Columbus, Ohio March
by Bill Dobbins
Ms. Olympia Top 6 Winners
There are a lot of people who are concerned about the future of physique competition. Attendance is reportedly down at NPC bodybuilding, figure and fitness contests. Many of the physique magazines are stuggling. There was a huge amount of criticism at how the Olympia, now being promoted by AMI/Weider, was organized in 2005. Bodybuilding continues to be the media whipping boy over the steroid issue, in spite of continuing revelations about the prevalence of anabolic use in almost every other sport.
But the one shining exception to all this doom and gloom is the annual Arnold Weekend in Columbus, Ohio. This event, promoted by Jim Lorimer and Arnold Schwarzenegger, has for many years been the biggest, most successful, best attended and best organized competition event in the world. And in 2006 the Arnold was bigger, better and more successful than ever.
The Arnold continues to support female bodybuilding, fitness and figure as well as the IFBB male pros. But physique competition is only a small part of the story. As described at www.arnoldfitnessweekend.com:
"The Arnold Sports Festival is the largest three-day sports festival in the world with more than 15,000 athletes competing in 30 sports of which 15 are played at the Olympic level. What began in 1978 as a men's bodybuilding competition has expanded into a weekend of fitness and sporting events equaled by none. It is difficult to image the scope of the weekend without a little help."
"Imagine for a moment a college football Saturday with a stadium filled to overflowing with 120,000 enthusiastic fans. Now, put 15,000 athletes on the field. That's the Arnold Sports Festival. From men's bodybuilding to archery, the Arnold Sports Festival highlights all forms of athletic endeavor."
Featuring boxing, martial arts, weightlifting, gymnastics and more, it is simply impossible for anyone attending the weekend to see more than a fraction of the competition taking place. This year I planned to see more than just the physique events but shooting the Ms. International, Fitness International and Figure International, covering the many hundreds of booths set up at the Expo in the Convention Center plus watching the men compete in the Arnold Classic simply left no time to more than just catch glimpses of all the other activities taking place.
Of course, if you are in Columbus at the beginning of March you don't even have to attend any of the Arnold Weekend events to know something important is taking place. Traffic becomes so intense that people from New York City, Los Angeles or other urban areas feel right at home – and those who try to book hotel rooms late find themselves staying many miles from downtown Columbus.
The IFBB has decided not to use weight classes for female bodybuilding (there are no classes for the men, either). This means that 125 pound competitors have to be judged on stage standing next to those weighing 170 pounds or more. This turns bodybuilding into a contest of mass rather than sculptural perfection and encourages competitors to come in as big as possible, but at least for the time being that's just the way it is.
The top women from the 2005 Ms. Olympia came together on stage at the Ms. International for a rematch – and the results were interesting. The reigning Ms. Olympia was Yaxeni Oriquen, the biggest competitor on stage at more than 170 pounds. Standing beside her was Iris Kyle, a former Ms. Olympia winner and runner up last November in Las Vegas. Also in the mix was Dayana Cadeau, diminutive compared to Yaxeni and Iris (although her physique is so full and shapely that physique magazines frequently reject her photos because she looks "too big). Dayana is a former lightweight Ms. Olympia and Ms. International and no doubt the best female lightweight in pro bodybuilding.
Also entered in the event were Czech physique star Jitka Harazimova, returning to the IFBB this past year after a hiatus and Betty Pariso, the oldest of the pro bodybuilding stars and a competitor who continues to make improvement even as she approaches her 50th birthday.
The results of the Ms. International demonstrated how closely matched the top women are. In Las Vegas, Yaxeni Oriquen had beenthe best, sleekest and most refined she'd ever been. This allowed her to beat both Iris and Dayana. But the Yaxeni we saw in Columbus was not in the same kind of superb shape. Still good enough for third place, but far from perfect. And her body color was way off - physique too dark, face too light, unlike the Olympia where she got it perfect. Iris Kyle, on the other hand, was better than Las Vegas and not only physically hard, defined and chiseled but obviously making an effort to improve her overall appearance as well.
Iris has always presented herself looking more plain and severe than necessary and this has given her problems with the judges and made her less popular with the fans. But the fact that she is close friends with Dayana Cadeau has taught her a few things about hair, make-up and general appearance. In fact, quite a few people mentioned during the weekend that if you caught a quick glimpse of Iris out of the corner of your eye you might think you were looking at Dayana.
Dayana herself looked terrific in the contest and placed second, beating Yaxeni and everyone else – a great accomplishment for a competitor who is something like 20 pounds smaller than Iris and almost 50 pounds lighter than Yaxeni. As a woman widely considered to be the sexiest competitor in pro bodybuilding, Dayana is just too small to defeat Iris if both are in top shape – and, as alluded to above, has a physique with just too much Flex Wheeler type fullness to satisfy physique magazines who seem to feel she is "too much for their readers.
Jitka Harazimova has no such problems with acceptance. Not only is Jitka a fine bodybuilder, but she has a beautiful face and her physique is more conventionally "acceptable to much of the audience. Jitka's elegant and muscular development earned her fourth place, but she really needs to be leaner and more defined in order to achieve a higher finish. With additional refinement, she would be a threat to win any pro competition.
