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Bodybuilding is “the art of physical display,” according to Fairfax Hackley III, a former Mr. Hercules, Mr. Gemini, and Mr. New Hampshire.

Excuse me? Bodybuilding? Art? Ox-chested guys in what look like backward thongs flexing oiled muscles with veins puckering all over their bodies like soggy bacon strips? “Yes!” The goal, he says, is to find the body closest to “the ideal of Apollo,” the ancient Greek god of the sun and masculine beauty, patron of the fine arts, who Hackley credits with having “the shape of the ages.”

Hackley is also the executive director of the 1996 Mr. America Bodybuilding Championships, held this month at Fairfax High School, where plenty of nervous, fire-hydrant-solid men fall into four weight classes.

Once they strip and mount the stage, nine or 10 at a time, to show off their body chiseling, it seems Hackley has a point. The judges evaluate the aesthetic (not athletic) merits of pieces under their review, examining each for composition, proportion, and balance, just as at any sculptor’s critique session. The artist stands naked before the judges’ criticism. This kind of sculptor does it literally—except for the thong.

Knowing that you’ve got the winning body and showing it to the judges, Hackley says, “is like tasting blood,” he tells me over an all-you-can-eat sushi dinner. But on that day that no man can know, when the body of bodies comes—when Apollo walks again in the form of a man—Hackley says he’ll be the first to proclaim it. “This…is…the physical messiah!” he shouts, lifting his eyes and slightly quivering hands to the rice paper–wrapped hanging lights, conjuring a vision of his avatar of buff.

All this beef-jerking around really amounts to finding the best hunk on the beach. But it puts female bodybuilders (and the contestants for the Ms. America title, which is also awarded at tonight’s event) in an understandable bind. Apollo was a male divinity—who are the women supposed to look like? One judges’ guidebook says that, foremost, bodybuilding women should have “feminine shape”—whatever that means. (It doesn’t mean Happy-to-Be-Me-Doll shape, if this contest is an example.) A whole lot the Ms. America title promoters care. They’re happy to award the trophy, a warmup jacket, and a bag to Evanston, Ill., personal trainer Cynthia Barker early in the evening—at 7:00 p.m.—so they can get on to the Messrs. Hell, the women are mere hors d’oeuvres compared to what—when all has been flexed, oiled, pumped, and spat—is the best male meat muscle feast there is.

The catch on the Apollo line is that bodybuilding has been so, well, sinful, over the last three decades. The sport was rife with steroids and muscle-growth hormones, which brought what Hackley calls “the drug look.” Russell Parker, 33, from Blacksburg, Va., who weighs 235 lbs. and was second runner-up to Mr. America heavyweight, explains, “In the steroid world, a guy can weigh 290 and be totally ripped. You can’t get that here in the natural world.”

This year’s Mr. America is different. Different as in serious, as in “morally” serious—as in pumping iron for wholesomeness, for goodness, and as an example to the next generation. Mr. and Ms. America are the latest glories of only-in-America pop culture to ride the just-say-no (or just-don’t-do-it) bandwagon. Flex those abs and spread those lats so that Little Johnny doesn’t light up that spliff! This year’s Ben-Gay, testosterone, and body-wax beef-off is drug-free!

Face it, bodybuilding is not the stuff of Wheaties box covers. It’s got a sordid past wrapped up in porn and steroids (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s own extensive use of steroids led to questions of whether he was qualified to serve on Bush’s Presidential Physical Fitness Board). Steroids were what ran the competitions from the early ’60s to the early ’90s, according to Hackley. “Once steroids invaded the sport, it was any man’s contest. They could change a person overnight.”

“You simply had to take drugs” to compete, he says.

Other contests may claim to be drug-free, but they only test randomly. In contrast, the Mr./Ms. America contest is going to take urine samples from all its winners upon their victory. Congratulations. Now pee.

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To get that timeless look, one needs to do some inhuman things—like be as hard on the body as a sculptor is on a block of stone. Pumping iron isn’t all it takes to be homies with Zeus. Contestants drop serious weight to compete. Reducing body fat reveals the muscles better, giving a “cut” look and greater muscle definition. It also reduces the fat pillows under the balls and heels of the feet, making standing still uncomfortable and unsteady. Builders cut out salt from their diet to reduce water retention, and drink only distilled water—tap water is too salinated. Bone joints ache without normal lubricating fat, and it feels “like your whole body has a cold,” according to Dean Miller, 45, of Richmond, Va., who runs some sort of business called “Fatbusters.”

Two years ago, Miller was Mr. America (masters class—over-40 age group), but this time around, he weighed in around two pounds too heavy to join his light-heavyweight class. He’d been dieting for 16 weeks, had sunken, dark eyes, a hollow space under his jaw behind his chin, and a body-fat level of 2.7 percent. The rest of him was totally ripped—Soloflex-man times 10, no joke. The head judge told him he had a half-hour to lose the pounds or compete against Russell and the other heavyweights—all two heads taller and ripped to match. He decided to bust the two. He says he ran around the school, spat as much as he could, spent time “meditating on taking a pee,” and ran his hand under warm water (he says a nurse told him that helps). “Luckily, I had some more water in me,” he claims, “so I peed and got down.”

