The History of Bodybuilding - Part 1
By Kerry Dulin
Perhaps the earliest exhibition of human musculature for esthetic purposes dates back to the ancient Greeks who believed that the human body could reflect the beauty of the gods. This belief was evidenced in Greek statuary in which the perfection of the gods was represented through their ideal physical proportions. The ideal of physical esthetics was artistically maintained through sculptor and paintings of the Renaissance in a style known as Greek Revivalism.
While the above represents that artistic expressions of physical estheticism, the tangible expression which today became competitive bodybuilding owes its origins to Eugen Sandow (1867- 1925). Sandow first gained notoriety after winning the “Worlds Strongest Man” competition in England in 1889.Capitalizing on his new fame, Sandow toured various parts of the globe performing acts of strength which included bending steel rods, lifting heavy weights and wrestling a lion. Sandow latter introduced an element to his performances in which he would enter a glass booth and perform a series of muscular poses which were choreographed to music. After observing one of Sandow’s performances in the glass booth, prominent promoter of the time, Florenz Ziegfeld, was so impressed that he signed Sandow to perform for 10 weeks at the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893 followed by a four year contract. In return for his investment, Ziegfeld netted a quarter of a million dollars from Sandow’s appearances throughout the world.
Due to the popularity of Sandow’s performance in the glass booth, Ziegfeld changed his promotion strategy from “The Worlds Strongest Man”, to “The Most Perfectly Developed Man in the World” (Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 October 1902). Mimicking early Greek art, one point in Sandow’s performance included Sandow’s naked physique, concealed only by an imitation fig leaf, dusted with white powder looking every bit a living Greek statue.
As Sandow’s celebrity grew, he expanded his influence into publishing as he launched his magazine “Physical Culture” (latter known as “Sandow’s Physical Culture”) in 1898. Largely due to the success of his magazine, as well as subsequent books on physical culture and ultimately a book titled “Body Buliding, Man in the Making” (Gale & Polden, London, 1904), rival magazines began to appear. By the time of his death in 1925, Sandow had pioneered much of what has become modern bodybuilding including the dynamics which have made it a profitable enterprise.
In 1901, after three years of planning, Sandow held a competitive physique event which was billed as “The Great Competition”. Preparation for “The Great Competition” began in July of 1898 as the first issue of Sandow’s magazine announced a contest that would be open to all Sandow students in the United Kingdom. The purpose of this event was to promote the spread of physical culture and to “afford encouragement to those who are anxious to perfect their physiques”. The prize was a tempting 1,000 guineas (over $5,000 at the time). In addition to the cash prize, the man judged to have the most perfectly developed physique would be awarded a gold statuette of Sandow himself. In preparation for the event, Sandow organized a series of local bodybuilding competitions, the winners of which became eligible to compete in The Great Competition.
Due to the subjective nature of esthetic critique, Sandow developed a system of judging which considered general development, equality or balance of development, the condition and tone of the tissues, the general health, and finally, the condition of the skin. The day of “The Great Competition”, Saturday, September 14, 1901, had been publicized in notices which appeared throughout London. A large building which had been constructed as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s late husband was chosen for the contest site. In spite of the size of the venue, the building was not able to contain the crowds which had flocked to witness this spectacle. Though the seating capacity of this enormous hall was 15,000, hundreds of eager spectators had to be turned away at the door.
As the show began promptly at 8:00pm, Sandow treated the crowd to a masterfully orchestrated series of music and athletic events. From gymnastics to wrestling and sheer acts of strength, Sandow wanted to ensure that no one would be disappointed. Finally, the band played a composition by Sandow himself titled “March of the Athletes”, during which 60 well developed men took the stage. Regional dignitaries had been selected to act as judges for the event, among which was Sir Author Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. After carefully inspecting the ranks of well muscled contenders, 12 finalists were chosen, the winner of which would not be chosen until after an intermission and a performance by Sandow for which he was rewarded a 5 minute ovation. With the final judging, each of the remaining 12 men stood on a pedestal while performing a series of compulsory poses specifically designed to display the various muscle groups. It was said that Sandow “fairly went on his hands and knees to examine the neither limbs of men” (Sandow Museum.com).
After several anxious minuets, three winners were selected. Bronze and silver medals were awarded to the third and second place winners and finally, as the band played “See the Conquering Hero”, William L. Murray was award the golden Sandow statue as the best developed man in Great Britain and Ireland. All proceeds from the event were donated to the “Mansion House Transvaal War Relief Fund” (Sandow Museum.com), and the sport of bodybuilding had been born.
all images from the Sandow Museum