon Brown and his wife Danielle who, almost thirty years after his appearance in the book Pumping Iron, still choreographs his routines . The IronAge lives.

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