The Death Wish in Bodybuilding

Muscular ArmIn 1990, Paul Solotaroff interviewed Steve Michalik in one of the most fascinating interviews in all of bodybuilding. Struggling to come to terms with his post-bodybuilding career, Michalik spoke candidly about his use, and abuse, of anabolic steroids. At the end of the interview, the reader is left with three thoughts

  • Steve Michalik was incredibly focused and determined
  • Drug culture in bodybuilding is prevalent
  • Bodybuilders are rewarded for pushing things to extremes

A small excerpt from the article shows as much

Over the course of eleven years, Michalik had taken ungodly amounts of Anadrol. If his buddies were taking two 50 mg tablets a day, he took four. Six weeks later, when he started to plateau, he jacked the ante to eight. So, too, with Dianabol, another brutal oral steroid. Where once a single 5 mg pill sufficed, inevitably he was gulping ten or twelve of them a day, in conjunction with the Anadrol.

Bodybuilders, male and female, are dying because of their sport. We as fans, promoters and competitors are complicit in this process. Today’s article is motivated by the latest spate of bodybuilding deaths and the latest round of indifference. I’m not trying to change the sport, or people’s opinions, but instead provide a historical perspective on when and why, this is the case.

Dead But Big: The Bodybuilding Curse

I love bodybuilding. I have competed in two natural bodybuilding shows, I have spent years studying its history and, I like to think, I share that history with the public. One of the most popular posts I have ever written is on bodybuilders who died too young. This article has been cited and posted on multiple forums, was recently included in an Arnold Schwarzenegger blogpost and is typically used in the wake of any high profile deaths.

The number one cause of death in untimely or shocking deaths is the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. At times you will read apologists claiming that someone had an unknown genetic condition, or that they abused recreational drugs, but that ignores the fact that to compete in bodybuilding, athletes need to have a death wish. I do not have the education, nor the interest, in learning about the combinations or permutations of drugs that athletes use. All I know is that since the early 1980s, purists have claimed that athletes have become abnormally large, and abnormally lean.

Abnormally large and abnormally lean. Think about that. When Rich Gaspari stepped on stage in the 1980s with striated glutes, he did so to compete with the muscle mass of Lee Haney. Now ever bodybuilder worth their salt has to be as big and as lean as possible. What was once used to distinguish one body from another has now become the standard.

Bodybuilding has become a race to the bottom of the biological barrel and it is the athletes, not the promoters who suffer the most. After a series of high profile deaths and injuries in the late 1980s, the Weiders held a drug tested Mr. Olympia. It lasted for one year, in part because Vince McMahon decided to create an untested rival in the World Bodybuilding Federation. Where the Weiders partly attempted to curb drug use, McMahon claimed he was creating ‘bodybuilding as it should be’.

Bodybuilding as it should be. What does that mean? Especially in the present context? In the past decade multiple new divisions have been created ranging from classic to physique to everything in between. Competitors appear smaller and more proportioned in the first two to three years, and then they descend back into ‘mass monsters.’ Don’t get it twisted. Some of those competing in classic competitions would likely have been Mr. Olympia challengers in bygone eras.

But what about competition? You’re likely saying that all sports have seen athletes get bigger, faster and stronger. Records continue to be broken in sport. Bodybuilding is all about the body so it makes sense that bodies are getting bigger and leaner regardless of division. I return to my previous comment. Is this what bodybuilding is meant to be?

The Origins of Bodybuilding

In 1901 Eugen Sandow hosted the world’s first recognizable bodybuilding competition. Created to discover the ‘Best Developed Man in Great Britain and Ireland’, Sandow’s ‘Great Competition’ judged competitors on a number of different standards ranging from their skin tone to their symmetry. Sandow wanted to discover those bodies who matched the vitality found in the statues of Gods and heroes in Ancient Greece.

Sandow and his judges explicitly said the man with the best overall health would win, not necessarily the man with the biggest muscles. Why? At that time, the early bodybuilders cared about overall health. Weightlifting and going to the gym was about the total reformation of the individual. It was meant to make you healthier, externally and internally. It was meant to make you calmer, more disciplined and more empathetic towards others.

This wasn’t just idealistic thinking. When the Mr. America competition was introduced in 1939, athletes were judged on their physique, their athleticism and their personality. Thus many competitions featured a posing section, a weightlifting section and an interview with the judges to determine who was the best representative of American manhood.

