TORONTO—"Dear Toronto Pro Supershow Delegate," read a slip of paper handed to everyone checking in at Toronto's Intercontinental Hotel on Friday. "For your convenience we have 'Special Towels' through our Housekeeping Department. We recommend that these special towels/ linens be used in conjunction with any treatments that may potentially stain the higher quality linens supplied in your guestroom." It was all the spray tanner, you see. It ruins everything.
The Toronto Pro SuperShow is one of North America's biggest fitness extravaganzas: a three-day collection of competitions in bodybuilding, powerlifting, arm wrestling, strongman, Crossfit, boxing, pro wrestling, and just about any other activity that might require you to wear a tank top, all mixed inside a convention center alongside an "Expo" of all the world's workout supplement companies hawking their wares. It is where members of every zealous fitness subculture, from rippling steroid monsters to gaunt competitive jump-ropers, come together in uneasy proximity for one single strange weekend. It is a flourishing zoo, with the human body as every exhibit.
In the shadow of the CN Tower, Toronto's downtown business district was invaded by muscles. Office workers sunning themselves on their Friday lunch breaks gazed warily at the various types of monsters suddenly strolling Front Street. In the Second Cup Coffee outlet, the high-school girls behind the counter were far too polite to remark upon the fact that their customer base had suddenly doubled in body mass. Anyone in or around the convention center was likely to be some subspecies of Extreme Body Freak. (Except for the competitors in the "Yu-Gi-Oh! Regionals," which was also being held in the convention center that weekend.)
It took only a glance to determine who was who. The powerlifters all wear Chuck Taylors. The Olympic lifters have the straps of spandex singlets hanging down under their shirts. The Crossfitters all wear T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their "box," and they smile with the dead-eyed intensity of Scientologists. The boxers have poorly drawn boxing gloves tattooed somewhere close to their necks. The bodybuilders have shirt collars and sleeves stained by excess spray tan, like the red dust one might accumulate while rock climbing in the desert.
The "best" spray tans, if you believe in such a thing, make white people look brown. The worst spray tans—far more common, for some reason—make white people look uncomfortably orange, like the poorly colorized munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Good spray tans help to conceal the steroid-induced pimples that sprout across the torsos of so many bodybuilders. Bad spray tans just make the pimples look as if they'd been covered in Cheeto dust. Black bodybuilders have an existential advantage: They don't have to spray tan, so they will always look somewhat less ridiculous than their lighter-skinned peers. The main redeeming aspect of bodybuilding is that it promises to destroy our artificial concept of race once and for all. In the land of muscles, everyone is brown.
On Friday afternoon, female bodybuilders paraded across the convention center's main stage. All were painted brown. All wore high heels. All wore bikinis. All bikinis were spangled. To compete in a non-spangled bikini would presumably represent a serious disadvantage. There were different categories for the actual bodybuilders, who were rippling, and the "bikini" women, who just looked like strippers after a couple weeks on Survivor. A judge holding a microphone guided them through their paces one by one. "A quarter turn to the right. A quarter turn to the right. A quarter turn to the right. And face front." When the women turned their backs to the audience, they flipped their long hair over their shoulders so as not to obscure the view of their lats. Ass cheeks trembled from the clenching of glutes. Some of the women, though in optimal shape, showed dimples of cellulite. One can only imagine the anguish this visible failure to triumph over nature must have caused them.
The spectators at a bodybuilding show are strangely docile. There are no salacious catcalls, only scattered cheers of support. Despite the G-strings and fake tans and ubiquitous breast implants, the crowd seemed to view the women with an academic interest—not as sex objects, but as living outcomes of training techniques. In front of me, an orange thirtysomething man with a swath of purple pimples across the back of his neck ate salad out of a Ziploc bag as he watched. A bag of raw almonds, a can of tuna, and a bottle of hot sauce sat on the chair next to him. At the end of the aisle, a rather mannish-looking woman with a broad chest tapped her companion and said: "You should have your feet up. I don't want your legs getting all watery."
But Toronto was not simply hosting a bodybuilding show. It was hosting a SuperShow. The mix of disciplines stuffed into this place ensured that a certain sort of low-level tension was present at all times. All of these cultures do not always respect one another; weightlifting coach Mark Rippetoe once famously said, "Bodybuilding is men on a stage in their underwear wearing brown paint. .. and at the contest level requires a degree of vanity, narcissism, and self-absorption that I find distasteful and odd." Bodybuilding itself is bizarre; more bizarre is mixing it with power sports in a super-intense testosterone cocktail and then taking it to Canada, the most polite nation in the Northern Hemisphere.
On Friday night, two rings were set up on the far side of the convention center, and the fighting—mostly involving amateurs from Canada—began. Between them, on a mat, middle school-aged girls were kickboxing. (For the first time since I'd arrived, I thought to myself: "Those bitches don't look so tough.") One short girl, hopelessly outclassed, kept stopping to adjust her headgear after being whacked, or turning all the way around to look at her corner for help. Her opponent, in a very Canadian way, refrained from hitting her during these moments. When the amateur boxing started, one coach hollered out to his fighter in the ring, "Come on Mike, cut the bullshit!" This prompted another coach to pipe up, "Excuse me, sir—the profanity." Certainly the first time that phrase has ever been uttered at a boxing match. Though we were all somehow engaged in violence or its enjoyment, a cordial Canadian spirit pervaded even the crowd. One muscled teenager wearing an "I Love Haters" tank top and looking for all the world like a delinquent in training abruptly turned to his friend and said, "I could go for about six white chocolate macadamia nut cookies right now."
