JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

The Arnold

If you subscribe to Sports Illustrated, you’ll likely see my piece this week on the Arnold Sports Festival, an annual bodybuilding event that takes place in Columbus, Ohio.

The assignment was a writer’s dream: Spend a couple of days walking around this crazy, crazy, crazy expo and piece together 2,000 words about the adventure. I had a blast, as did Simon Bruty, the photographer who brilliantly captured the scene. To be brief: The expo was held in the downtown convention center. There were thousands of people crowded into the building, there to visit the booths set up by 700 vendors (of, mostly, fitness products—pills, bars, creams, equipment, etc.). Most of the folks working were either women with enormous breasts and bare midriffs or gimantic men in tank-tops with muscles atop muscles. The currency, clearly, was size. The bigger you were, the better you were. Period.

I had a blast. More than a blast. It reminded me of the Disney World parade, mixed with a Magic the Gathering convention, mixed with a Monster Truck show. The people were strange and odd and kooky, but also endearing. I met a 6-2 woman, Kathy Amazon, who was ripped and powerful and manly—and she loved it. I met dwarf wrestlers, Chuck Zito, WWE veterans, on and on and on.

The one thing, though, that clouds the experience is steroids and PEDs. Nobody—absolutely nobody—brings them up, but they’re absolutely, positively everywhere. I mean, it was beyond laughable, staring at some of these people, with muscles coming out of muscles. The whole event sort of revolves around the men’s and women’s bodybuilding championships—events that had me laughing with sham shame. The women were, well, gross. Unnaturally huge, unnaturally cut, unnaturally manly. I can’t even begin to list the chemicals that surely flow through their veins. The men were no better. To think the champion, Dexter Jackson, is clean calls for a suspension of belief so dramatic that, well, I’d like to sell you the George Washington Bridge and introduce you to my good friend and roommate, John Rocker. Over my time at the expo, I asked a few bodybuilders—anonymously—whether they thought Jackson and his peers were sans steroids and PED. Universally, the question was answered with laughter. Jackson isn’t merely large—he’s a mountain range of veins and muscles. He’s also 43, turning 44. Wait, here he is:

Again, it would be physically impossible for a clean 43-year-old man to look like this. Hell, it’d be physically impossible for a clean man of any age to look like this. I know it, Jackson surely knows it, certainly Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer, the two men behind the Arnold, know it. But, it appears, no one cares. No one. You have kids and teenagers dreaming of looking like Jackson; of having his build and bulk—and, meanwhile, it’s bullshit. Nonsense. A myth.

I covered baseball for many years. I saw Barry Bonds up close, and thought he was laughable. These guys look like they ate Barry Bonds. Then regurgitated him. Then ate him again.

I don’t think there’s an answer here, and maybe there shouldn’t be. I had the representatives of several body builders ask if I’d consider profiling their clients for SI or the Wall Street Journal or different places that hire me to write. I had to laugh. These guys are big and strong and powerful—but they’re not real athletes. Not even close.

If Dexter Jackson’s goal in life is to turn himself into a rock, hey, god bless.

But I can’t imagine it’ll be fun seeing him at 60.

If he makes it to 60.