I don’t know what got me thinking about the Mr. Olympia contest the other day; probably saw a reference to it in the zillions of words that fly past my face in a typical crazy-ass day. The contest was held in September. In Vegas, natch, but for years it was held in little old Columbus, Ohio. In the early ’80s, before the internet, when personal fitness was barely getting started and bodybuilding was a weird subculture with a seriously gay vibe, I attended one. Alone. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was working at the Dispatch, a rookie, in the women’s department, when the press people for Mr. Olympia came calling. I’m sure they’d started with the sports department, and struck out, because as far as the sports department was concerned, bodybuilding was not a sport. It was a weird subculture with a seriously gay vibe! No one wanted to be associated with that; no one in sports, anyway. And so somebody with Mr. Olympia called my editor in the women’s department and pitched a really crazy idea: Women who lift weights and train and do bodybuilding contests. It so happened that the reigning Mr. O, Frank Zane, was married to a beautiful woman named Christine, with whom he trained. We could interview them both at the Sheraton down the street that very evening. I got the assignment.
Thinking back, I’m amazed at how strange this idea seemed — a woman pumping serious iron. A friend of mine was working at the time at a fitness studio called Spa Lady. She wore tights and a leotard and leg warmers to work, as did all of the customers. They had dance classes and a few pieces of equipment, and if any weight was lifted, it was no more than one or at most, three pounds. You’d move more pounds putting away your groceries. Women didn’t lift anything heavier because, conventional wisdom maintained, she would get grotesque, Popeye muscles, just like the guys in Mr. Olympia. And if she for some crazy reason wanted such things, and then quit, all those muscles would “turn to fat.”
These are some of the things I knew to be true as I walked to my interview with the Zanes.
A publicist opened the door to their hotel room. This is approximately what they looked like, only they had more clothes on. In street clothes, she was a slender beauty and he, a guy with really broad shoulders. Charming, down-to-earth people. They told me what we now know about women and weights — that we lack the hormones to put on bulk, that a muscle cannot actually turn to fat, etc. And so on. I took notes, the photographer took pictures. As I left, I asked Frank to “make a muscle,” as people said then — flex his bicep. He did, and a bowling ball rose on his upper arm. I gave it a little squeeze. It felt like a bowling ball, too. The publicist handed me a couple passes to the event that upcoming weekend.
My story was just a lame advance for the contest, on a page that approximately zero people who were interested in it would read. But I started noticing more broad-shouldered people around town that week, of all colors, speaking languages I could only guess at, as they arrived to compete and watch. Probably a few thousand of them all told, from all over the world, and my dumb story on page D6 was the only notice the paper took of an internationally famous event.
When the contest came, I asked some friends if they’d come with me. None were interested. So I went by myself, carrying my Nikon with the longest lens I had, a paltry 135mm. Veterans Memorial was sold out. Let me tell you, it was an experience. The gay vibe became a full-throated roar during the pose-offs, hundreds of muscle freaks screaming like banshees as Frank and the others turned and flexed their lats and delts and so forth. Real appreciators of the human form, this crowd. I walked down the aisle and took a few shots as close as I could get, most of my new friend Frank. Who repeated as Mr. O, in the end.
The next day, the photo editor came out with a worried look on his face. The AP was calling, wondering why the biggest paper in town hadn’t covered this international sporting event, and could we give the co-op anything in the way of photos? It so happened I had the roll of film I’d shot, and handed it over, black-and-white Tri-X, my favorite. They ran it and brought me a contact sheet. Is this the guy? the editor asked. Yep, that’s Frank.
And that, my friends, is how young Nancy Nall got her first and only photo on the AP’s sports wire. Or any wire.
The Zanes are still together, and are still adorable.
I think this is what got me thinking about Mr. Olympia; I must have glimpsed a promo when it ran a few days ago, but just got around to reading it today, a profile of Phil Heath, who is …startling-looking, at least in the performance photos. This guy trains, eats and sleeps. Just like Michael Phelps, only his food bill probably isn’t $1,000 a week. And like Zane, he seems more or less normal. Not crazy, anyway.
What draws people to such things? The same instincts that push us up mountains, I imagine.
No more links today, because everything good I read today was posted by you guys in the comments yesterday. After you guys went off on a tangent about barfing, I was going to link to Atul Gawande’s magnificent 1999 essay on nausea, but it’s back in the paid archive. I reread it a few years ago, when Kate Middleton had hyperemesis of pregnancy — that’s the through line — but they locked it back up.
So no politics today! Woo! Just a few more days…