It’s not about power. It’s about beauty. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But in the world of bodybuilding, beauty is massive muscles, ripples, depth of crevices between bulges and striations, as well as a pleasing symmetry to the entire body.
To others, it may seem grotesque, a CGI-like exaggeration of what a super-hero body could look like. But to fans and practitioners, bodybuilding, particularly competitive bodybuilding is a way of life.
American Tommy Kono, who won two golds and a silver in weightlifting at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, was also a four-time Mr. Universe body builder. Kono was a hero to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to become an international phenomenon in the groundbreaking documentary, Pumping Iron. Schwarzenegger would win the Mr. Olympia trophy seven times. The current champion, Phil Heath, has won it six times in a row. According to this fascinating look at Heath and the world of bodybuilding in The New York Times, at the age of 36, believes he can surpass Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, who have both won eight “Sandows“, the name of the Mr. Olympia trophy.
Heath has 22-inch biceps. His thighs are 32-inches each, both bigger in circumference than his waist. He is a few inches taller than me, weighs about 100 pounds more than me – but his waistline at 29 inches is 4 inches slimmer than mine. I make sure I exercise nearly every day, and eat reasonably well, but I don’t see myself ever getting back to 29 inches. Not that I’m comparing.
Competitive bodybuilding is all about maintaining and shaping the body, as well as being fully aware of how the body moves, and the muscles flex and modulate. “’It’s not about the weight, it’s about the movement,’ he said (in the article). He looked at himself carefully in the mirror between sets.” In fact, one of the keys to competitive bodybuilding is that you have to always be looking at yourself.
The article explains how he has pictures taken of him from behind and underneath his body so that he focus on the shape and movement of areas he cannot see. Even for the New York Times, he allowed only a handful of photos to be shot, as he does not want any photos of imperfection to become fodder for the internet trolls. “That can be hard to control in the age of iPhones and Facebook, but Heath’s living is entirely built on appearance. Every striation and crevice, every pimple and imperfection, will be scrutinized, praised or criticized.”
Diet is important to competitive body builders, not only to build the right kind of muscles, but also to look exquisite on the day of competition. “’Imagine eating a pound of food, eight times a day, with no fluid,’ he said. The effect of last-minute water loss is that the skin acts like shrink-wrap, showing every fiber of muscle and a maze of veins. The stress on the body and of the competition itself has sometimes left him with little memory of the two-day competition.”
But the world of bodybuilding can be rewarding financially, at least for the winners. According to the Times, Heath has five sponsors, and earns over a million dollars a year, something he hopes to continue to do for the next five to ten years. Age will take its toll, and one would assume in today’s day and age of doping, that it is rampant in the world of body building. Heath’s reply was curt: “Everybody is going to do what they do. But we get tested.” And the International Federation of Bodybuilding Professional League (IFBB) does, based on the World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines. So bodybuilders are randomly tested.
But fans of bodybuilders are less concerned about performance enhancing drugs. As the article points out, “Fans of Mr. Olympia do not seem caught up in the issue, perhaps because the sport is entirely about aesthetics, not strength or performance.”
So Heath and his fellow competitors continue to eat meticulously, shape muscles with laser-like focus, and search in front of mirrors constantly for imperfection. “The slightest change in a muscle, just a stripe in a striation is noticed.”
On September 7, 2016, at the age of 92, Norbert Schemansky died. While Vera Caslavska, the great Czech gymnast, passed away to considerable international press recently, Schemansky left the world with relatively less fanfare.
Schemansky won a gold, a silver and two bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1952 to 1964, an American hero by any standard. But he was a weight lifter, a sport not perceived as popular as gymnastics, as sexy as swimming, or as compelling as the sprints.
In fact, one of America’s greatest weight lifters, along with the likes of Tommy Kono, has lived not only in obscurity, but in relative poverty.
Here’s how Sports Illustrated described the native of Dearborn, Michigan in 1966. “Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world’s greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family.”
According to the same article, Schemansky would commute into Detroit to look for any work: pool lifeguard ($1 an hour), cleaning toilets ($1 an hour), or going on beer sales calls to bars by lifting heavy kegs over his head. In 1948 and 1952, when Schemansky actually had steady work, he was given no favor. In fact, instead of being the pride and joy of his company, he was unceremoniously shown the door. Again, here’s Sports Illustrated:
In 1948, while working in a factory owned by a celebrated sportsman, he needed time off to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in London. He got the time off—without pay—and won a silver medal. In 1952, while working at the same factory, he requested time to compete in the Olympics at Helsinki. The word went upstairs, and the word came down: “Sure, he can have all the time he wants. Fire him.” Schemansky went anyway, and beat the undefeated Russian world champion, Gregori Novak. He came home with a gold medal, caught a bus from the airport to downtown Dearborn and took a streetcar home. Only a porter at the airport greeted him. “Nice going, Mr. Schemansky,” the porter said.
