The origin of The Post’s bodybuilding investigation – The Washington Post

In January 1977, when I was a small boy and sitting at a restaurant table in Manhattan, a reporter for the New York Times asked me if I wanted to be a weightlifter.

It would have been a strange icebreaker for an interview with a 4-year-old, except that I was at a party for the New York premiere of “Pumping Iron.” It was a film directed by my father, George Butler, about the strange and amazing and wonderful subculture of American bodybuilding. By that point, I was pretty used to heavily muscled men, but the reporter was fascinated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also there. She quipped in her story that “the 57-inch chest of Mr. Universe momentarily blocked passage to the buffet table” for a famous guest, Andy Warhol.

Schwarzenegger himself wasn’t yet a boldface name. He hadn’t been Conan or the Terminator, or a Kindergarten Cop — or the governor of California. But as the reporter noted, he was a three-time Mr. Universe, the top bodybuilder in the world. And “Pumping Iron,” an offbeat hit, would launch his Hollywood career.

Schwarzenegger was mesmerizing on the big screen — his physique, his charisma and his humor made him a natural star. And in the film, he explained how he had gotten that way. He saw himself as an artist:

“You look in the mirror and see you need a little more deltoids to make symmetry. So you exercise and put more deltoid on. A sculptor will slap stuff on,” he tells the camera.


A Washington Post investigation into a tip about the exploitation of women in bodybuilding led to the family that has dominated the sport for decades. This multipart series explores the family’s stewardship of the sport and the impact on the thousands of athletes who participate.

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The bodybuilder’s chisels are barbells and dumbbells and 45-pound plates that clank in sweaty gyms. To be a top bodybuilder takes countless hours of exertion in the weight room and the consumption of absurd amounts of food. It takes extreme discipline and determination, qualities that I was taught as a boy to admire.

My father was a photographer before he was a filmmaker, and “Pumping Iron,” the book, preceded the film. Through his photos and the writing with Charles Gaines, the book makes the case that bodybuilding is based on a yearning for the classical ideal. It suggests that the top bodybuilders of the 1970s were modeled on Michelangelo’s “David.” “Pumping Iron” made a compelling case that bodybuilding wasn’t a freak show, but a real sport to be taken seriously.

The film propelled not only Schwarzenegger’s stardom but also the fitness craze of the 1980s. In my father’s house, the sport was with us long after the movie left cinemas. His black-and-white photographs have hung on the walls of our family home for as long as I can remember.

When he made “Pumping Iron II” about female bodybuilders, he sometimes brought me to his shoots. At age 10, I went with him to Australia to film one of the documentary’s stars, Bev Francis, who was among the top female powerlifters in the world. It was the kind of adventure that my father loved and taught me to love. He would go on to make films on topics as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari, the exploration of Antarctica and the fate of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

I never became a bodybuilder. I was never drawn into film or photography. But I did become a storyteller — a reporter — and it wasn’t long after starting my career abroad that I was drawn to the investigative side of journalism. I like the hunt for evidence, the challenge of solving mysteries and the focus on injustice.

I’ve worked in London, Berlin, Istanbul, New York and D.C. and investigated issues of terrorism, war, lobbying and bad government. I covered the war in Syria and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and I once spent a year looking into a madcap plan by the U.S. government to set up a Twitter-like social network in Cuba. But until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me to look at bodybuilding, though I had sometimes heard shocking and unreported stories. Now, at age 50 and a year after my father’s death, I am investigating the sport that he made famous.

Last autumn, he died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his illness, he kept working until nearly the end. In 2013, deep into the disease’s ravages, he traveled to a remote part of Bangladesh called the Sundarbans to shoot footage of swamp-dwelling tigers for a forthcoming Imax film. It was the kind of determination he illuminated in “Pumping Iron.”

At a memorial service in December, a lot of old friends turned up at a church near his former apartment and office in Manhattan. Some of them were people I knew from my childhood window into the bodybuilding world. Bill Grant, a top competitor from the Muscle Beach era captured in “Pumping Iron,” was there. So was Carla Dunlap-Kaan, one of the stars of “Pumping Iron II.”

The conversations at a time of loss brought me back to my earliest days with my father and the bodybuilding giants. At the church, an old friend of my dad’s stopped me. It was Wayne DeMilia, who had run a professional bodybuilding federation years ago and had often been my father’s guide to the bodybuilding underground.

“This is not the time to talk about this, but I want to tell you about a possible investigation,” he said. In a meeting weeks later, he laid out alarming stories of recent abuses.

Since then, in dozens of interviews with some of the most knowledgeable people in the sport, my Washington Post colleagues and I have uncovered disturbing charges about the top bodybuilding federations in the world — and the exploitation of athletes.

Exploited for decades, female bodybuilders speak out

A Washington Post investigation found that scores of female athletes were sexually exploited by officials of the two major U.S. bodybuilding federations.

As I was beginning the investigation early this year, I went to Schwarzenegger’s annual contest, the Arnold Classic, one of the two most important competitions in the sport. The most famous bodybuilder of all time has also cast skepticism on elements of the contemporary sport, especially the extreme use of steroids that has pumped the athletes’ musculature far past the ideal to something approaching the grotesque. The abuse has led to a stunning number of athletes dying young. In response, Schwarzenegger has boosted the prize money for a contest category called “classic physique” that harks back to the muscular aesthetic of his own prime.

My admiration for the sweat and determination that animate the top bodybuilders remains. But where my father once focused his cameras on the big personalities of the athletes, our reporting focuses on the stewards of the sport and where they have taken it since 1977. It’s a more critical look at the strange subculture captured in “Pumping Iron,” because our job as investigative reporters is to uncover injustice and invite accountability.

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