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The History of Bodybuilding

I believe to be a true fan of a sport you need to know the history and storyline of that sport. All of the past legends, important events, and altering decisions should be celebrated as not only a reverence to the sport, but for the integrity of the sport in the future. Most people conjure up imagines of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, or some other legend when talking about baseball. In basketball there is Jerry West, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, just to name a few. Football is inundated into the American way in every form, from tailgating to player notoriety.

Where does this leave Bodybuilding? Unfortunately the knowledge of the casual fan of bodybuilding is limited. Sure most can point out Jay Cutler or Ronnie Coleman and everyone knows who Arnold Schwarzenegger is, but I bet names such as Sergio Olivia, Eugene Sandow, and Steve Reeves brings no memories to a generation of new fans. Names of even more recent bodybuilders such as Dorian Yates and Lee Haney, who both had tremendous runs at consecutive Mr. Olympia wins, are long past since the dominance of Coleman. To remember these greats we must write about them, talk about them, and the sport needs to rally around its past so it will have a future. It is important that the fans know Sandow was a real person, not just the name of the trophy at Mr. Olympia.

In the Beginning
Bodybuilding was not a sport invented; it was more or less stumbled upon. A young man named Eugene Sandow, born of Prussia, escaped political and military oppression by moving to Europe. There he befriended Oscard Attila, who was a professional strongman. Attila taught Sandow, who was said to have great genetics, how to transform his body into a bodybuilder's physique. The first equipment Sandow used was a shot-loading barbell, the precursor to the plate-loaded barbell. Sandow also popularized other equipment, such as single-grip dumbbells, later in his life.

Sandow flourished, beating the other strongmen throughout Europe and doing so with a more chiseled frame minus the extra body fat. This led to Sandow’s journey to America in the 1890’s being hyped as the world’s strongest man. Once in America, Sandow made a huge impact on the entertainment industry. It was known that more people were showing up at the events for the viewing of his physique than were there to watch his feats of strength. He parlayed that knowledge into the formation of the first bodybuilding show ever.

Sandow developed and promoted the first ever bodybuilding show, tabbed the “The Great Show”. He promoted the show for three years in his newly formed and first ever bodybuilding magazine Physical Culture. By this time Sandow was a well known entrepreneur and a leader of the new sport of bodybuilding. The winner of that first show was a William Murray, who took home the golden Sandow trophy, plus the prize money that was said to be around $2,400 dollars. This was just a start to what was about to happen.

Two other legends of the early years were Bernarr Macfadden and Charles Atlas. Macfadden (born Bernard Adolphus McFadden) moved to England from America to promote his magazine Physical Development and his chest expander, one of the first widespread exercise equipment products in the business. Macfadden later promoted a first of its kind show in 1903 in New York that included segments of posing by the bodybuilders that lends its heritage to the shows of today. This show turned into an annual event and the winner was tabbed “The Most Perfectly Developed Man in America”.

The event went on through the early 1900’s growing each year in success and along with Macfadden’s notoriety. Macfadden was popular in other venues such as publishing were he published many different types of books and magazines. Macfadden also made an unsuccessful attempt to found a religion. He claimed his religion, “cosmotarianism”, based on physical culture and strict regimen, would enable him and its followers reach up to the age of 150.

It was Macfadden’s event that also catapulted another of the early stars of the sport. Charles Atlas (born Angelo Siciliano) won the event in 1921 and used the stardom to promote a line of mail-order fitness items. Dynamic-Tension was the name given to his regimen that promised a chiseled body to those “scrawny weaklings” that Atlas had compared himself too at an early age.

This time frame was shaping for the sport and took it from nonexistent at the turn of the century, to an annual event with many new entrepreneurs. It gave a base for how bodybuilders would be judged and what direction the sport was going. It also gave life to what many call the “Golden Age” of bodybuilding

The Golden Age
The Golden age of bodybuilding us a name given to a time period ranging from 1930 to the late 1970’s. Many believe the official retirement of Schwarzenegger in 1981 signified the real ending of the Golden Age. I like to break the Golden Age up into two categories. You have your Golden Age before Arnold and then you have the Golden Age after Arnold.

Before Arnold
The age before the iconic legend had his time on stage; there were ones who led the way bridging the gap from the years of Atlas and Sandow to the arrival of Arnold. Names like John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Dave Draper and Larry Scott transcended the sport from a hobby to a passion. The arrival of the 30’s seemed to cause a shift in Mecca of bodybuilding from the East Coast of the U.S. and Europe to California.

The place where you could find bodybuilders in the early Golden Age was Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California. During great weather months of Cali, bodybuilders came in droves to workout in front of the crowds. Men such as Jack La Lanne, television fitness and now a juicer expert, Grimek, who was AAU Mr. America in ‘40 and ’41, and Joe Gold, founder of Gold's Gym.  Even with Muscle Beach closing in the ‘50’s the west coast remained the destination of bodybuilders with thoughts of a career in the sport. It was now centered at Venice Beach, California, the site of the first Gold's Gym built by Joe Gold.

