“This and That”

by  Pax Beale

Be assured, there was no “Ugly American” syndrome projected by this Team USA as we were received, welcomed, and courted in royal fashion everywhere we went. They couldn’t get enough of the “USA”, and it was a great feeling to represent our country in our first international competition ever, in Romania and Greece – a special team who shared a special feeling.

Everyone asks about the quality of the foreign bodybuilders. Simply stated, their best are inferior to our best national caliber amateurs, and their worst were better than our worst. Some of the competitors at the recent Santa Cruz contest would have been embarrassed to compete against Romania’s worst. Certainly, their best would be very tough to beat in an average regional contest.

In a sense, the Romanians were the best bodybuilders Team USA had ever seen, considering their environment. They had our respect. They have no aminos and little protein. The protein they have usually comes in the form of fat with some pork in it. It’s doubtful that they have ever heard of our commonly used supplements. Their gyms are so bad that the best piece of equipment they have would be unacceptable in any gym in the USA. The gyms have no heat, and maybe one light bulb, because the country has little electricity. The most recent Muscle & Fitness they have is three years old.

This is a country where a Coke costs half a day’s wages, and Muscle & Fitness represents 20% of one’s monthly salary. There is no such thing as Nautilus type of resistance equipment. The posing mirror in one gym looked like a piece of mirror out of some beat up men’s room in a discount gas station in the USA. “Olympic” 45 lb. bars are homemade, can be any actual weight, and are frequently bent in the middle from the weight of the plates. The dumbbell plates are “gears” or sprockets taken from obsolete manufacturing equipment.

Yet, despite this poverty, Romania somehow produces competitive bodybuilders, which must be the ultimate in Total Commitment. It is simply amazing, and almost impossible to describe. Unless you experienced it, you wouldn’t believe it. And, I was most impressed! One gym was literally located below the ground in a subway station, with not one window, and it had my picture on their Wall of Fame…in Bucharest (Bucharesti), Romania, no less.

I stopped showing the photos of World Gym Showplace Square in San Francisco, as I began to feel it was in bad taste to dazzle the Romanians with luxuries of the USA.

Ah, they do have spirit however. My friend Florin Uceanu, seven-time Romanian National Champion, signed under his picture in the program, “When you have been through a revolution, you are clear as to what are the most important things in life: the opportunity to be a winner.” This is the same kid who took a look at our two biggest bodybuilders and said he was withdrawing from the light heavyweight competition, to compete against our huge heavyweights, because, “I may be giving away 35 lbs., but you can never be the best until you’ve competed against he best.” He pushed them, but finished a contented third, when he could have won another light heavyweight title.

I don’t dwell on Greece because, while it was a super pleasant experience, the bodybuilding environment, and even the country is a lot like the San Francisco Bay Area, with water, restaurants, and night life. Except for one thing: Greek food is something else. No wonder they don’t have lots of bodybuilders. They should put olive oil on their bodies instead of in them. Ionnis Vassilopulos (say that fast) is a nicer guy than you could ever meet. All of the Greeks were nice, but they respond to visitors as we do.

The Red Block countries seem excited about their new-found freedom, but they are not certain quite what to do with it. Thus, they reach out with friendliness, curiosity, and inquisitiveness. This characterization causes anything patriotic to reach very deep within them, it seems. Thus, Pax Beale’s and Sophie Taggart’s couples posing, combined with their well orchestrated closing ceremonies, fed right into the thirst these people have to reach out and feel new-found emotions.

As the couples presentation proceeds, Pax and Sophie jump off the stage and distribute small USA flags to the audience…who literally climb over each other to get one. Back on stage Pax and Sophie had previously set up a USA and Romanian flag hiding on the stage, and as their presentation winds down, they add flair to it by picking up the hidden flags and posing with them. Finally, they form a sort of an archway in the center stage with the flags. Then a USA athlete and a Romanian athlete from opposite sides of the stage join hands and walk under the arches of the flags, towards the audience. After both teams are all on the stage, everyone holds hands high in the air and rocks back and forth to the singing of “America the Beautiful”.

Team shirts are then exchanged between the athletes on the stage, as a sign of goodwill, of which there is an abundance. Finally, Pax has had small Romanian flags hidden in Team USA’s posing trunks, and as Team USA steps forward and waves them to the audience, the fans now wave the American flags Sophie and Pax had given them, right back to the USA athletes.

Corny? Damn right it is! Emotional and patriotic? Damn right it is! So what is so bad about everyone feeling not only good, but involved in something special? We should all be so lucky. America is beautiful, and so is the rest of the world, when you reach out to them. It all transcends bodybuilding, but bodybuilding was the conduit. Thus, a new usage for a wonderful athletic endeavor, and it was a joy to be a part of it.

One incident perhaps best describes the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the Romanian bodybuilders. Our plane departed Bucharest at the awful hour of midnight in an airport whose lobby was so poorly lighted; one could not even read a magazine. Oh, poor Romania. Yet, the Romanians had all come to our hotel and driven alongside our bus to the airport. One of the bodybuilders pops his naked torso through the sunroof of the car he is in and proceeds to do a lat spread, double biceps, and other poses. All this while we drive to the airport, doing 50 miles per hour. I’ll guarantee that 100% of Team USA were out of their seats on that one side of the bus, watching this farewell posing routine. The bus windows were locked, but the mutual expressions on Team USA and Team Romania faces said it all: we were all going to miss each other.