The Showby Xanthe Hunt / 15.10.2013
It is a carnival. The mob throbs steadily outside, the ticket-checkers slowing the pulse of people entering the hall. They dribble down the arterial rows and take their seats: stocky men in oversized hoods, once-beautiful middle-aged women, their faded jeans resisting the softness of age, united by the scent of spectacle.
Backstage, hulking men stand, nipples sharp in the cold, their tiny speedos wedged between Herculean buttocks. Tim, a 40-year-old shop owner, stands with his feet spread in a semi-split. At his feet, his wife, Suzette, kneels, a tiny paint-roller in her hand, and paints mandarin-orange spray tan onto his white inner thigh.
“The spray lady always misses these,” she says, patting her husband’s newly-waxed “bikini-line”.
You cannot see his inner-thigh as he walks: a rocky tundra of hamstring, quadriceps and gluteal muscle gets in the way. But Suzette dutifully applies the sticky lacquer because you do not take chances at Western Province Bodybuilding Provincials. And a white spot is a chance.
“First line-up ready in two!” yells a portly orderly from the front of backstage. His jowls wobble fatly as he eyes the ladies’ bathroom door which reveals its giggling, sequined contents with every gust of wind.
Mike is on the floor, staring intently at the gargoylian Tim. He looks up, his crystalline eyes dulled with dehydration. He rolls onto his shins, then pauses to catch his breath. Like an old mare lumbering stiffly to her feet, Ronny rocks backwards, onto his haunches. Again, he rests: one, two – he shuts his eyes – and – three. He squeezes the last ounce of energy from his straining limbs, stands, and walks limply into line. He does not look back.
Two weeks earlier Tim is moody, Piet is disappointed, and Mike – as always – is hungry.
“I wanted to be a bodybuilder since I was small,” says Piet, through a mouthful of biltong.
Perched as he is now on a bar stool in the nutrition shop where he works, it is hard to imagine that Piet Pistorius was ever small. Takkie-heels hiked up onto the stool’s cross-bar, and arms folded so that biceps fight for space with thickly-veined forearms, he is anything but small.
Recently retired from his job as a personal trainer at Perfect Health Gym, parted from his girlfriend of two years, and “broke”, Piet has had a bad year. As a result, he will not be competing at the forthcoming Bodybuilding Provincial Championships.
“No focus, no fitness,” he says, his catch-phrase taking a sing-song tone from constant repetition.
Drawn to bodybuilding when he failed to get signed by a rugby club after two years out of school, Piet is devastated about missing his first competition since he began training two years ago.
“It’s sh-,” he stops mid-word.
The shop’s owner, Tim, marches into the shop. His buttocks vie for attention, popping up in turns as he makes a beeline for the store-room.
On cue to excuse his bosses’ curt manner, Piet explains that Tim – in preparation for the coming competition – is on “50 grams of carb a day”: the 107 kilogram Pitbull-esque man has got diet blues.
Tim’s wife, Suzette, a petite brunette with wide eyes and a languid tone, leans on the counter. She rolls her eyes towards the storeroom, “Pre-show, when they can’t eat, they’re grumpy as hell!”
“Pre-show is definitely tough,” says GT, who co-owns the shops with Tim.
“It’s isolating: you train alone, you’re hungry, you’re tired,” he says.
Piet nods gravely; “My training partner couldn’t keep up, so I had to cut him loose,” he explains, his eyes momentarily losing their elfin sparkle.
“But you have to make sacrifices, and when you feel the pump you are in your own world, and there isn’t room for a training partner then.”
Mike Moore, the 23-year-old ex-training partner in question, does not take Piet’s rejection personally: Mike is a gentle giant. Sitting at the coffee counter at Perfect Health gym where he works, Mike straightens his back so that his pectoral muscles warp the logo on his shirt. His intimidating visage shatters the second that he smiles.
“Piet’s a nice guy, we just train and compete different, that’s all,” he says, his slight lisp softening the already gentle words.
Mike, who also took up bodybuilding after a promising rugby career failed to come to fruition, has recently changed competition category from ‘classic’ to ‘athletic physique’.
“The last competition didn’t go well. I was too scared. I was too small. It was horrible,” he says, his soft voice fading as he hangs his head.
Piet and Tim, shorter and of stockier build, can compete in classic, the division for Schwartzenegger-shaped men of all weights. Classic bodybuilding hails from the earliest seeds of the discipline. The progenitor of modern bodybuilding, a German by the name of Friedric Muller, is still hailed as the epitome of the classic shape: rounded musculature, minimal fat, maximum size.
