Beautiful beasts

BERLIN BEAUTY: Body-building has always been met with a suspicious eye, at least from the general public. But for the people involved in the sport, it's an art form. Are body builders beautiful beasts or stigmatised sculptors? Or both?

Image for Beautiful beasts
Photo by Lindsay Isola

Part thoroughbred cat show, part monster truck rally, bodybuilding fascinates. Hundreds of years ago bodybuilders would have been the kings of the village, the protectors, but now they’re often stigmatised as freaks, drugged perverts and boneheads.

The search for beauty has driven many through the door of Sam Harris’ Nutri Sport Shop on Karl-Marx-Straße, the initial drip-drip becoming a torrent with the number of gyms in the area growing almost daily.

“There are more and more people, y’know, wanting to look gooood,” the 45-year-old drawls. His laugh rattles the shelving – he tends to do it a lot. Michael Williams (46) is there too, with his soft German accent and a disarming northern English lilt. Sam’s more ebullient than his friend, a product of half a life in America.

That they are so gentle, friendly and helpful is unexpected, but then – as Michael points out – it’s always the little dogs that bark the most. Sam and Michael are not little dogs. They are bodybuilders, current European bronze medal holder and 2007 German champion respectively. A search for the perfect body seems to control their every waking second.

“It’s in everything you do,” reveals Sam. “Your life schedule is always at the back of your head – because at the front of your head is always your body!” He bellows another great laugh. “The hard part is to combine both.” Michael has things a bit easier. His wife Manja, a three-time winner of the German women’s title, shares his passion and together they are German mixed couples champions.

Both men are under six foot and dressed soberly in loose-fitting track gear which only hints at their enormous muscles. The main giveaway to their life’s passion is their sheer width – they are practically cubic. The vastness of their physique only becomes apparent later in the gym, although they move around smoothly and comfortably, easy in that stretched skin. Everything about them screams of well-oiled machines. Sam’s beard is impeccably trimmed into straight lines, Michael’s buzz cut equally so. These are guys who look after themselves, nothing flash, just simple, with everything in order – it makes them appear ten years younger than they are.

Michael was originally into karate but he came into bodybuilding after seeing it in gyms. “I just loved the sport.”

Sam spent six years getting to a level “where I could compete with the best”. It takes unbelievable dedication and sheer bloody hard work. They can only compete once a year as the body can’t take much more, and the build-up is the killer, the “cutting time” as Sam calls it: “That is serious training. You’ve really got to focus and you can’t party at night or say, ‘Just this once I’ll get out of bed at 10 or 11.’ Uh-uh, you always have to sacrifice something, and now of course you still have to work. No one’s gonna pay you to do this, we’re amateurs. You do your cardio or muscle training in the morning before you go to work. I mean we’re lucky today, most of the gyms are open 24 hours so it doesn’t matter if you work shifts – you can always go before and after work.”

Is the backbreaking lifestyle and sacrifice justified just to get that little muscle in the neck THAT taut?

Michael explains: “You’re always focussed on the competition and you want to look as good as you can. You’d be lying to yourself if you said, ‘OK I’ll eat this burger, it won’t matter.’ It will; you can’t do it. Quality has a price and you need quality food to build your muscles; that’s the most important thing. There are no shortcuts, just hard work and discipline.”

How did they choose this look? Did they grow up with similar dreams of who they wanted to be?

Sam is aware of the cultural differences between the US and Germany. “In America you always had idols, you had superheroes. Most of the people loved them – even in the old days, they still looked to comics and cartoons and television, but over here my impression is that bodybuilders are first inspired by a friend, or they see it in a magazine and think it just looks good. They want to get a hundred girls every day, but then, once they’ve started, most people just go on by the look of themselves.”

Bodybuilding may always have seemed a strange sport, one which raises questions on our perceptions of beauty. Part thoroughbred cat show, part monster truck rally, bodybuilders fascinate. Hundreds of years ago they would have been the kings of the village, the protectors, but now people seem happy to laugh at them as freaks, drugged-up perverts and boneheads. Why?

“That’s very difficult,” Sam agrees. “When they see something different for the first time, it’s always a negative thing. Why do people stand aside in a bakery when they see a bodybuilder, especially a woman bodybuilder come in? That’s the question. You always have to go back to the culture because that’s where the meaning is.”

The fact that Sam and Michael both point to the work is instructive. There’s a masochistic enjoyment in the sacrifice needed to succeed at this sport, to become as beautiful as can be against all odds. To be paid would spoil the fun. This is purely for the self, and it doesn’t matter if anyone is watching apart from the judges.