His friend nodded. "Next time you're at work, try heating one up and putting whipped cream on it. It's an orgasm."
On Saturday morning, the opposite side of the convention center was set up for the Olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, and Crossfitters. Olympic lifting, the most technically demanding of all the strength sports, is also the most deadly boring as a spectator sport. You can only watch so many people snatch a weighted bar over their heads before, as with NASCAR, you just start waiting for the crash. Powerlifting is more gratifying—the weights are heavy, the eyes are bulging, and the competitors all look like normal people, just more barrel-shaped. While the bodybuilders were all lugging around their own coolers full of home-made meals of boiled broccoli and dry chicken breast, the powerlifters could pull their deadlifts, then go out for ice cream. Who cared? They didn't give a shit how they looked, as long as they were strong. Powerlifting is good, clean fun for the whole family.
Crossfit is good, clean fun that makes your skin crawl. All the Crossfit teams looked like Abercrombie & Fitch retail staffers on their days off. Crossfit is the office bowling league of a generation far too good for bowling leagues. Crossfitters tend to have the bright smiles, boundless energy, and barely concealed smugness often associated with adherents of slightly denigrated religions, like Mormons or Heaven's Gate UFO doomsday preppers. Sometimes they don't do a great job concealing the smugness. One girl sported a T-shirt reading, "Crossfit is like a fine art. Critiqued by many. But understood by few."
Haha, yes, well. How special.
Crossfitters are impeccably fit, generally affluent and attractive, and, I think, worthy of scorn, because that they revel in overthrowing the yin-and-yang that allows society to tolerate fit people. Bodybuilders look great, but their lifestyle is freakish; weightlifters are strong, but often look like dumpsters; athletic people in general may be able to beat you up, but you can take private satisfaction in the knowledge that they're dumb. It's a matter of hydraulics. Every benefit must come with an equivalent fault, or the social fabric will rupture. Crossfit, though, aims to take educated, attractive, popular, upwardly mobile, fashion-forward people, and also make them super-fit, so that there is no area in which the average person may measure up. (I do not recommend working out in a group, and I certainly don't recommend working out in a group of super-fit type-A overachievers. Bad for one's self-esteem.) Indeed, Crossfitters would doubtless be poised to take over the world if not for their collective sense of persecution and tendency to trumpet their hobby to the world by draping themselves in branded apparel, up to and including the T-shirt I saw on one guy in Toronto that had been painstakingly folded so that only the "WODKilla" slogan showed and then wrapped into a bandanna that matched a pair of neon yellow sneakers.
Doing burpees does not constitute an identity. Take up jazz, or something.
In fairness, the need to declare affinity for the fitness lifestyle via T-shirt is hardly limited to Crossfit. It was a common theme of the entire weekend. You might think that, since we were at a fitness convention—where just about everyone was, by definition, involved in the fitness lifestyle one way or another—no one would need to publicize personal participation in that lifestyle. Not so. The T-shirts among the thousands of assembled faithful at the SuperShow were not just clothing; they were, overwhelmingly, Lifestyle Slogan Billboards.
There were the Fitness Mantras: "Keep Calm and Grunt On"; "Spot, Squat, Leave"; "Harder Deeper Faster"; "It's Time to Go Beyond Yourself"; "Eat Clean, Train Dirty." There were the Declarations of Freakishness: "Freak in Training"; "Test Freak"; "Death Wish"; "Beast Mode"; "Mutant: Leave Humanity Behind." And, for the very literal, there were the Existential Statements: "Titan"; "Phyta"; and, my favorite, the shirt that read simply "Weight Lifter." It was curious, this obsession with prominently stating what should have been plain to see anyhow. I mean, yes, it's true that "Strength Is the Product of Struggle." But why does that fact need to be displayed on your T-shirt? PB&J is the product of peanut butter and jelly, but it's rare to see a housewife rocking that slogan on an Affliction shirt as she prepares her children's lunch in the morning.
At least people wearing T-shirts were embracing the modesty of sleeves. In general, SuperShow attendees regarded sleeves as the enemy. It all made sense. Fashion sense seemed to decline relative to people's obsession with their own bodies. Bodybuilders can wear comical workout gear at all times, because their bodies are their fashion. The outer layer just delivers extra neon.
Saturday morning saw the single most intense competition of all: arm wrestling. Competitive arm wrestling consists of two people on opposite sides of a table, elbows on pads, off hands holding metal rods, with one leg each wrapped around the leg of the table for extra leverage. One referee spends minutes positioning the hands of the competitors fairly, as another referee guides him. Finally, after much wrangling (sometimes necessitating the tying together of both peoples' wrists), the ref releases their hands and says, "Go!" Both competitors grunt, scream, pull, and surge; in seconds, one is pinned, prompting an explosion of table-pounding and exclamations of "YEAH! THAT'S IT! RIGHT THERE!" from the other. One winner was so excited he tried to raise his arms in victory and storm off while still strapped to the other guy's wrist. Arm wrestling is awesome.
