Hucksters and Insecticide Women
There, secluded from the throngs of people and the ridiculous, over-the-top displays; sheltered from the off-duty strippers handing out samples; protected from the cacophony of at least a dozen rock songs competing for your ear drums, sat a gray-haired old man.
He looked Hispanic, maybe Polynesian, and he wore a faded, baggy tank top. His skin looked a little jaundiced, but maybe it was because of the harsh overhead lights that were designed to illuminate plumbing fixtures, garden supplies, or the wares of whatever convention was in town on any given weekend.
His arms still looked muscular but the average person on the street probably thought he was a gardener or landscaper who'd spent years pushing heavy wheelbarrows up the long cobble-stoned driveways of rich Gringos.
There was no line in front of his table. He had no products to sell or promote. Proudly displayed on the small table was a faded copy of the book, Pumping Iron, the cover of which portrayed the small, gray-haired man as he looked 35 years ago. He was there to sign autographs and hopefully, please-God-please, sell some pictures or mementos of his long-ago bodybuilding days.
Only there were few takers. Most didn't give Ed Corney a glance as they trundled towards the next stand, weighted down by bulging bags filled with supplements and brochures.
They didn't know who he was and they didn't care. They had no idea that, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbo, Ed Corney had done more to popularize bodybuilding than practically anyone. Sure, Ed Corney had never gone beyond winning the 1972 Mr. Universe contest in Baghdad, Iraq, but it was him on the cover of that book, not Arnold, not Franco, not anyone else.
It was his look, that arms-over-his-head pose that became iconic and inspired tens of thousands to muster up the courage to take a deep breath, walk into a local gym, and pick up a rusty dumbbell.
It was his posing, widely regarded as the best ever in the sport, that inspired thousands more to even think about competing in a local contest.
I motioned towards the conventioneers with my arm and asked him how it felt to realize that half the crowd didn't know who he was, what part he played. (I was being charitable when I said half the crowd didn't know who he was; nine-tenths would probably have been more accurate.)
He sneered just a little bit, pointed towards his chest with his thumb and said, "I know the part I played."
I didn't bother to introduce myself. He probably wouldn't have known my name anyhow, but I also know the small part I played in all this and I'm not sure how I feel about it.
I didn't get involved in the business of bodybuilding until the early 1990's, but those were bodybuilding's definitive years, the years where it reached the height of its popularity, the height of its kink, the height of its wretched excess.
The 70's with Arnold, Franco, Ed, and others might have been "The Golden Age," but back then true bodybuilders were still relatively rare. The general public regarded them as a gay subculture restricted to urban pockets in Los Angeles and parts of New Jersey.
The Pumping Iron book, followed by the Pumping Iron movie, subsequently made the sport more mainstream, but it wasn't until the 90's that bodybuilding hit its apogee, thanks largely to action heroes like Sly, Van Damme, and of course, Arnold.
While the supplement business — pretty much just Weider — had been there for a long time, there was never any lone superstar product that racked up big numbers or created any kind of buzz. The introduction of the first true protein powder/meal replacement, MET-Rx, changed that.
Thanks solely to the sales of MET-Rx, Bill Phillip's Natural Supplement Association eventually pulled in between 5 and 6 million a month, with a customer base of only about 50 or 60 thousand people.
When Phillips and MET-Rx's creator, Dr. Scott Connelly, divorced their business association, Phillips started EAS, which launched a trio of heavy-hitter products: creatine, a creatine/sugar mix named Phosphagen, and a MET-Rx knock-off called Myoplex.
In addition to helping create or market those products, I ran Muscle Media 2000, the magazine that promoted/popularized those supplements.
MM2K, with its unique blend of science and humor and its candid approach to steroids, was second in newsstand sales only to Muscle and Fitness, but Muscle Media had no equal in fanatical following or the sheer buzz it created.
Consequently, monthly sales of EAS products reached a peak of about 11 million dollars a month in 1995.
Entrepreneurs everywhere took notice. Up to that point, supplement companies were largely run by ex-steroid dealers as it seemed — given the hucksterism rampant in the supplement biz — to be a natural transition. But soon everyone with a buck, a bucket of powder, and a dream wanted to replicate the success we'd had with EAS and Muscle Media 2000.
As such, the supplement Expos associated with the Arnold Classic and the Mr. Olympia started to look different. Whereas they'd initially been relatively smallish events, mostly populated by bodybuilding stars trying to sell their videos or training programs, they soon became glitzy whore-fests filled with hundreds of fledgling supplement companies, most of which would be out of business by the time the next convention rolled around.