Betty Pariso was fifth, earning her way back to the Ms. Olympia. Betty has always had a superb physique and so far age has not diminished her quality. Betty's recent career is a record of learning experiences. In the past, the way she wore her hair made her look to "matronly but she experimented with different looks and now her overall appearance is great. She has also made mistakes with the color of her tan but in Columbus she had skin tone down perfectly.
In fact, recent pro contests for women have demonstrated how much improvement competitors can make even after many years of experiencing in the pro ranks. Yaxeni achieved a refinement at the Olympia that, if she can duplicate it in the future, could make her the most successful pro in the sport. Iris has learned to look more attractive and glamorous. Dayana has found a body weight that gives her the best symmetry and learned to pose in a more effective manner. Betty has improved her hair and skin tone.
Bodybuilding for women may be struggling because of lack of support from the federations and the physique magazines – and to some degree is the victim of it's own success as the competitors achieve a more advanced degree of development – but the women themselves are continuing to improve both in the quality of their physiques, their overall appearance and their presentation.
And, thankfully, whatever problems there are in pro bodybuilding competition for women elsewhere, the Ms. International continues to provide a great showcase for the top women in the sport.
Figure on the pro level continues to evolve as a competition among fit, hardbody "supermodels. That is, the winners tend to have "long proportions, with proportionally long waisted and long legged.
The Figure International Top 6 Winners
This means that women with more compact physiques – such as female bodybuilders and fitness competitors attempting to make a transition to another category – have very little chance of success. The prime example of this is Monica Brant. Monica has come in hard and muscular and softer and less defined. But no matter what shape she's in she finishes second or third. It isn't that she doesn't look great. In fact, Monica is one of the most impressive and popular women on stage. She just doesn't have the genetics to conform to what pro figure has become.
Of course, figure competitors in the NPC compete in 5 different weight divisions so the ones who are smaller and who have more compact proportions can win championships. But when they get to the pros they get a rude awakening. Unless or until pro figure is conducted using weight classes, a smaller NPC champion is likely to enter only one pro show, see how futile her efforts are and be highly reluctant to enter another.
Mary Elizabeth Lado
Of the "big four in pro figure – Davana Medina, Jenny Lynn, Amber Littlejohn, and Mary Lado (the long-proportioned ideals) only Mary appeared on stage. (Jenny Lynn had been entered but withdrew before competition began). Since those four competitors have become the standard by which pro figure is judged, it was no surprise when Mary was declared the winner.
Monica Brant placed second looking a bit softer than in the past. But, as I said above, what condition Monica is in has had little effect on her placing. If Jenny Lynn had been in the contest Monica would probably have placed third – since she is capable of beating anyone but the big four. With Jenny out, Monica took second.
Third was Amanda Savell. Amanda does quite have the stretched-out proportions of the top four but neither could she be described as having a particularly compact physique either. Amanda is also extremely beautiful (those eyes!) and was in top shpae, so found herself well-appreciated by the judges.
I was somewhat disappointed by the relative lack of conditioning of Valerie Waugaman, who only managed eighth place despite having a physique (and beautiful face) that is very much the type that is tending to win in pro figure. The fact is that Valerie was not in top condition, which is understandable since she is relatively new to the pros. When she learns to dial in it like Mary Lado she is likely to have us talking about a "big five in figure competition.
Of course, I should point out that aside from the standards of competition, which have to apply in a contest, the level of sheer attractiveness and beauty represented by pro figure is outstanding. If you go down the list of competitors you come across one incredibly fit and attractive women after another – Chastity Sloan (4th), Christine Pomponio-Pate (5th), Monica Guerra (9th), Elaine Goodlad (10th) and all the way down the line. I just did a studio photo session with Tammy Pies, who was 16th in the contest, and she looks breathtaking in the pictures. And nobody is more beautiful than Anna Larssen.
I think it's clear that fitness and now figure evolved out of female bodybuilding. Fitness has a limited future due to the demands of the routines and the potential liability to the promoters and federations. But sponsors and physique magazines who keep using "fitness models to attract the public should think seriously about focusing on the pro figure women. Figure may not be a "sport per se – certainly less so than fitness and much less so than bodybuilding – but the athletic beauty of these pro figure bodies, plus the fact that so many women who compete also have gorgeous faces – is exactly what the industry needs to promote the idea of training, diet and supplements as the basis of creating a fit, beautiful body for women than only gets better with age.
But figure competition itself could use some rethinking. For example, why is there a round in which the women cover up their abs with a one-piece suit? What does this have to do with creating an aesthetically fit body? Plus, how long can any audience sit through endless quarter turns? Isn't there something else the figure women can do to demonstrate their quality?
Maybe the answer is some new combination of fitness and figure. More about this below.
I'm afraid fitness has seen its best days. You see fewer really outstanding amateurs coming up to the pros and in pro shows the level of performance has diminished over the past few years. You can see why this is happening when NPC contests frequently have 70 or more figure competitors and two or three women entered in fitness. Fitness has been replaced by figure at events like USA.
