When I founded the North American Natural Bodybuilding Association (NANBA) – now NANBF – more than 30 years ago, I believed that many bodybuilders were seeking an alternative to competing against the proliferation of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. I was right. Bodybuilders from all over the world came out of the woodwork to compete in our shows.
When we aligned ourselves with Jack O’Bleness and his American Bodybuilding Coordinating Committee (ABCC) in California, the natural movement gained even more momentum. And, when Jack and I joined forces with the WNBF and our good friend Cheh Low to provide natural athletes with the opportunity to compete at the professional level, it elevated the sport to a whole new level. It seemed as though the natural movement would finally be accepted as a viable alternative to bodybuilding’s mainstream drug culture. I was wrong.
After all these years, natural bodybuilding remains a fringe element of a sport with questionable legitimacy in the first place. I mean, really – what kind of “sport” relies solely on appearances without any evidence of athletic performance? At least the old AAU used to have “athletic points” that required bodybuilders to demonstrate their athletic prowess as part of their overall score in order to win. Now, bodybuilding is judged entirely on looks.
Iron Man Editor and Publisher Peary Rader said more than 40 years ago (Iron Man, Vol. 23, No. 6, August/September 1964): “There are (those) others who feel that a physique contest cannot be considered an athletic event by any stretch of the imagination. They figure that this is a male beauty contest. This is exactly true. The other faction, by splitting some fine hairs, claim it is a contest and that it is purely physical so then it must be an athletic contest.”
Yet, despite Rader’s early misgivings, bodybuilding HAS gradually become more accepted as a sport by most people over the years. However, what has ultimately prevented its ascent into total legitimacy is the increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport which has caused it to regress into something more resembling a freak show than an athletic competition, and the natural movement has suffered by association. What’s worse, many natural bodybuilders and their supporters have unintentionally contributed to this perception over the years.
You see, most natural bodybuilders are only “pure” in the sense that they compete drug-free themselves. Otherwise, they are just as fickle as the general public and just as curious to see the exaggerated drug-induced megabodies as everyone else. The problem is that they are paying to see these shows and, in essence, supporting the very thing they say they oppose.
On the other hand, most “druggies” will not pay to attend natural shows because it draws too much attention to themselves and raises the inevitable question of why THEY are not entered in the show. Gee, they might actually have to admit that they are not natural – something that most athletes who use performance enhancing drugs cannot do unless they are forced to come clean under public pressure (Arnold Schwarzenegger) or under the threat of perjury (Hulk Hogan – not a “bodybuilder,” per se, and maybe not even an athlete, but you get what I mean). They would rather perpetuate the hoax that their muscles are “real” and earned the hard way by the sweat of their brow and without artificial enhancement. Yea, sure.
I know, I know. There are always exceptions. Sometimes we have friends who are not natural who come to our shows once in a while. We justify these friendships because we believe that everyone has a “choice” about whether or not to use PEDs, and we do not want to deny our friendship to someone just because they have made a different choice than ours – even though their choice is illegal (not a misdemeanor – a felony). But, then how many of your other “friends” participate in criminal behavior? Do you typically hobnob with cocaine or crack addicts? Just because you might think PED’s are “different” or shouldn’t be illegal doesn’t make them any less contrary to the law. Think about it.
There are also those druggies who DO attend natural shows on their own and strut around in their tight t-shirts to show off their “unnaturalness” as a symbol of superiority to create a “sub-show” in the audience to detract from what is happening on stage. It takes all kinds.
Some natural bodybuilders go one step further than buying a ticket to untested shows and, instead, choose to compete in them. Once again they pay to support what they profess they are against – this time in the form of an entry fee – to show that they are just as good as those who use performance enhancing drugs. Sometimes they win or place, sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t matter.
By simply competing in untested shows, they are tainting their own reputation by their presence on stage with untested athletes. Even if they are successful in crossing back and forth between the two venues, the public perception that they may have used drugs will always persist because, in the public’s mind, natural athletes cannot compete with athletes who use performance enhancing drugs. Trying to prove everybody wrong doesn’t change the perception.
Some natural athletes don’t care what other people think, but they are still helping to perpetuate the continued promotion of untested shows by their financial support and their presence on stage. At the same time, they are damaging the credibility of the natural organizations in which they also compete by making the drug testing itself suspect. After all, no one can look that good without drugs, so he/she must be cheating – right!?!.
The natural organizations are also guilty of hindering the growth and legitimacy of the natural movement – perhaps more so than the athletes. They can’t get along with each other, they can’t agree on anything, and they are constantly breaking off into smaller organizations that fragment the entire natural movement.
Rather than work from within an existing organization to make it better, there are always those who think they can “reinvent the wheel” and create a better “widget.” More often than not, those who “break from the pack” and start their own organizations eventually grow up, have families, find new jobs, go broke, relocate, get tired, lose interest, or some combination of all these things, and their organizations die.
Consequently, natural athletes suffer from a lack of stability, overall dysfunction, constant bickering among the different organizations, petty politics, and the lack of exposure and continuity enjoyed by the drug element.
This is not to say that sometimes radical change is not necessary. Sometimes natural organizations spring up when existing organizations become too autocratic. Egos are usually involved too. Most natural organizations are singularly identified by the individuals who start them, and all of these individuals believe that theirs is the right path for the sport and everybody else is wrong. I was probably the same way when I started NANBA, but there were fewer natural organizations to compare ourselves to at the time, so I set my own course the best way I knew how. I know Jack O’Bleness did too, and others have probably done the same in the ensuing years.
Jack and I had similar goals and similar ideals when we started our respective organizations many years ago, but we each had different ways of doing things. Still, we compromised on what we didn’t agree on in the spirit of our common interest in natural bodybuilding, and it worked.
Today there are more natural bodybuilders and more natural organizations than ever before. Surely there must be a way for everyone – athletes and organizations alike – to work together to make natural bodybuilding the dominant division of bodybuilding instead of the other way around. Perhaps someday everything will be natural, and there will be no drugs in bodybuilding. Wishful thinking, I know, but it starts with unity.