Sunday, June 3, 2007

Agony and ecstasy

Of all the bodies in the world, almost no-body you know would be able to distinguish a Reg Park from a Central, Hyde or any other park, and that really is tragic. For of all the billions of bodies that walk the world and the billions more that now rest in peace, Reg’s was once the best. Reg Park, a British born body builder, who played Hercules in a couple of forgettable movies, is one of the greatest physique artistes of all time, who had a physique that looked like it had been hewn out of granite. Reg was the inspiration for the man responsible for attracting millions, in bills and bodies to the iron game – a man who features in the list of TIME’s 100 most influential people, the sitting governor of California and the only Republican with a soul – Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the gubernator doesn’t quite cut it with my wife.

As a teenager, after giving my genes more than their fair share of time and faith, I got sick of waiting for the promised surge of post pubescent hormones that seemed to have been hijacked by the neighbour’s daughter and entered a local gymnasium instead. I went in looking like Kate Moss, only thinner, and uglier (I learnt that after the epiphany that is marriage, one realizes that there are only three kinds of women – ones that you are related to, those that you are married to and the decidedly ugly rest of womankind – isn’t that right, hon?) and emerged a few magical months later looking like a fair imitation of Michelangelo’s David. OK, ok! Perhaps it was more like the figure across the Madonna’s lap in the Pieta (and I mean no disrespect, Holy Father!), but hey, at least it’s a start. Compared to Kate Moss, anything is a start. The fact that women my age, who often took pity on me and half considered picking up and offering the crumbs that they had just thrown to the canteen dog in school if they saw me, treated me as a near equal, was a victory in itself. Armed thus with a couple of second hand body building magazines and new found manhood, I accosted a kind, angelic woman -the only one who’d give me more than just the time of day or crumbs from the dog (and is now paying for all that kindness by standing up to the challenges that come with becoming the newest member of the Banerji household) with a poster of the Austrian Oak’s rendition of a ‘most muscular’. ‘That’s how I’m going to look’, I told her as I unraveled the masterpiece in black and white. She almost threw up and since she was quite used to me, the offending party had to be Arnie. Then and there, I folded up my Mr. Olympia dreams. Like the millions who enter the iron temple seeking physiological salvation and then turn reluctant heretics, I too turned to tamer pursuits, like picking up the TV remote instead of vein popping poundage for instance.

The truth however is that iron game made a man out of me. It was like being bitten by a radioactive spider and though protracted, the transformation was almost as spectacular. It set me up for other, more esoteric, enriching pursuits but undeniably, the dumbbells and barbells added steel to my soul. And the transformation was as much within as without. As you see your sweat and toil in the gym being rewarded by tangible gains in strength, shape and size, the surge of testosterone and endorphins is matched by an even greater surge in self belief. The notion that one can influence one’s destiny is embedded into the psyche forever. Some of the greatest names in the sport are buried under layers of anonymity with the freakier stars of today (some like Ronnie Coleman weigh in excess of 300lbs while under six feet and possess the physical grace of a pachyderm on two legs in heels on an ice floe) alienating weight room enthusiasts and turning the majority off this great sport with their grotesque, overblown proportions. But that shouldn’t take away from the premise and potential of body-sculpting. Every sport needs to evolve and unfortunately, for a sport that combines the aesthetics of visual and performing arts with monastic martial vigour, the winds of trends blew it in the direction of a debilitating by-product – size. Debilitating not just for the aesthetics those artistic marvels like Frank Zane and Steeve Reeves defined the sport with, but also for the athletes who, in their quest for size, became victims of protein and steroid abuse. Champions like Mohammed Benaziza, Andreas Munzer, Tom Prince and Mike Matarazzo have all suffered irreversible organ damage, with the first two succumbing to their excesses.

But for every Matarazzo who suffers, there is a Dennis Newman who survives leukemia and attributes his victory over the disease to his bodybuilding lifestyle. Of even greater relevance to us are the testimonies of people like Bill Pearl, Roy Hilligan and Jack La Lanne who are training with iron even in the golden twilight of their lives and have a physique with strength and vitality to match that’ll put most people less than half their age to shame. And you’re never old to start, as the Harvard Medical School testifies that even ‘frail octogenarians’ derive tremendous physiological benefits even if they start strength training at an advanced age. James Dean once quoted from Knock On Any Door that he’d like to ‘die young’ and ‘have a beautiful corpse’. It’s a comforting thought that once you’re in the iron game, it doesn’t matter how old you are, for you know you’ll always have a beautiful corpse.

The Lanne to Elysium

Jack La Lanne is 92. He spends most time speaking to people half his age about the joys of a fitness lifestyle and then proceeds to show them ‘the way’. Born to French immigrant parents Jennie Garaig and John La Lanne in San Francisco, California, on 26th September 1914, he transformed himself from a sugar and junk -food addict into a muscular TV fitness star. Inspired by nutritionist Paul Bragg’s talk, 15 year old Jack discovered the world of diets and dumbells and become one of the fittest men of his generation. Jack often celebrates his birthdays, including his 70th, by swimming across bays, channels and harbours - handcuffed and shackled - while towing 70 fully laden boats on ocassions.

Today with wife Elaine, he teaches his fitness systems to athletes, bodybuilders, disabled geriatrics and the general public worldwide. Awarded the Horatio Alger Award from the Association of Distinguished Americans, he even has a star in his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While the maxim ‘bigger is better’ is driving professional bodybuilding, the real essence and value of the bodybuilding lifestyle shines through the example of Jack La Lanne who claims he can’t afford to die, because “it’ll ruin my image”.


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