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"I'd say only about the top 10 percent of bodybuilders actually make a living as professionals," Morrison said. "It's not like pro golfers who can finish way down on the leader board and still make good money. If you finish way down in a bodybuilding competition you're not going to see much money. Bodybuilding is a more extreme sport, sort of on the fringe. You mention a top NFL player and everybody knows who he is. You mention some of the top bodybuilders in the world and most people have no idea who they are. It's almost like a cult."
In addition to the limited career opportunities, the physical punishment and demanding lifestyle, there's also the ongoing controversy over steroid use -- notoriously widespread among the sport's upper ranks -- and its many negative side effects. The heavy irony is that these side effects impact the very traits of masculinity male competitors are trying so hard to enhance.
"Steroids can cause things like rectal bleeding, liver and kidney malfunction, mood swings, hair loss, decreased libido and testicular atrophy," said Dr. Glenn Perry, of Perry and Barron Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. Perry is also head team physician with the Charlotte Hornets, Checkers, Knights and Sting. "Many competitive bodybuilders understand the risks, but are still willing to take them. They tend to be extremely intense and dedicated to their sport, and in some cases I would say fanatical about their training. It's a drive to succeed at whatever the costs."
Of course, not all bodybuilders use steroids, and there are some professional organizations like the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) that don't allow supplements. Yet it's also true that a WNBF event will usually draw a crowd about half the size of the shows that feature the steroid-induced monsters.
"Today the stakes are so much higher; there's really nothing that some people won't do to win," Morrison said. "When you see these guys step out on stage who are 5'10" and weigh 265 pounds with 3 percent body fat -- that's not normal. Obviously there is some steroid use taking place in order to reach and maintain that level. But that's what makes it extreme, and that's what people pay to see. No professional bodybuilder can compete more than five or six years. It's just too tough and punishing on the body. It'll take years off your life."
However, folks like Dr. Joe Estwanik of Metrolina Orthopedic Sports Medicine says bodybuilders oftentimes get an unfair rap. Estwanik, who is past sports medicine chairman for USA Boxing and ringside physician for the Ultimate Fighting Championships, says that bodybuilders are no different than any other dedicated athlete.
"Every sport has its eccentrics," said Estwanik, who at one time was a competitive bodybuilder himself. "Look at people on the professional golf circuit. I bet that if you talk to some of their family members or wives -- and probably their ex-wives -- that many of them had nothing else in their life but golf. At the same time, what about the corporate executive who gets up at 5am everyday to go to work and doesn't get home until 8 or 9 at night? So that kind of behavior can be present in any field, competition or endeavor. Some can lead a successful, balanced life, some can't.
"We have a need to compete and excel," Estwanik continued. "Because weightlifters take off their clothes and step out into the spotlight, the results are more spectacularly exposed. It's not that obvious with, say, a gymnast, or even the Little Leaguer or junior tennis player who absolutely destroys their elbow joints in pursuit of their sport. So I prefer to use the term dedication when discussing professional bodybuilders. Others may use terms less complimentary."
Strike a Pose
Back at the Mountaineer Competition it's just about showtime, and things are starting to get a little frantic. Lee Lipscomb, a burly, no-nonsense guy, maintains order backstage with the blunt effectiveness of a Marine drill sergeant, barking out orders, calling contestants by their numbers, and making sure everyone is where they're supposed to be.