The "Don't Try Too Hard" Bodybuilding Contest

By Bill Dobbins

Note: This report represents the opinions of the author
and not necessarily those of Flex Magazine or any other publication.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse - after suffering through a contest that wasn't really a contest - the IFBB Ms. International 2000 - it turns out that two of the competitors were disqualified for diuretic use: Iris Kyle and Tazzie Columb. Why did these women fail this drug test when they had passed so many others? Perhaps the imposition of the new IFBB "guidelines" had something to do with it.

Why was this a contest that was not really a contest? Prior to the year 2000 Ms. International Contest, held February 25 in Columbus, Ohio, as part of Arnold Schwarzenegger's weekend of events, the female bodybuilding competitors were told by the IFBB - in writing - not to show up too big or too muscular. Since bodybuilding is all about coming in as big and muscular as possible, consistent with the traditional aesthetic standards of physique competition, this is the same as tellling the female bodybuilders not to do their best. Therefore, this year's Ms. International was not a sports competition, but more of a beauty contest involving some very unusual bodies and an abitrary, politically-imposed set of judging standards.

Of course, many people do not accept bodybuilding as a sport at all (although the International Olympic Committee has given bodybuilding provision recognition). But however you define "sport" your definition has to include having the athletes involved trying their hardest, doing their best, pushing the limits of their physical ability. This aspect of "ultimate achievement" is what makes sport so exciting and inspirational. But this is exactly what was missing from the Ms. International 2000.

I have dealt with why this has happened in great detail elsewhere on this website (to read about why female pro female bodybuilding is being subjected to these pressure by the IFBB and why guidelines such as used in this contest are totally inappropriate to any bodybuilding competition, see the articles on the Cool Free Stuff page). But the result of this kind of interference could easily have been predicted in advance: women who came in smaller and smoother tended to be rewarded, and those showing up harder and more muscular were penalized.

But if the standards were lowered, and presumably the competitors were required to do less, to not work as hard or achieve as much, why would experienced pro women fail a simple diuretic test? One answer is they don't know how to do less - they are champion athletes. And it is not easy to suddenly get "small" and less muscular after 10 years or more of working incredibly hard to build the best, most muscular physique possible. How do you suddenly "get small" just because some officials have decided that it is not appropriate for female bodybuilders to achieve to the same high standards as do their male counterparts? Well, one way to to try to "dry out," to lose as much water as possible. If you can't actually get rid of hard-won muscles, you can shrink them and flatten them out with dehydration. And if you don't know how to do this and still pass a drug test, you end up disqualified like Iris Kyle and Tazzie Columb.

In other words, don't blame the competitors - blame the IFBB for imposing artificial and inappropriate restrictions on the women bodybuilders in the contest.

One rule change that DID work was the introduction of weight classes. All amateur bodybuilding is conducted using weight classes, and historically all bodybuilding contests have used either weight or height classes. After all, bodybuilding is an event in which larger body size is an advantage, just as it is in sports like boxing or wrestling. Creating categories that allow for athletes of similar size to compete against each other tends to reward quality of development rather than sheer size. It was only in 1980 that pro bodybuilders began competing in only one category, and back then the difference in body mass between the biggest and the smallest was not nearly what it tends to be today. Even though the range in size among the women is not as great as it is with the men, competing in weight classes allows a lightweight female amateur to enter a pro show without worrying about being totally dwarfed by a Kim Chizevsky or Lesa Lewis. This should in future motivate more women to enter the pro ranks and make the contests that much more exciting for the audience.

However, there may not actually be any pro competition in the future, at least not under the auspices of the IFBB, if the federation continues to insist on rules that prevent bodybuilding for women from being a sport at all. Even if the audience accepts this kind of contest, it's hard to see how the competitors can. How can you prepare for a show if you don't know exactly on what basis you are being judged - or if you are being told to be good, but not TOO good and you have to keep making arbitrary choices in your preparation based on what you think the judges might be looking for rather than simply trying to be the best bodybuilding you can?

For example, Vickie Gates won the Ms. International 2000 heavyweight class and overall titles. But this was not the Vickie Gates we saw at the Ms. Olympia. This was the Vickie Gates from several years ago, who lacked hardness and muscularity and whose legs were not developed enough in proportion to her upper body. After all those years of dilligent work and constant improvement, Vickie was forced to show up on stage looking far inferior than she did at the Ms. O. or at last year's Ms. International. In other words, these "guidelines" did not produce a different kind of bodybuilder, but simply an inferior one.

Certainly, if the women had been permitted to be at their best, Vickie would likely have won the show, so the judging was not a complete travesty. But it is also true that Iris Kyle looked fantastic by traditional and accepted - meaning REAL - bodybuilding standards and would have won the contest if it had been using actual bodybuilding rules. (But in that case, Vickie would also have looked much, much better, so...well, you get it.)

Some of the women obviously didn't know what to do. Lesa Lewis, who usually comes in too soft for competition, was even softer and finished out of the top six. Denise Masino also looked soft, but she hadn't lost any significant amount of size. Vickie Gates had figured out she had to be small and not just less hard in order to succeed, but Lesa and Denise had not gotten rid of sufficient mass to please the judges with their new guidelines.

Brenda Raganot won the lightweight class. Brenda is a recent pro with a terrific physique and a lot of potential. She evidently satisfied the "look more like an amateur" aspect of the guidelines and was given the lightweight title. But it was fairly clear that, again by any normal standard of bodybuilding, Andrulla Blanchette deserved the class victory. She is just several years ahead of Brenda in time and development. But Brenda is excellent and may well be on her way to a number of deserving pro titles. The problem is the current guidelines will likely discourage her from trying hard enough to achieve her full potential. This has happened to women in the past (Marjo Selin, for example) and it can be disasterous. The attempts to stifle actual bodybuilding development with the women always run their course, and when normal standards are reinstated the women who have "held back" usually are too far behind to catch up.

Overall, the contest was not so much dramatically awful as was the Ms. International in 1992, conducted under similar rules, where the judging was so bizarre Arnold himself came out and told the audiences that the judges sucked. It was more...sad. It was disheartening to see the women subjected to strictures that go against the nature of sport, and which constitute obvious gender descrimination. Much of this comes about with the intention of making bodybuilding more "acceptable" to the Olympics, but it is hard to see how this could help, given the very strong policies of gender equality and support for women's athletics that are a part of today's Olympic movement. However, women's bodybuilding will survive one way or the other. It is a "fundamental" sport, something basic that a certain percentage of athletic females will feel compelled to participate in, no matter the opposition.

And, of course, there is the Internet, which bypasses federations and committees and physique magazines. Women's physique is alive and well and doing fine on the Web. If the "powers that be" don't realize this, it will end up being their loss. Perhaps in a quite literal and financially significant sense.


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