Judge Dreadful

Published: 9 June 2015

Objectivity in bodybuilding, as well as its fitness related denominations, has been revered as an elusive quality and the single greatest flaw in achieving a stance of legitimacy amongst more established forms of competition. It is because of this that bodybuilding has yet to be identified as a sport by mainstream standards. Many bodybuilders, in fact, have a difficult time considering themselves true sportsman outside of the gym. The training aspect certainly aligns them with any other top professional athlete, but the lack of a well-defined scoring procedure renders bodybuilding ineligible of a “sport” designation. One could argue that bodybuilding is akin to other visually based competitions. Olympic diving, for example, requires a form of judging reliant on a keen eye instead of a concrete point-per-goal style system. Unlike bodybuilding, however, nobody is comparing who has the biggest cannon ball against who can make an insertion with the least splash. It’s this strange deviation where apples and oranges are permitted to exist side by side that becomes problematic. And like apples and oranges, sometimes decisions are made solely around whether the judging panel is in the mood for sweet or citrus.

With a disparity in size, shape, height, and conditioning, what factors are used to determine the worth of a bodybuilder? Bear in mind that this is not to be confused with the less diverse “physique” divisions, or far worse… bikini. Continuity among the judging at top level NPC and IFBB shows remains erratic at best. It seems the importance of the various criteria shifts with the ebb and flow of the officials’ personal preference. Unfortunately, subjectivity is a component of bodybuilding that can never be rid of in its entirety. However, there is no reason there should not be some level of consistency from show to show, right? A simple request surely, but how does one assess which qualities carry more significance? The question becomes considerably more complicated when looking at it from the angle that even the bodybuilding fan base can be wildly divided. The battle between Cedric and the likes of Branch for a podium spot is one of the best examples of contrast and controversy. Do you reward the freakish and battle-hardened body of Warren or hand it to the aesthetic and eye-pleasing build of McMillan? Well if you are Arnold you opt for the man best representing the “Golden Era.”  On the same token, there are also circumstances where judging becomes stagnant and repetitive; a carbon copy of the show preceding it. Competitions immediately following the Olympia are notorious for rarely displaying a variation in the rankings despite a variation in the individual athletes’ overall package.

The dissatisfaction being displayed by both competitors and fans is understandable. Many would happily argue for a return to the more classic and aesthetically pleasing bodies seen from many of bodybuilding’s legends prior to the mass revolution of the mid-1990s. This is particularly true in light of the recent rise and frequency of deaths occurring among the athletes from this time period. In theory, it seems sensible to pursue a return to the glory days. In practice, it is far less feasible. The incredibly popular physique divisions exemplify the redundancy of such an endeavor. This relatively new classification more or less fulfills the needs of those wishing to maintain a less outlandish appearance while still remaining competitive. Initially, physique met this role quite well and has grown exponentially in the years following; to the extent that female bodybuilding has been all but replaced in its entirety. Even men’s bodybuilding has seen a reduction in participation as the majority of newcomers are now following the path to physique. Slowly but surely, however, the call of competition becomes an arms race, which has forced a gradual evolution away from physique’s original purpose. In a lineup that is largely harmonious, competitors will seek a means to stand out from their peers. Adding a little more muscle and becoming slightly more striated could edge out the competition. These changes will not be done in dramatic fashion; only just enough to become distinguishable. As more competitors partake in this with each passing show, the criteria for mass and conditioning escalates. The counterintuitive nature of rewarding lesser qualities prevents a cessation of this trend. In essence, it is the natural course of bodybuilding to push the boundaries of mass limitation. To revert this process is not only an exercise in futility, but it undermines the heart of the “sport.”