At the same time the bodybuilders were taking form, so too was the governing bodies of what would be the future of the sport. Ben Weider created the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) in 1946. Before the IFBB, the AAU (American Athletic Union) and the National Amateur Body Builders' Association (NABBA) were the main governing bodies. The AAU later dissolved and the modern day NPC (National Physique Committee) was formed in 1981 by Jim Manion who stepped down as chairman of the AAU Physique Committee. The NPC has gone on to become the most successful bodybuilding organization in America and is the amateur division of the IFBB in the United States.

The NABBA put on shows all over the globe and dubbed their big show winner Mr. Universe. This was the top title in the sport before the Weider brothers broke ground in 1965 with a bigger more appealing show with better prize money and more notoriety in the United States. That show was none other than Mr. Olympia. Larry Scott Took home the first two Mr. Olympia titles in ’65, and ’66, coming out of semi retirement to do so. Scott finally retired again in ’66.

In 1967 the title was up for grabs and a new comer Sergio Oliva brought a whole new physique to the table. He won hands down with his muscularity and was so feared that he also won the ’68 title unopposed. In 1969 a young Austrian battled Oliva for the title but lost in a bid to take away the champs title. That young Austrian was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He would vow to never be beaten by Oliva again and he was correct. As a matter of fact he was not beaten by anyone ever again.

Arnold Arrives
After losing out to Oliva in ’69, Arnold came back with a vengeance in ’70 taking the Mr. Olympia title for the first time. It would be the first of six straight for the living legend. Arnold took the ’71 title unopposed out battled Oliva again in ’72 and was not even really challenged again until ’74 when a young Lou Ferrigno hit the scene toting 270lbs of muscle with him. Ferrigno pushed Arnold in ’74, but in the end Arnold prevailed again. This set the scene for the ’75 showdown with Arnold and Lou.

This battle and the lead up to it was caught on film and made immortal with the release of the documentary “Pumping Iron”. Arnold’s brash confidence and gamesmanship seemed to throw Lou off and his game and Arnold once again won Mr. Olympia. Many say that Arnold was only doing the contest because of the filming of the documentary and it was a tribute to him that even though he wasn’t totally committed he still won easily. Arnold immediately retired after the show.

The outcome and the depiction of Ferrigno in “Pumping Iron” defiantly hurt his bodybuilding career although he did go on to a flourishing career in film and mainly as the “Incredible Hulk”. Arnold spent the next four years acting and promoting career; Arnold was the promoter of the ’76 Mr. Olympia in Columbus, Ohio.

Arnold’s good friend Franco Columbu won the event. Just as Arnold had done the year before, Columbu retired after the contest. The retirement of Arnold and Columbu made way for an aesthetic young bodybuilder that did not have as much size, but was unmatched in his muscle density. Zane took the next three Mr. Olympia’s in ’77, ’78, and ’79. Zane was the first to take the Sandow trophy home as the contest in ’77 was the first duty of the newly named trophy.

In 1980 the event was surrounded by controversy. A field of competitors and fans were oblivious to Arnold’s entry into the event. Most thought Arnold, who had been spotted working out leading up to the show, was working on his physique for an up coming film. Arnold’s trip to the contest’s site did not alarm the competitors due to his extensive work as a commentator. When his name was called out in the contestants meeting everyone realized real quickly what he was doing.

Arnold had come out of retirement to take on Zane. Arnold took the title topping Zane, who came in third behind new comer Chris Dickerson. The decision was very controversial and Arnold’s conditioning was well below what it was when he retired, but the judges voted him the winner. The decision was so fishy that CBS decided not to air the footage. Arnold again retired for the final time after the show.

Modern Day Bodybuilding
Columbu followed the lead of his good friend and came out of retirement to take the ’81 Sandow in a show once again promoted by Arnold. This was followed by one time winners in ’82 (Chris Dickerson) and ’83 (Samir Bannout). After the two, one year winners, the sport of bodybuilding saw series of streaks that take us to modern times.

In 1984, a young Lee Haney took the stage at 247lbs and shredded. There was no doubt that night he was the winner and that he was a force to be reckoned with for the future. Haney went on to win eight in a row to break Arnold’s record of six consecutive and seven overall titles. Haney was said to be at his best in ’86 where many believe he looked better on stage that night than any other winner ever.

Haney retired after his record setting win in ’91 leaving the door open for another young champ to step up. Dorian Yates did just that. Yates took the title in ’92 and went on to take the next four titles in a rocky ride of injury and doubt. Yates finished with six total wins and a myriad of injuries which made him retire before the ’98 show.

Ronnie Coleman took the opportunity and ran with it. The next eight years were dominated by the biggest bodybuilder to date. Coleman’s onstage weight neared and was said to top the 300lb mark. Coleman’s signature back allowed him to tie Haney in consecutive and total wins with eight before losing his title to Jay Cutler in ’06. Cutler repeated in ’07, but was beaten out in ’08 by reining champion Dexter Jackson.

Things to Come

With another big show due in ’09 with Cutler, Jackson, Phil Heath, Dennis Wolf, and Melvin Anthony competing to name a few, the bodybuilding world has many good years to look forward to. You can see in the past that bodybuilding was born out of popularity and not invented. It seems to thrive due to the popularity of people’s curiosity of a pursuit for the perfect physique.

In the past bodybuilding affected the culture just as the culture affected bodybuilding. Cross over stars for bodybuilding to the entertainment business have always existed and they will continue in the future. This is because bodybuilding is a sport, but it is also very much entertainment.

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