Schemansky, who was more revered internationally, became a barb in the geopolitical spat across the Iron Curtain. Here’s an example from TASS, the Soviet press organ of the period. “The story of Schemansky, who just recently established a new world record in the snatch with 362 pounds, a full kilogram over the Soviet bogatyr, Yuri Vlasov, reflects the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world.”
When Schemansky turned 91 last year, his friends got together and threw him a party in Michigan. As Arthur Chidlovski explained in his blog post of this celebration, “…on the record, the name of Norbert Schemansky appears more often in the history books of the Olympics than the names of such brand name athletes as Gordy Howe or Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, Tom Brady or Tiger Woods. Sports experts and fans definitely appreciate all the dedication and fantastic performance in sports by Norbert Schemansky.”
One of the greatest weightlifters the world has ever seen started his career in an internment camp during World War II.
Tommy Kono, the only Olympic weightlifter to have set world records in four different weight classes, won gold in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, gold in the 1956 Melbourne Games, as well as silver in Rome in 1960.
But at the age of 12, Kono and his family were removed from their home in Japanese Alley in Sacramento, California, and relocated to Tule Lake Segregation Center, which is at the northern-most part of California, near the Oregon border.
Kono and his family were assigned to Tule Lake because of geographically proximity to Sacramento. But of the ten concentration camps designated to hold over 110,000 Japanese or American of Japanese ancestry upon enactment of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Tule Lake was the maximum-security camp that came to house those considered most disloyal or disruptive. (The order was issued exactly 74 years ago on February 20, 1942.)
Little Tommy Kono, skinny, terribly shy, and sickly due to asthma, had to grow up in a camp that housed the most disruptive inmates in a facility that was overpopulated, unsanitary and squalid.
Strangely enough, it may have been the best thing to happen to him personally.
Tule Lake is high above sea level, and as Kono told me, “it was a dried up lake, where no bushes or trees would grow.”For the first time, Kono could breathe free and easy, and enjoyed good health for the first time in a long time.
At the age of 11, Kono was 4 ft 8 and a half inches tall and weighed 74 and a half pounds. In other words, he was scrawny. But his friends in the camp were weight training enthusiasts, and as this article explains, they “gave him a fifteen-pound barbell and the advice, ‘It’s good for you, keep lifting it up, lots of times.'”
Weight training was an activity he could do to improve his health, see measurable results, and feel good about himself. Kono told me this was the positive side, the meritocratic side of camp life for him. “There was nothing there (to distract me). No stuff hindering me. You have to understand when you’re in Tule camp you are like everybody else. I got to be in pretty good shape.”
After World War II ended, Kono and his family were not compelled to go to Japan. Kono went back to high school in Sacramento, continued his weight training at a local YMCA until he was drafted into the US Army. So despite the fact that his loyalty was questioned only 8 years earlier, he was considered loyal enough to join the US military in 1950. That was when the Korean War was raging. Kono was targeted to be a cook in South Korea in support of the troops. He had heard that North Korean snipers were targeting cooks in particular – the logic being that if the cook went down, so too would morale.
Fortunately, Kono was breaking California weightlifting records and winning tournaments. When the US Army found out Kono was a really good weightlifter, they decided to move him to safer grounds where he could train for a possible spot on the US team in Helsinki.
Kono had come a long way. He told me that he had difficulty explaining what it was like to lift 300 pounds to a layman in the street. To show how strong he was, he instead would take a hot water bottle (those thick red rubbery things that kept you warm when you were sick as a child) and blow them up. “I blew up hot water bottles with my mouth. First they’re red, then it becomes pink, then white, until it finally bursts!”
This from a boy who had trouble breathing in asthmatic fits.
Kono admits to having an inferiority complex as a teenager, being so small and sickly. And not only did weightlifting improve his health and strength, it introduced him to the world of body building. Kono not only was an Olympic champion, but he was also a body builder champion, who won three Mr Universe titles in 1955, 1957 and 1961. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger considered Kono a role model.
“In Europe, everybody lifts weights.” Kono told me. “It’s a common thing. Arnold was a weightlifter living on the outskirts of Vienna. He saw me in 1961. He was 13 years old. He decided that ‘if that little guy can win Mr. Universe, I could do that too.’ He started training hard, he won Junior Mister World, and eventually he won the big one.”