Again, I am a historian. I know the Mr. America judges were accused of cynically using this criteria to prevent black and Hispanic bodybuilders from winning. Heck Sergio Oliva called them out on this very issue but think about the underlying philosophy. This bodybuilding show wanted a body that was muscular, but also useful. It also wanted well rounded competitors.

The Mr. Olympia and the Race to the Bottom

In 1965 Joe and Ben Weider created the Mr. Olympia contest and, in doing so, changed the face of bodybuilding. My respect for the Weiders is immense. I do what I do because they did what they did. That withstanding, the Mr. Olympia is Frankenstein’s monster. It was created to wrest control of bodybuilding away from the Mr. America and, to do that, the Weiders offered a different kind of show.

The Mr. America contest judged individuals on their physique, ability to hold a conversation and their skill in Olympic lifts. The Mr. Olympia judged competitors solely on their physiques. In a twist of historical fate, this occurred at the exact moment that bodybuilders began to use anabolic steroids. Now the only thing needed to distinguish oneself from others was the body. The age of chemical warfare truly began in earnest.

The ‘Golden Age’ of bodybuilding which featured Arnold, Zane and so many others was also the first age of bodybuilders to use anabolics in large numbers. Nevertheless some sanity prevailed. Bodybuilders cycled their drug use, put on bodyfat outside of competition and engaged in cardio. They also lived relatively normal lives outside the sport. Zane taught in a high school, Arnold and Franco were builders for a period, others ran health stores etc.

The 1980s, and a new wave of performance enhancing drugs, changed this culture. In the post-Pumping Iron phase, bodybuilding became a monkish lifestyle. It took over athletes lives. For anyone doubtful of this claim read Alan Klein’s Little Big Men or Sam Fussell’s Muscle. This are two of the best insights into elite bodybuilding cultures of the 1980s and both highlight the isolation athletes felt from the outside world. They were the ‘freaks’ who pushed beyond normality. They only cared about the body, not about what it could do and not about their own personalities. Their personalities were their bodies.

We all know the story. Bodybuilders got bigger. We criticized the ‘mass monsters‘. Some bodybuilders died and the world kept turning. In the late 2000s, we even got our first spate of online personalities who likewise abused steroids with deadly results.

Why Does This Matter?

I am not naive. Weightlifters take drugs, powerlifters take drugs and strength athletes definitely take drugs. If it happens with a barbell, anabolics are involved. Bodybuilders push things to an entirely different level and it is for this reason that the sport has suffered more than others. I am deliberately not naming names in this post but earlier this year, one bodybuilder’s death hit me harder than others. He was a family man, someone incredibly generous of his time and someone who was always a favorite of the community.

He died, then several others died in quick succession and it broke my love of the sport for one simple reason. No one cared. Sure there were outpourings of support, a brief controversy about drug use in the sport, some talking heads debating different coaching practices but no one did anything about it.

Bodybuilding is broken and the only people who can change things are the fans, and the organizers. Fans may profess to care, but every time a mass monster steps on stage, all concerns are forgotten. Organizers no longer pretend to care. In 1990 the Weiders did a drug tested Mr. Olympia. Yes it had its problems but the intent was there. Now someone will point to a classic or physique division as an alternative to the Open Divisions but the same excessive drug taking exists there.

Bodybuilding is broken. It is now entirely divorced from its origins. This sport began as a lifestyle which sought to make people healthy in every aspect of their lives. Now it is a lifestyle which revolves around excessive drug taking, and pats on the back about mass monsters. The mass monster is worshiped without any regard for the lifter’s later life.

Several years ago a former Mr. Olympia and arguably one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time released a documentary which showcased, in vivid detail, the troubles he now had physically moving around. While we all praised his indomitable spirit (and still should), we didn’t stop to ask the costs. What is the end game for a sport which now shrugs its damn shoulders when people die in their 20s and 30s?

This post was several weeks in the making as I waited for my anger to subside. It hasn’t. Every time I read an article online or visit a forum, I see the same damn problems again and again. People post RIP and then talk about their next cycle. I don’t care about steroids in sport. I care about the philosophy of sport. I care about athlete welfare and I care that my sport’s athletes die at an earlier age than they should.

More than anything else I’m angry that nothing has been done. We don’t even pretend to talk about curbing drug use for the welfare of athletes. We don’t even pretend to care longer than a damn news cycle.

Bodybuilding is broken and we are all to blame.

