I’ve been covering bodybuilding and fitness for just over ten years – I started photographing competitions in 2000 and writing about them a year or so later. In the time I’ve been involved, I’ve worked in an official capacity with many of the country’s key physique organizations, usually as their photographer and oftentimes writing about their shows. As a result, over the course of the decade I have attended more events by more organizations than any other journalist in the country. I mention this because it’s this background and experience that has allowed me to comment on a significant change that I’ve noticed happening in Canadian bodybuilding: Ten years ago, it was the organizations that didn’t drug test their shows that dominated the Canadian scene; today, the organizations that promote drug-tested bodybuilding competion have been growing by leaps and bounds, whereas those organizations that refuse to drug test their shows have simply stagnated or shrunk.
The most obvious example of impressive growth comes from the IDFA (International Drug Free Athletics). In just five years, they’ve gone from only one competition held in Toronto to almost ten this year held across the country. Part of their success comes from being a well-run organization. But I believe another part of their success comes from promoting only drug-free competitions. What’s more, their stance on drug-free sport has not only contributed to their growth but has also gained respect for their organization in the bodybuilding community and in the public eye as well. Quite simply, the IDFA has not only grown faster than anyone else, they’ve also had more mainstream exposure.
This trend is real, but not particularly surprising. I believe that the reason that natural (i.e., drug-free) bodybuilding in Canada has become so popular comes down to two things. While most of the bodybuilding industry is rife with drug abuse to the point of seeming to accept it, the public doesn’t condone drug use in sports – particularly the Canadian public. One just has to look back to 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the Olympics because of a positive drug test. That was more than 20 years ago, but most Canadians still remember that moment as if it happened just yesterday. Similar things are happening in other countries today. If you look south of the border, a number of top athletes in the United States are being formally questioned about their drug use and are being publicly disgraced if it’s found out that drugs contributed to their success, and even jailed if they lied to the government about their use.
There’s no question that the public at large does not condone drug use. Furthermore, I believe that there is a large number of bodybuilders who don’t condone it either. As a result, when an organization like the IDFA comes on the scene, these drug-free competitors will flock to it in order to compete on a level playing field with natural athletes.
The IDFA has enjoyed astonishing growth in Canada.
The other reason natural bodybuilding is so popular is that it’s healthier. Side effects from long-term steroid use have been well known for decades, and I know from my ten-plus years of covering bodybuilding that the drug use in non-tested competitions is not only extremely bad, but it’s getting worse and many competitors are falling ill from it. I know of heart attacks as well as liver and kidney failure that are the result of extreme drug use, and I’ve known far too many competitors who have suffered severe infections and landed themselves in the hospital by using “homebrew” drugs, which seem to be what many competitors use, since pharmaceutical-grade drugs from real drug manufacturers are in short supply. What’s more, competitors regularly use insulin, which can lead to diabetes or even instant death. Frankly, this only scratches the surface of what goes on. More important: Is any of that worth it for a measly trophy and the pitiful prize money bodybuilding brings, even at the top professional-level competitions?
Ironically, while drug abuse is spiralling out of control, a lot of commonsense is prevailing these days, and I routinely meet competitors who are truly concerned with their health and not willing to risk the very real and serious side effects drug use brings. Many of these people are “lifetime naturals,” but I also know a lot of competitors who have long since “kicked the drug habit” and are now competing completely clean, even if it means they are smaller than they were in their juiced-up heyday. They’re not only healthier, but happier too.
There’s been a reversal of fortune in Canadian bodybuilding. When I started covering the scene the competitive landscape was dominated by non-drug-tested competition. Today, the opposite is true. Canada has many more physique organizations than it did at the turn at the millennium and the ones that are succeeding are those putting on drug-tested events. Natural bodybuilding not only gives the sport far greater credibility, it’s safer and leads to better competitive longevity. And if you look at the success that organizations like the IDFA have had, it’s obviously better for business too.
. . . Doug Schneider, Publisher
Doug Schneider is the publisher and chief photographer for SeriousAboutMuscle.com.