Wrote this for the Examiner:
When it comes to achieving your sporting dreams, there are no shortcuts. Except obviously there are – steroids. Aside from big name busts like Lance Armstrong, there are more and more whispers of big names across the sporting world using pharmaceutical enhancements to gain an edge on a competitor. But of all the sports tarnished by steroid abuse, bodybuilding is one that seems synonymous with the practise. However, there are those within the scene who utterly reject any medical shortcuts – to an almost forensic degree.
The World Natural Bodybuilding Federation was founded in the USA back in 1990 with the aim of offering those who wanted to take part in bodybuilding in the most healthy way possible a platform for their achievements. From humble beginnings it has become a worldwide phenomenon. The Irish wing of the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation held their annual competition in the Everyman Theatre last Saturday. There among the gold gilt Victorian splendour, competitors, clad in the tiniest scraps of in velvet and sequined cloth, flexed and posed as they showed the judging panel just how perfectly defined their bodies were, while backstage there were drug tests and polygraph tests to make sure that nobody had been tempted to use steroids or growth hormones.
One of the organisers, Mark Lee, a champion natural bodybuilder, explained the motivation for this purist approach: “Bodybuilding has a stigma associated with it which is what we are trying to break.
“But you will have some people regardless who will turn up and try. We would love to test everybody who takes part, but it costs a lot of money, the testing alone costs up to 2,000 euro per show, so we need to get a lot of bums on seats here.
“You won’t see our shows as heavily attended as the other shows in terms of competitors – we have about 70, normal competitions would have about 140, because we have such guidelines and rules, people just won’t come. But we don’t want them obviously if they are using steroids.”
The Natural Bodybuilding Federation of Ireland has seen competitors start out with them and then move on to pharmaceutical enhancements – but the NBFI does not tolerate anyone who has used steroids previously in their life: “You have guys who would have gone natural who then would have moved on to other things. There are other associations out there that have a seven year rule – whereby they allow you to compete naturally in their association if you have been off any banned substances for seven years, but ours is a lifetime rule. So if you ever in your life had any steroids, you can’t take part in our events.
“For us it’s a lifestyle – our people want to eat healthy and train healthy.”
They train healthy – and they train even harder because of it. There are no shortcuts here. Take Aleksander Grynia, a 23 year old who travelled down from Wicklow for the contest. His muscle mass isn’t just for show – he works making industrial equipment and needs to be as a strong as possible. He works a nine to five job, then trains from six to nine every evening and more at the weekends. In the week leading up to the event he doubled down on his efforts, cut down on his food intake, and took bronze in the under-24 category.
From the outside, bodybuilding seems like an odd pursuit. There is a sense amongst some that improving the physique to this degree means the intellect will atrophy. But then you talk to a bodybuilder and realise that their understanding of the human body is far greater than the average person. They are like mechanics, fine tuning and boosting muscle and sinew until they achieve perfection – this is the body as machine. Unlike team sports, it is often a solitary affair, as they strive to be the best they can be: Rise before dawn, protein shake and gym. Everything is controlled, from the diet to the routines to the reps. The self discipline is extraordinary, but once people get the taste for it, it becomes a vocation.
The show itself is split into categories – based on age, height, weight and gender. Competitors are asked to do a series of poses to show certain muscles or muscle groups, and this is where genetics come into play. While some people build muscle more easily than others, some people are simply blessed with, for example, sizeable lats, so when competing they can fan them out like the Archangel Gabriel spreading his wings.
Then there are posedowns, where competitors have to freestyle a variety of poses, showing their best assets to the crowds – you find yourself holding your breath as they flex and strain to get each muscle to pop. The brown colouring they use on their skin enhances this effect – the darker colour shows the contours. But this is about something deeper than skin – it is the human form stripped bare, all muscle and sinew as visible as it would be in a medical textbook.
One person who has made a career out of capturing muscle and sinew is Shaun Barry. From Carlow, the young photographer travels the country covering bodybuilding events, and his moody monochrome portraits have become highly desirable, as they transform their subjects into classical godlike figures. Having got into photography five years ago, in the last three to four years he started to focus on fitness photography and found his niche, although as he points out there are a few more people getting into it now – to this end he pays to secure image rights on events. There is a whole micro-economy around fitness – gyms, shops selling supplements, home training equipment, clothing. As our working and home lives become more sedentary, simple things like going to the gym are becoming part of our lives, and a dedication to feeling and looking your best is less of a prideful sin and more a medical necessity.
The Everyman was packed with families of competitors – from grandparents to infant children. Conor McCarthy travelled with his parents and girlfriend from Mullingar and was beaming with pride in the lobby. Only two years after starting bodybuilding, he took first place in the Men’s Physique (Tall) category. While he has youth (and height) on his side, many of the competitor are in their 40s and 50s. All want to be the best, but in the small scene of the national circuit, they all know each other well. They all want to win, but they all have the same aim – to win clean. In a world that seems to be facing an epidemic of shady practises across all sports, the NRBI have shown that the most powerful muscle of all is the mind.