Friday Evening, Midsummer, 1994, Seattle 

“I once loved the sport of bodybuilding. In a strange way I still did. It frustrated me and at times I hated it, but for sixteen years I tried to balance love, frustration and hatred while watching both the sport and myself change. Convincing myself that I’d outgrown this obsession was impossible. One simple truth held us together: bodybuilding had saved my life. It was a guardian angel who found me at seventeen hazarding seas of inner struggle without a compass.  I had the luxury of distance, remembering those struggles that had led me to want to be big and strong, but I couldn’t run from the truth of what had happened along the way. My frustration may have grown into hatred, but the love came first. It began simply. I found authentic purpose the moment my hands wrapped around a cold iron bar. All else fell away and my spirit knew it could do anything. I built my American dream one repetition at a time. That much could never be taken away.”

Excepted from: GORILLA SUIT by Bob Paris ©1997, all rights reserved, ISBN 0-312-16855-1)

Photo by Art Zeller, 1989 (copyright © Bob Paris, all rights reserved)

So, What Happened?

I've recently received several emails asking the same essential question, "What happened to bodybuilding?" Many of these messages refer to the sport itself, with the common upshot being: "What the hell happened to the sport we used to love; why has it grown so thoroughly corrupt and unrecognizable over the past twenty-five or so years?" The other version of this question is directed toward me, as in: "Since you were once a champion, why doesn't your life still revolve around the sport?" First, I'd like to focus on the personal aspects of this. 

The shorthand answer is that, when I was still involved in bodybuilding, back before I retired more than twenty years ago, I wasn't ever really what one might call a "lifestyle bodybuilder." In other words, bodybuilding was simply a sport at which I excelled. It wasn't my core identity. In fact, I often found myself (as I wrote in GORILLA SUIT) desperately wishing I could leave the by-product of my hard training (i.e. that massive and generally uncomfortable physique) in the gym, as a baseball player leaves behind his bat, a track athlete her cleats. 

Look, I've written this so many times before it's become something of a personal cliché: Back when I was 19 and wholly adrift, bodybuilding saved my life. But not because of the muscles. Rather, bodybuilding saved me because of the discipline, direction and focus it engendered. It provided both a physical and metaphorical path forward. 

I've also often written of having combined my athletic and artistic sides as I pursued bodybuilding, but there was a third part to this intertwined structure: A strong, over-riding philosophy, a chunk of which went something like this: Do the work, do it well, and get on with it. So that's what I'd do: Invest my time in the gym with absolute focus and intensity and then let it go, heading off to pursue my real life; one composed of a dozen other wide-ranging interests from theatre to books to backpacking. 

It’s this diversity of interests that eventually led me away from a strict focus on hard-core weight training as a central part of my life. Don’t misread that, though. I'm the fittest and healthiest I've ever been; and certainly the happiest and most authentic. I love my intense yoga practice, my cycling, my hikes and trail runs - and yes, my regular, moderate resistance training.  

In an ironic way, I have the time spent in bodybuilding to thank for leading me toward this eclectic yet focused path, where exercise is merely one part of a fulfilling life. 

One of the initial reasons I was first drawn to bodybuilding was the notion that this was what many of us back then were after: Yes, our efforts in the gym would sculpt the best possible physique. But more than that: We were striving to build a life. A real, well-rounded, amazing life. That was the bodybuilding of Arnold, of Zane, of Reeves.

That was my bodybuilding.

It is exactly this concept that completely evaporated from elite-level bodybuilding twenty-odd years ago, leading me (and many others like me) out of the sport along an inverse, carnival-side-show mirror of the road on which we had entered. 

However, I don’t want this post to sound even slightly bitter. I am profoundly grateful for my path—successes, regrets and all. And in this spirit, I find myself obliged to share (once again) the core concepts I learned from my years in bodybuilding; the underlying fundamentals I have taken with me into both my work and personal life: 

  • The patient application of craft;

  • The beauty of deep inside/out, outside/in personal transformation;

  • The active search for authenticity;

  • The development of a balanced approach toward life and work;

  • A real feeling of focus and dedication;

  • The profound blending of the athletic with the artistic (and the philosophical).

And, if I had to add one more fundamental into this mix it would have to be: 

  • A willingness to look unmitigated corruption right in the face and speak the unvarnished truth, damn the torpedoes.

So then, to the more general question posed at the top of this piece:  Well, I suppose I’ll have to leave that one with the fans of bodybuilding (including the writers and publishers covering it), all of whom I hope will, one day very soon, find the courage to stand up en-mass, turn directly toward those who have run the IFBB Pro Division for the past twenty-five years and finally demand a clear, honest and propaganda-free answer: “What happened to bodybuilding?”

In the meantime, I truly wish you and yours peace, health and happiness,


Copyright Bob Paris (c) 2012 all rights reserved

Official Bob Paris 2012 photos by Brian LeFurgey all rights reserved