Today's Expo, however, is much, much different from the Expos of even a few years ago. The most striking difference was the relative scarcity of 'roid heads. The audience looked relatively normal. It's clear that a good number of them have never lifted a weight in their lives, and I'm not being snarky here. There were overweight parents walking around, middle-aged women in blue stretch pants who'd just done the weekly shopping at Wal-Mart.
There were big kids, lit-tle kids, kids who climb on rocks, fat kids, skin-ny kids, ev-en kids with chicken pox.
If you passed out a few dozen pairs of fake Vulcan ears, it might have passed for a Star Trek convention.
I suspect it's partly because of the relatively recent demonization and increased legislation regarding steroids; combined with the fact that hardcore bodybuilding just isn't that popular anymore.
Along those ends, I hardly saw any female bodybuilders. There were, however, hundreds of fairly incredible Figure Athletes. I swear, if you gave me a choice between going to my favorite Vegas strip club, The Spearmint Rhino, and the Expo, I'd have to think about it a little. Granted, most of the girls at the Expo aren't quite as bare-breasted and you have to tip them more to convince them to dry hump you, but it's a tough decision nonetheless.
One new species is a female hybrid of sorts that's half bodybuilder, half Figure Athlete. These women are the byproduct of a penchant for the insecticide/cutting drug DNP. They're not steroidal but they're devoid of any fat, giving the appearance of beef jerky on heels. The telltale sign, though, is their drawn-in faces with hugely pronounced naso-labial folds and leather patchwork skin.
And then there are the vendors. They remind me of a giant nest of hatchlings, necks straining as they vie for the mother's attention.
I counted approximately 20 new protein powders and 20 new protein bars, protein nuggets, protein chunks, or protein turds. MET-Rx had a 400-calorie bar that I swear fell off the façade of Wrigley Field. It was even covered with tiny little cocktail pretzels! Pretzels!
In addition to the protein products, there were approximately 15 new nitric oxide products and about 10 new fat burners, in addition to scores of miscellaneous things that defy description. Gaspari Nutrition alone had a number of products that, for the life of me, I couldn't identify. I tried to read the labels, but they were printed in fuzzy, two-point print.
I could have sworn one read, "Made from the remains of dead gay babies," but like I said, the print was awfully small.
What's sad about a lot of these products is that the samples usually come in two-pill packages. What in God's name is someone going to experience with a measly two pills? Unless it's methamphetamine, pure-grade Viagra, Vampire Blood, or anything else that gives me the dick of death, two pills of anything aren't going to make me a customer.
It actually makes me kind of sad. I know for a fact that a lot of these companies saved up all year, planned all year, to make their debut at the Olympia Expo.
If we can just hold out until the Expo, maybe mortgage the house, we'll be okay.
But most won't be. Regardless of the quality of their product, it's impossible to stand out among hundreds of vendors, each with a bigger sign, a bigger breasted spokes model.
The average attendee walks back to his hotel room, empties his two or three Halloween bags onto his bed, indulges in a protein bar feast, vomits, masturbates onto the brochure picturing Jamie Eason, and then throws everything else away.
At least I know that's what I did.
Hell, the restrictions on the number of bags you can check at most airlines is incentive enough to trash all the swag from the Expo.
My favorite example of folly is from the Stemulite people. One of their booth babes gave me a nice little ballpoint pen, but I still don't really know what their product does, especially since the pen reads:
Stemulite: Decrease Body Fat, Recovery, and Soreness.
Two cents and a coupon for 10% off your first Stemulite purchase if you can tell me what's wrong with that claim.
There was an impressive line outside one of the booths and I asked one guy in a Powerhouse Gym shirt why he was standing in line. He said, "I don't know, but they must be giving something away."
All of this reminded me why Biotest normally doesn't do these Expos. Unless you're a Figure Athlete selling photos of yourself, these things are generally a bust. The booths are temporary monuments to the entrepreneurs' egos.
Still, I'm glad I went. The Expo reminded me of why we do things the way we do. It reminded me that there's still room for a premium brand like Biotest, even if hardcore bodybuilding and muscle-building in general has seen better days.
In an age of shortcuts, hucksterism, and cheap ingredients, there are plenty of consumers who still care about quality. I tell you, if we can't come out on top of this generally sorry industry, there's something terribly, terribly wrong.
And if we don't, I noticed an empty space next to Ed Corney's booth.
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