One very intense-looking arm wrestler, thickly muscled like a powerlifter, warmed up by doing wrist curls with an elastic strap, occasionally sipping from his pony-keg-sized water cooler by lifting the entire thing up to his lips. He was later pinned by "Bad" Brad Wade, a normal-sized guy with a beard, who seemed unremarkable until just before the match began, at which time his eyes widened and his lips parted and his gaze receded and he took on the appearance of a kamikaze pilot just yards out from an aircraft carrier. Another wrestler nicknamed "Dragon," who looked like a high school history teacher, pinned his red-faced opponents in absolute silence, while smiling. I suspect that an effective team of assassins could be drawn from the ranks of Canadian competitive armwrestling.
And for the entire weekend, everything hummed on at once under the featureless roof of the convention center. The powerlifters tottered out stiff-legged in their knee wraps and bent under a squat bar; the Olympic lifters brushed their hands with chalk and adjusted their singlets; the Crossfitters swung from pull-up bars like flopping fish and slapped high-fives; the Strongman competitors, in decrepit tennis shoes and faded T-shirts, deadlifted 500 pounds for reps, and pressed huge circus dumbbells with handles the size of Coke cans overhead, with quaking elbow joints that seemed ready to snap at any time; competitive jump-ropers did pushups and handsprings while encased in blurry force fields of moving speed rope; the boxers boxed; the kickboxers kicked and boxed; and the male bodybuilders paraded across the stage wearing board shorts and fake smiles to the tune of "Moves Like Jagger," like aspiring extras for Magic Mike.
All of this, surreally, was going on around the edges of the main Expo area, where booth babes who looked like buff Barbies hawked supplements to help you "Lose Weight While You Sleep," or "Wage War on Your Genetics," should you ever wish to do so. Despite the profusion of nutrition-themed branding—there was Nutrabolics and Magnum Nutraceuticals and Nutrition Club and Labrada Nutrition and Allmax Nutrition and Revolution Nutrition—there was neither fruit nor vegetable in sight. The future of nutrition, I'm afraid, is watery protein shakes and cherry-red chemical powders. One dazed-looking man selling capsules of nutrient-packed blue-green algae looked rather out of place. "I just spent the last four years working in the horse industry," he said, glancing around. "I've never been at a show like this."
A professional wrestling ring sprouted up, complete with schlubby mustachioed announcer and kids running up from the audience to high-five the good guys. The female pro wrestlers, bleach-blonde and spray-tanned and fake-boobed, looked suspiciously like female bodybuilders who had aged out of the competitive circuit. The "bend your opponent over and spank her like a bad girl" was a favorite move. Upon winning, one lady stood in the center of the ring, stuck out her booty, and dropped it like it was hot, drawing appreciative claps.
Pro wrestling's sense of showmanship would be a great boost for some of the more real—but less thrilling—strength sports. For example, one of the wrestling villains had a manager at ringside dressed as a pimp in a furry golden bathrobe who occasionally took advantage of the referee's distraction in order to hit the good guy with a bat. Just imagine what excitement random bat attacks would add to, say, the Olympic clean-and-jerk competition. Something to consider.
The audience seemed to take all the wrestling action with a smile, with the exception of one skinny twentysomething superfan who kept shouting, "Come on, ref, he's cheating!" and "Get in there and wrestle!" without the slightest hint of humor in his voice.
In any case, I could sit in one chair and watch boxing, grappling, and wrestling matches at the same time just by turning my head, which is not the worst way to spend an afternoon in Canada.
The powerlifters scarfed greasy hot dogs and burgers from trucks out front. The bodybuilders stood around the doors, smoking cigarettes. The fighters did neither, but voluntarily got punched in the face. None of this was about health. It was about extremity.
No one comes to the Toronto Pro SuperShow to see Dr. Oz. But hundreds waited in line to get their photo taken with Phil Heath, the current Mr. Olympia—a monster among monsters, bald, mocha-skinned, with light eyes like a cat and back muscles so huge that they flare above his shoulders like folded angel wings. The titan of titans, the man astride the mountain of squats and steroids and spray tans that so many of those in the convention center were determined to climb. A living, breathing, rippling symbol of success over the human body's boundaries. A validation.
Having waited all morning, the single most unnatural-looking woman I'd seen all weekend finally got her turn with Heath in the Muscletech booth. She had a thick, swollen torso, huge, bulbous shoulders pulsing with visible veins, and a dusting of pimples all the way down her arms, still discernible underneath her excrement-brown tan. She wore heavy makeup. Though probably in her 30s, she looked old, overworked, consumed by years of chemical and physical punishment. She posed for her picture with Heath. Then she turned to him, reached out, and lovingly, tenderly stroked one hand across his cheek, like a mother whose son had just returned from war.
I of the Tiger is an occasional column about fitness, and how you're doing it wrong.