12 thoughts on “The Death Wish in Bodybuilding

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  1. A very moving and thoughtful piece, Conor. However, I would have to question whether steroid use in bodybuilding only became common and widespread around the time of the creation of the Mr. Olympia contest in 1965. Steroids were introduced in the mid-1930s. Shortly thereafter you began to see men with physiques that were qualitatively different from men like Sandow, Billy Murray, Al Treloar or Charles Atlas just a few decades earlier. I am thinking of fellows like Clancy Ross, George Eiferman, Grimek, Reeves and others. Yes, they are well-respected, even beloved “greats” of the game, and, yes, they looked healthier and far more natural than almost all contemporary bodybuilders. Nonetheless, this “revolution” in men’s physiques took place a very short time after the introduction of anabolic/androgenic steroids. Thus, I can’t help feeling very suspicious.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Thanks Jan. I really do appreciate that. I’m actually in two minds on earlier use. A very kind reader of this site is soon to publish some very extensive histories on this site about whether or not steroids were used before c. the 1950s. He has a very convincing argument that they were not. I’ll not spoil anything but say watch this space as he convinced me!

  2. Dear Conor, Ever since this haunting editorial appeared, I have been cogitating on it. A few thoughts:

    We like to refer to bodybuilding as a “sport.” Whether these masculine beauty contests (with a very eccentric aesthetic) should be considered “sport” or something else, I will leave aside, but doesn’t a great deal of sport carry with it the risk of serious injury or sudden death? I think of boxing and MMA, American football, mountaineering and rock climbing, racing–be it with horses, cars, motorcycles, speedboats or whatever, rodeo and probably quite few others. People assume risk to excel in sport. For over a half-century it has been common knowledge that to excel in bodybuilding competition you must use chemical enhancements. It has also been common knowledge that these drugs can have a deleterious effect on health and longevity. This is a choice an aspiring bodybuilder must make. If he wants 21-inch “guns” and “Mister” titles, he has to assume the risk. If a mountain climber falls to his doom, a jockey or a bull rider gets trampled, do we say the sports are “broken”? Conversely, if a bodybuilder wants to remain “natty,” he will probably have a handsome, strong, muscular, healthy body, but he will garner no glory–rather like the choice of Achilles, I suppose.

    I note that most of the “greats” of my youth and young manhood lived to a good old age: Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Serge Nubret, Larry Scott and Sergio Oliva all died in their 70s, back when that was considered a respectable old age. John Grimek, Clancy Ross, Jules Bacon, Leroy Colbert and Vince Gironda died in their 80s, and Jack Lalanne expired at 95. Just last Wednesday, Bill Pearl passed through the Pearly Gates, a bit shy of 92.

    But what about the next wave of top builders? Arnold (and his pacemaker) are still with us, as are Frank Zane and Lou Ferrigno. Some of the other top stars of their era—Franco Columbu, Dave Draper and Ken Waller all passed in the vicinity of 80. All I am saying is that competitive bodybuilding doesn’t seem like a one way ticket to an early grave, and I’m not sure bodybuilding is any more “broken” than it has ever been

    Hasn’t it always been that some musclemen died young, some old? Arthur Saxon died at 43, his close contemporary George Hackenschmidt made it to 90. Professor Attila went at 79 (a very good old age in the 1920s), his protege Sandow in his 50s.

    I have probably rambled on too long, Conor, but I would appreciate your comments.

    1. Hey Jan,

      Great to hear from you. Not rambling at all!

      This was very much written as a emotive piece on my part and I suppose it echoes some of the concerns I have with bodybuilding as a pursuit. As you mention, every activity or sport has an element of risk, especially at elite levels. My other favoured sports, strongman, powerlifting, rugby, football and professional wrestling all have a litany of broken minds and bodies from previous generations. I suppose my concern is not as much with the upper echelons but rather with the people who are dying two or three, or sometimes several rungs below the elite level. As you mentioned many muscle men have died young be they Saxon or Sandow. My concern nowadays is with the volume.

      I think the NFL and World Rugby Board’s, at times slow, handling of concussion and CTE is perhaps illustrative. Changes can be made for player welfare (and while more needs to be done) but direction needs to come from the top. I’m not against PEDs in bodybuilding – horse has bolted – but I remain uneasy about the lack of athlete welfare which seems to exist among organisations which, I truly believe, trickles down to recreational users pushing the boundaries.

      I too, have rambled, but hopefully that makes sense!

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