Part of being ripped is having those nasty bubbly-bacon veins. They show there’s no fat, just muscle. Another part is that all that sculpted beauty is only skin deep—the muscles themselves don’t have “real” muscle—they just look like they do. This is bodybuilding, not weightlifting (lifters actually do something): Builders, unlike powerlifters, build muscle size doing lots of reps with relatively light weights, instead of a few reps with gradually heavier weights to give them strength. Builders are in shape for club crawling. “Basically [they] can’t use their muscles for anything,” Hackley says. “Except posing, that is.” This is pure aesthetics. Talk about poseurs.

When the middleweight class poses for the judges, it’s clear that the hyperdeveloped muscles of the drug look are still setting the contestants’ aesthetic standards. The daylong competition is broken into two halves: The morning finds the contestants in front of the judges; the evening sees them posing for the paying audience.

At the morning’s first round, the last middleweight out from behind the curtains has simply show-stopping bulk. Sure, he’s got a barrel chest, but his is—oh, man—like a horizontal oil barrel with tubes of crude hanging out where his arms should be. And somehow, even though he is way out on the side of the stage, he’s really eye-catching. It might be something all too human, like his bottom lip flapping as he sucks in air to flush out his pecs, making his head look like a curvy, oddball period clock centered on a rococo fireplace mantle. It might be that ineffable something of the divinity about his physique, but it also could be his loudmouth buddy in the crowd yelling to him every time he hits a pose—“Looking Good!” and “Tight, Chuck! Tight!”

“Chuck,” or Charles Durr, 36, 5-foot-6, and 178 pounds, from Chicago, Ill., is so big in the arms and across the back that he can’t grasp the wrist of one arm behind his back and flex his triceps correctly for the judges. Every time he attempts the pose his arm snaps free uncontrollably, his fist swinging out as if shot by a catapult.

Comments and encouragement from the audience are common throughout the day. During the evening show, Caity Davis, of Arlington, a middleweight contender for Ms. America, has such a large and vocal group of fans that, to the beat of her posing music, she struts out of the posing rectangle, shakes that thing way over to her boosters’ side of the stage, then turns and gives them a back-double-biceps pose, one of the “power” poses. Her crowd goes wild.

The evening show is more for the crowd than the judges and correspondingly closer to Vegas than Athens. The top five contenders in each weight class have 90 seconds each to perform their own posing routines to music of their choice. Until the early ’80s, Hackley says, everyone posed to classical music, but then, “We went through this ‘Eye of the Tiger’ phase.”

Today there’s a lot of club and faux-Vangelis. One middleweight rocks out to Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot.” The industrial sound matches his moves and his grimace. Veins and rubber-trike-wheellike muscles snap out of his frame as the tune seems to blast out of him. Dean of Fatbusters uses the most appropriate tape of the day—Beavis and Butt-head custom mixed over Nine Inch Nails. Beavis: “Wo, Butt-head. Check it out. It’s a monster. It’s like—Frankenstein.” Butt-head: “This monster is not human. It feels no pain. It can’t be reasoned with.” As the music jams, so does Dean, timing his most powerful poses to the bleeps of deleted expletives. Knockout.

The show-stealer, though, once again, is middleweight Durr. He comes out, and man, since last time you have forgotten that he is ripped like the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem. He’s got a custom club mix with what sounds like metal pincers scraping together to make the beat. Amazingly nimble for those of a Michelin Man—albeit with the smallest tire for his waist—his arms stretch and come into the poses as the metal pincers strike. He does huge Atlas-holding-the-globe arcs, and curls into Sisyphus-pushing-the-rock power poses. He’s smooth, incredible to watch, so good that it seems to be happening too fast to commit to memory. Suddenly the music ends, but Durr is still hitting great poses with slight grunts to a missing beat—everyone wonders what’s with the goofball in the soundbooth, or if the 90 seconds are over already—but then, as he smoothly comes down into a front most-muscular pose—Whum!—the beat is back and Durr hits it right on time, personifying those pincers and gripping the sound. The crowd freaks. We know there is no other.

After a lip-syncing and macarena performance by four Fairfax High School girls, Durr, a personal trainer in his day job, is cinched “Mr. America 1996” with an embossed kidney belt, and given an all-expenses-paid trip to “Musclemania,” in Redondo Beach, Calif., and a Schwinn “Johnny G. Spinning Bike.” (Ms. America wins the same prizes.) Hackley meets him backstage, gives him a high-10, and takes the trophy until the piss-cup test results are in. Next stop, ESPN’s interview in the principal’s office. From there—who knows?

What is the aesthetically perfect shape for a man’s form? For a woman’s? Who can really say? But who can deny that some bodies are compelling and inspiring for their own sakes. Lou Ferrigno’s and Arnold’s bodies gave them marquee names, and Arnold, well, he has an annual bodybuilding contest named for him, the “Arnold Classic.” And what his money can’t make him in real life he acts out on the silver screen. And his kids are Kennedys. What can’t a body do? CP