The Fitness International Top 6 Winners
It is easy to understand why this is happening. From the point of view of the competitors, the demands of the fitness performance are just too great. Gymnasts have the advantage but women in their 20s, with more mature physiques and a lot more muscle, simply can't perform the way pixie-like teenagers can. Susie Curray was able to win so many events because she remained almost as small and slight as she'd been as a competitive gymnast.
There is also a myth that all a fitness competitor (or bodybuilder) needs to do is slim down to be competitive in figure. This is sometimes true at the amateur level, where there are weight divisions. But figure is the hardest of all the categories in the sense that, especially on the pro level, genetics determines all. In bodybuilding you can change the shape and proportion of your physique by training; fitness competitors can improve their performance. But all figure women can do is show up in shape and hope their proportions conform to the standards that are accepted in figure competition. If you don't have the right genetics you are just out of luck.
So virtually the entire line-up of the Fitness International consisted of veterans – the "usual suspects. The winner, Adela Garcia (no longer Friedmansky), has improved her physique gradually over time and certainly has an impressively fit and attractive body. She is not a super-gymnast but has always been able to put together excellent routines using dance and strength moves. Kim Klein has been a pro since 2003, has won one IFBB pro show and finished 2nd both this year and last. Jenny Hendershott won this event last year, as well as the Fitness Olympia but was only able to managed 3rd in 2006. Jenny is by far the best gymnast in the top ranks but apparently the judges are tending not to place so much importance at this point on gymnastic ability – kind of shutting the barn door after the horse has been stolen.
The one newcomer to the lineup was 2005 IFBB World Women's Fitness Champion Regiana DaSilva of Germany, who managed a respectable 8th place.
The rest of the lineup, as with figure, consisted of women who – away from the competition stage – are ALL magnificent specimens of fitness and fabulous females. Tracey Greenwood (4th) brings both beauty and brains to fitness (can you spell Ph.D.?). Julie Childs (5th) is one of the most attractive women ever in fitAdness – and there are great things to be said about all the other women who competed. Well, of course this is the Arnold. The Fitness International (as well as Ms. International and Figure International) competitors are supposed to be the best of the best.
It's just unfortunate that less new blood is coming into pro fitness because there are fewer women competing in amateur fitness, the level of performance excellence is not what it was in general - not that there weren't some outstanding routines in the show. Maybe this is even a good thing, with gymnastic ability no longer determining the outcome of the contest to the degree it was did. But this may be too little, too late. It seems just a matter of time until fitness - as it is now - will no longer be an IFBB pro event. But since so many people find figure competition so boring, in spite of the impressiveness of the competitors, maybe fitness needs to be redesigned to be some kind of figure + performance for real.
THE FUTURE: FITNESS PLUS FIGURE?
Bodybuilding rules are designed to conform to the basic nature of physique competition. The rules do not determine the winner. They are supposed to help the judges to identify the best competitors.
Fitness and figure, on the other hand, are totally creations of the rules. You can require one kind of routine or another, or none at all. You can reward muscles or not reward muscle. You can require the women to wear one-piece suits, two-piece suits, cat-suits, high heels or no shoes at all.
It's just a matter of (1) are there women who will decide to compete in a given type event, (2) is there an audience for it? And (3) is there anything a champion can do in the industry after winning a title?
Once women started abandoning fitness for figure in such great numbers the NPC should have immediately begun thinking about how to adjust the rules to slow this down. Bookies know you have to adjust the odds to spread out the betting or they'll end up losing a lot of money. The federations should have tried to change the rules of fitness in order to keep more women from jumping over to figure (where most of the best ones of them found no success at all).
But as beautiful and promotable as figure women are, watching them compete can be boring. The NPC has five different height classes. This is great for promoters, who end up with more women on stage paying entry fees and more friends and family in the audience buying tickets. But how many quarter turns can you watch and still find it interesting?
Maybe what we need is figure contests in which some kind of athletic challenge is involved. Perhaps just strength moves rather than dance or gymnastics. That might work. Or maybe the answer is just to have one round of figure in which the competitors appear on stage in bikinis. Why cover up an athletic body with a suit that hides the torso? Why not a round featuring evening gowns?
Either than or revamp fitness so that tumbling is not allowed, as is the case in aerobics competition. With the fitness women not doing flips and tumbling runs then dance and other athletic demonstrations become more important, more women would be able to perform at a high level and it would be less dangerous.
In any event, as things stand now fitness is dying and figure is increasingly boring. The only category which is still vital, exciting and just as competitive as ever is bodybuilding. But with no weight divisions in pro female bodybuilding all those smaller amateur women, or fitness women with slightly more muscle than is accepted in that division, have no chance of success.
It's ironic that the IFBB has complained about how difficult it is to make bodybuilding for women acceptable to a wider audience and then has made changes to the rules (doing away with weight divisions) that makes the situation worse rather than better.
To paraphrase Will Rogers, I'm not involved in any organized sport – I'm in bodybuilding.