Born in 1867, the German colossus rose to fame as “Eugene Sandow”, a strongman with a travelling circus. By the 1890s Sandow had achieved such fame in Europe that he was invited to perform in the United States. But what made Sandow different from other strongmen of his time was that his drawing-card was not strength alone: Snowden looked like Adonis.
He lived to judge the world’s first bodybuilding event, “The Great Competition”, alongside unlikely co-judge, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, before passing away in 1925. But Snowden remains an iconic figure in bodybuilding culture as he is quite literally immortalised in the Mr. Olympia statuette, the brawny Oscar of the muscle industry.
“Everyone wants to compete classic, but not everyone can. See, the classes are about shape, not size,” explains Mike.
“So for me,” he says shrugging, “I just got to do physique instead.”
At 1.98 meters it is not hard to understand why Mike has chosen to pursue ‘athletic physique’ – the pretty-boy Men’s Health look as it is somewhat derisively known among competitors. At his height, achieving the Popeye-type bulk of a classic man takes a lot longer than on a smaller frame.
“Until I get enough muscle maturity, I can’t do classic,” he says, eyeing the mountainous thighs of his new training partner, Jaco, who – at 29 – is reaching prime bodybuilding age.
Muscle maturity is the promise of the future for young body-builders like Mike. Like a tree lays down rings, so muscle fibres build in layers; so, the longer you train the more muscular you become.
Mike and Jaco are both competing in the coming competition, now a mere ten days away. Jaco, though, is a ‘superheavyweight classic’: 111 kilograms of protein-hungry brawn.
He dwarfs Mike as he pats him on the shoulder as he walks to the staff kitchenette, his stride encumbered by the Christmas-ham upper-legs. He deliberately manoeuvres one thigh around and in front of the next.
“They actually call him quadzilla,” laughs Mike.
Jaco emerges with a Tupperware of a porridge-like substance which he then commences to ladle into his mouth absent-mindedly.
“Its egg whites,” explains, his voice transformed into that of a businessman discussing budget cuts: the tone of sad necessity.
In preparation for a competition, participants must diet-down. For Jaco this means meals of 80 percent protein and 20 percent carbohydrates. For class-changing Mike, who was too small for classic, but still too big for athletic physique, the eight weeks pre-show have heralded a far harsher regime.
To break down enough muscle to compete as ‘athletic’ – Men’s Health look – for the last two months Mike’s diet has been paleolithic in content, and, he admits, “pathetic” in size.
“Mornings is 100 grams of cooked oats,” he says, indicating the portion with half of his gargantuan palm. Despite his hand’s size, the oats portion is minute.
“For the rest of the day I have five meals: either egg white, lean mince or ostrich – 250 grams of protein per meal,” he says, holding the palm out flat, “and then a whole lot of cucumber.”
The cucumber, he explains, is but one of the tricks Jaco taught him to get competition-ready.
“Jaco taught me a lot, he really mentored me,” says Mike, grinning broadly at Jaco. The latter is not a man of many words. Nonetheless, his lips crinkle into a lop-sided grin in response.
“He taught me not to let guys get into my head backstage. If they get into your head – if you get spooked by their size – it’s game over. You can’t win if another guy’s in your head.”
“And he’s my friend,” smiles Mike.
He admits that he has found his new passion isolates him from friends who are not in the industry: when they braai or go drinking, he usually declines.
“I could go, and just not eat or drink,” he says, biting his lip and frowning, “but it’s too hard. I’ve worked too hard. I’d hate myself if I cheated now. Better not to take a chance, hey?”
“Yes, I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m thirsty. But when you’re on that stage,” he pauses, an ecstatic smile spreading across his large, open face.
“It’s the best feeling in the world.”
The main hall of Cape Peninsula University of Technology is a writhing mass of manufactured testosterone.
Wives and girlfriends cheer with tan-stained hands that have only recently left the skin of their men. The not-yet-but-nearly girlfriends, uninitiated into the gritty back-stage world, anxiously click their immaculately French-manicured nails on their seat.
One by one the line-ups emerge, their spray-and-cook shine glinting in the light of the hall.
They strut and strain and pose. They flex, force a smile – give up on it – and grimace. They have not drunk water since Friday, and that was a mere 500 millilitres. But the glare of eleven thickly-cheeked judges stiffens failing limbs and stills a quivering pose.
They have worked hard, trained hard, injected and eaten.
They have stopped eating, stopped drinking, sprayed and smiled.
It is all over in three minutes for each contestant: a punch-drunken blur of flashing lights and fame. Mike poses half-heartedly, his face contorted in a half-crying smile.
Jaco stirs from his seat.
“I’m going to him,” he says softly as he heads for backstage.
“I think they got in his head.”
* This article also appears in The Agenda Press