Frederick C. Hatfield, International Sports Sciences Association, Santa Barbara CA, USA
Sportscience News
Mar-Apr 1998

At the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, bodybuilding received provisional status by the International Olympic Committee. The sport has two years to overcome prejudices and misconceptions and receive confirmation of acceptance as a demonstration sport in the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. 

When Ben Weider, President of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), petitioned International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin to recognize bodybuilding as an Olympic sport in the early 1970s, he was told flatly, "Over my dead body." Almost a decade later, when he asked former IOC President Avery Brundage, the answer wasn't quite as blunt, but was still less than sympathetic. In the mid 80s, when Weider approached IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, the door wasn't shut completely. Finally, on January 30, 1998, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board elected to give the International Federation of Bodybuilders "recognized federation" status, and with it provisional status as an IOC-recognized sport.

Seemingly irreconcilable prejudices can melt away in the heat of objective scrutiny. But prejudices still exist in the international sports community toward several IOC-recognized sports, including bodybuilding. I'll take a look at some of the objections and recently aired concerns on mailing lists and share with you my interview with Ben Weider.

Is Bodybuilding a Sport?

Some prefer the quantifiably objective measure of who won or lost alluded to in the Olympic motto, "citius, altius, fortius." But how do we define who has won or lost in bodybuilding? Others have taken the original words of Baron De Coubertin to heart--"O Sport, you are Beauty"--and prefer to remind us that sport's beauty is in the eye of the spectators and participants. Still others are caught up in the quixotic task of safeguarding the sport's sacrosanctity against those who would tarnish its perceived purity. And like it or not, bodybuilding has a tarnished image.

So what is sport? In Sociology of Sport (1973), Edwards arrayed play, recreation, contest, game and sport (in that order of progression), clarifying the differences between each. According to Edwards, as one progresses along the continuum from play toward sport, the following dynamics manifest themselves:

Given these social dynamics, Edwards defined sport as:

...involving activities having formally recorded histories and traditions, stressing physical exertion through competition within limits set in explicit and formal rules governing role and position relationships, and carried out by actors who represent or who are part of formally organized associations having the goal of achieving valued tangibles or intangibles through defeating opposing groups.

Edwards' definition is widely quoted to this day. But there are others. Luschen (1972) defined sport as "an institutional type of competitive physical activity located on a continuum between play and work." Kupfer (1975) viewed sport as "structured stress." Still yet, Yiannakis et. al. (1976) chose to view sport as a more global activity (playful to some, recreation for some, and work to others), rather than imposing definitional boundaries.

By whatever definition you choose, bodybuilding and all other sports currently under the Olympic umbrella qualify as sport, notwithstanding the fact that the Executive Committee recognizes bodybuilding as a sport.

Polishing the Tarnished Image

Is bodybuilding rampant with drug abuse? Dr. Eduardo DeRose, President of the International Sports Medicine Federation, and member of the IOC Doping Commission, attended several IFBB championships to scrutinize the adequacy of the doping control program. He was clear in a letter to Ben Weider: "I was extremely pleased and satisfied by the professional and scientific way they handle their doping program." He went on to elaborate: "In today's world of sport, the problem of doping is spread to almost all sports and all countries." It's also clear that the primary issue in final IOC acceptance is the IFBB's ability to adhere to the IOC mandates regarding the issue of doping control.

Over the years that I have been involved in sports, I have watched many much-vaunted circumvention techniques fall one by one to the scrutiny of the IOC labs and ever-vigilant Doping Commission. It seems as though this game of one-upmanship never ends; but in the final analysis, athletes are running out of options. Come competition day, they are far more likely today to be drug-free than they were in previous Olympics as well as in previous IFBB World Championships. Given the state of the art, this is all one can ask.

Fitter than Other Athletes?

Considering the often unhealthy way that bodybuilders must eat and train in order to become "contest-ready," can we really call the practice of bodybuilding healthy? It's true that in getting ready for competition, dieting often involves periods where the athletes suffer from ketosis because of their very low carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrate depletion is the first step many use in their carbohydrate supercompensation period just prior to competition. It is a brief period, however, and supercompensating after depletion is designed to bring out muscle definition. These sorts of measures are not uncommon in many sports. This widespread prejudice is a misconception borne from ignorance of the sport. It is that simple.

When I presented Ben Weider with this challenge, he remarked: "There are only a few professional bodybuilders and I am certain that these are the ones that you are referring to. There are millions of bodybuilders all over the world who eat sensibly, train properly, have good health habits and are healthier than the people in the general population."

My own biased observation is that they are probably healthier than the average Olympic athlete as well. In my own perusal of the research literature pertaining to fitness, it is clear that many physical attributes must be considered before calling a person "fit" or "unfit." In fact, fitness is often situation-specific, as is the case in virtually all sports. If you have any first-hand knowledge of how the bodybuilding lifestyle is lived, you know that the preponderance of evidence points toward the notion that amateur bodybuilders are as likely as any class of athletes to be among the most fit people on the planet!

What price IOC acceptance?

Was it money that got bodybuilding its provisional IOC acceptance? "This is absolutely out of the question," quipped Ben Weider. "I can assure you that the IOC does not require any extra funds in the form of bribes. You are aware that the IOC has signed an agreement for 3.6 billion dollars for the next three Olympic Games, and this only American television. They will earn another huge sum for television outlets in other countries. Besides the above they make tremendous profit from the Games themselves."

Bodybuilding Too Subjective for Olympic Judging?

Nonsequitur! Performances by athletes in diving, figure skating, ice dancing, gymnastics and many other Olympic sports are subjectively appraised. Bodybuilding has its subjective side as well. However, the rules of bodybuilding, the years of experience on the part of judges, competitors and fans alike in living the bodybuilding lifestyle, together with the sport's half century of tradition, clearly define the differences between levels of physical development.

The rules of international competition for bodybuilding are located at the IFBB's website. There are elimination, pre-judging, semi-final and final rounds which each have specific requirements. Compulsory poses may include front double biceps, front lat spread, side chest, back double biceps, back lat spread, side triceps, abdominals and thighs. In addition, there are individual free posing routines of the competitors to music of their own choice, the length of which shall be 60 seconds for men, 90 seconds for women, and 2 minutes for fitness and mixed-pairs.

Overcoming Prejudices

Ben Weider and other IFBB officials around the world have been trying to get bodybuilding recognized as an Olympic sport for the better part of several decades. In Nagano, their efforts were finally rewarded. It was a monumental undertaking to overcome slow-to-die prejudices and misconceptions about the sport, a lesson to the entire world of sport. Their success stands as living testament to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, who said: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."

Now they have two years to prove it for men's bodybuilding. If successful, it'll be only a matter of time before women's bodybuilding joins the Olympic roster.


Edwards, H. (1973). Sociology of sport. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Kupfer, J. (1975). Purpose and beauty in sport. Journal of Philosopy of Sport, 2, 83-90.

Lowe, B. (1977). The beauty of sport. Prentice Hall.

Luschen, G. (1972). On sociology of sport -- general orientation and its trends in the literature. In Ommo Grupe, et. al. (Eds). The scientific view of sport (pp. 119-154). Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Yiannakis, A., McIntyre, T.D., Melnick, M.L. & Hart, D.P. (1976). Sport Sociology: Contemporary Themes. Kendall-Hunt Publications. · · Homepage · Copyright ©1998
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