|A business that won't die|
By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- "You're gonna have some real questions about humanity when you're finished here," Dr. John tells me as we weave our way into line at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
It's March 1, the morning after the White House announced it wants tougher labeling rules for the diet supplement ephedra. And tens of thousands of people are here for The Arnold Classic and Fitness Expo, the Terminator's 15th annual paean to pumping iron. The highlight is supposed to be the bodybuilding show that Aaaanald himself is emceeing tonight. But for most of the folks streaming in right now, that part is perfunctory. They're here because a $10 Expo ticket entitles them to enough sample supplements to juice Galveston.
You know the ladies who shpritz perfume at JC Penney? Imagine them handing out "Juiced Creatine" capsules in thong bikinis, their bodies painted to look like the tablets.
Dr. John has been here before, so while he's off schmoozing a woman whose breasts could hammer a nail, I'm left alone with my empty stomach. Trust me. Eat before you come to one of these things. Because curiously alert college kids are stopping you every second step to hawk bite-sized protein bars and endless explanations about whey. By the time I've sampled a half-dozen, I'm curiously alert too. Undoubtedly, that's the state they want me in as I forge into the giant hall, which has been carved into a dozen aisles, each with 50 exhibitors trying to grab me with banners and expensive props. The first one to catch my eye is a rotating, three-sided billboard for a company called Pinnacle Products, which claims to have the "first protein supplement to unlock a key genetic regulator of muscle growth."
Intrigued, I read on.
"If you consider yourself a hard gainer," it says, "or just feel like you've maxed out your potential for growth, Pinnacle's scientists have come up with a powerful answer." Before I can decide whether I'd ever introduce myself as a "hard gainer," Steve Stern, the company's gravelly-voiced founder, is upon me. Tanned and bearded, Stern eyes my notebook, then my ID, and introduces himself by saying that he's got "the best absorption product here." I look back at him blankly, which seems to irritate him, because he calls over an employee named Dimitri and snaps, "Tell him about the studies."
Dimitri looks like a lot of things, but a scientist isn't one of them. And after he finishes explaining how Pinnacle's 12 Ph.D.s came up with a "natural myostatin binder," he can't seem to contain his pitchman's glee.
"How sick is this?" he asks.
I smile back wanly, shuddering to think.
But the one I've come here to find would seem to have more than the usual amount of explaining to do. Since Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler's death was linked to Xenadrine last month, it has become the Pinto of pills. Or so I thought. As it turns out, in the Xenadrine booth where James Casagrand is standing sentry, they can't seem to keep the stuff in stock.
"We point out that the number of pills that Mr. Bechler took exceeded the recommended dosage," Casagrand tells me. "He also had a heart condition and was prone to heat stroke."
When I ask Casagrand if there has been an adverse public reaction, he doesn't flinch. "Actually, the thing I'm hearing from people is that they're afraid that ephedra will be banned. They're stocking up." Just in case, its parent company has come up with ephedra-free Xenadrine. "Here, let me show you the studies," Casagrand says.
Models and medicine are natural bedmates at The Arnold. But I'm struck by how few pro athletes are here as pitchmen. Maybe they're scared about their image; maybe they make too much money to care. But the closest thing to a sports exhibit (as opposed to a bodybuilding or dieting one) is the booth where Brian Wisniewski is standing in front of Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi cutouts. "We don't make outrageous claims," he says, picking up a gallon of Whey Matrix. "I won't say that this will turn you into that." Of course, that's exactly what maker ISS Research wants you to believe. But I don't have the heart to point that out to Brian -- not when he's being so helpfully honest.
"It's so easy to get into this business," he's saying, "because there's no barrier to entry. All you need is money. It's consumer beware. Just because someone has a lot of money to put into advertising doesn't mean their product is the best -- or even that it's good for you."
What amazes me isn't her legs, which look like upside down ski slopes. (One of the best things about The Arnold is that you can say things here that you can't say anywhere else, like: What's your best body part?) It's her sheer, pardon the expression, balls.
A few years ago, Masino, in a stroke of what can only be called genius, decided to start a nudie magazine for guys who get aroused by women with biceps the size of their breasts. You might have issues with that, but the 60,000 subscribers who buy her Muscle Elegance magazine don't, which is why she's branching into video. Dr. John already bought "Gym Heat 3." Judging from its cover ("Get Ready To be Shocked!"), Denise is her own best model .
"It really bothered me that magazines in our industry only allocated five percent of their pages to women," she's announcing to a crowd. "So when I saw that women's bodybuilding wasn't being marketed -- and how the general public reacted to me -- I ran with it."
Denise opens to a semi-nude spread of herself and, when I crinkle my nose, confused by the difference between her build in print and in person, she leans close to me. "That's what I look like when I'm not training," she says. "Right now, I'm 10 pounds lighter and have four percent less body fat." Before Denise can flip the page to show me what she looks like totally naked, I thank her and say goodbye, dragging Dr. John, who presses three Abe Lincolns into her palm for her dominatrix video, "Body Language."
By now, the two pounds of protein bars that I've eaten are making my stomach growl like a sick Scooby Doo and all the claims of genetic re-engineering are making my head swim. How much crazier can it get? Just then, I stumble on Marc Gann, The Anabolic Attorney.
I'm reasonably sure that I've lost my capacity to be shocked. But Gann manages to do just that when he says that a growing number of his clients are cops. "The average case involves overseas shipments that get intercepted by customs. But when the recipient is a cop, it can get messy. So in a handful of instances, we've stepped into disciplinary proceedings."
Gann's firm has a book ("Legal Muscle") and a website (steroidlaw.com), but more importantly, it has a cause: fighting regulation. He hands me a letter to send my Congressman, which starts:
"Two bills that will do more harm than good have surfaced on Capitol Hill. ... Spurred by the sports' anti-doping lobby and the DEA, these bills are being misleadingly presented as intended to protect young athletes from performance-enhancing drugs. Actually, these bills represent an attempt to take away the hard won freedoms granted under the Dietary Supplements & Health Education Act (DSHEA). These bills go too far and would prevent a vast majority of law-abiding American adults, who are neither teenagers nor elite competitive athletes, to have (sic) access to many beneficial products."
I fold the letter into my pocket. By now, I've concluded that this industry is so good at hype, it could get the FDA to OK snacks made from spent fuel rods. Thermo S-25. New Juiced Creatine. Muscletech Acetabolin II 48CP. Is this stuff good for you? You need a Ph.D. to figure it out. And the one I've brought is useless. Dr. John has his head in Denise's latest pictorial: "Hard Women To Love."
Gathering eight pounds of samples in my plastic Xenadrine shopping bag, I head for the exit when I see a father with his two boys. There's something about the sight of them that makes me queasy. They could be at a car show. Or a boat show. Or "Rugrats On Ice." But they're at The Arnold, the largest supplement convention in America. "I'm trying to teach my kids how to stay in shape and be healthy," Robert Maier, a tow truck operator, says when I ask what brought him here.
That sounds fair enough, and I ask Maier if I can put one question to his oldest son. He nods, and I bend down so that I'm eye level with 9-year-old Robert, Jr. The boy has freckles, a slight case of buck teeth and a yellow down parka. "So, Robert, what did you learn?" I ask.
Without missing a beat, he looks up and says, "I learned how to get big and take steroids."
For an uncomfortable moment, no one knows what to say. His dad offers me a pleading, kids-will-be-kids look. I smile back, trying to be empathetic. But for the first time all day, I get really scared about where we're heading.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.