The NPC and then the IFBB began sanctioning fitness some years ago in response to Wally Boyco's Ms. Fitness contests and Lou Zwick's Fitness America. But as it became apparent that the gymnastics-focused fitness routines were too difficult (and in some cases dangerous) for many of the competitors, both federations adopted figure competition in 2003 - an event originally supposed to be fitness-without-the-routines but has turned into something very different.
Fitness at the amateur level is in decline, as least as far as the NPC is concerned. You frequently see competitions in which there are 70 or more figure competitors, divided into 6 height categories, and as few as two or three women entered in fitness. A big step in correcting this discrepancy would be to simply change the requirements for fitness routines.
The Ms. Fitness contests were primarily designed to be television shows and having a stage full of gymnasts helped fill up the hour necessary to package a TV show. But what has happened is that the gymnasts have come to dominate NPC and IFBB fitness contests. If you aren't a lifetime, experienced gymnast the deck is stacked against you.
Click Image To Enlarge.
Even Kelly Ryan, A Bela Karolyi Trained Gymnast,
Injured Herself At The 2002 Jan Tana.
But there are a lot of women who have "fitness physiques" who are competing in figure in order to avoid having to do routines for which they don't have the background and training - and finding that the genetic requirements of figure are ruthless.
The NPC and IFBB need to change the fitness routines by, at the very least, forbidding "tumbling."
| What Is Tumbling?
Somersaults, rolls, and handsprings, performed without the use of specialized apparatus. From The Free Dictionary.
If you watch tumbling runs done in gymnastics competition (on padded mats, not on a bare stage or a thin rug) you get the idea. If this isn't done, the demise of fitness in the NPC - and eventually in the IFBB - is just a matter of time.
Figure, on the other hand, has its own problems. Figure is not fitness-without-the-routines. It has come to favor a totally different body type than the compact physiques you see in bodybuilding and fitness. The bodies favored by figure judges tend to be long-waisted, long-legged in proportion. To illustrate the difference, just stand Davana Medina next to Monica Brant.
Click Image To Enlarge.
Davana Medina Has The Natural "Long Proportion"
Physique That Wins Pro Figure.
Monica Brant Has A More Compact Body
And Lost Some Shape When She Tried To Slim Down Too Far.
As a rule, the top figure women tend to be extremely attractive. They often have more muscle than the federations would prefer but because of their long proportions this muscularity rarely looks "bulky." This is why I call figure competitors the "supermodels of the fitness industry."
In the early 1980's, there was a movement to create "soft bodybuilding" events, featuring women with bodybuilding physiques who were not too big to appeal to people outside of the bodybuilding world. Figure competitors are obviously bodybuilders of a sort and so they seem to be what advocates of soft bodybuilding had in mind.
The problem with figure competition is that it isn't very interesting. Women in fitness do quarter turns, wearing two different types of suits (for reasons never explained) and then do their routines. The figure women just do the quarter turns. As attractive as the women are, audiences often find watching endless quarter turns on stage to be tedious - especially in amateur events where 6 different height classes are involved.
But no matter the type of routines allowed or whether you are talking about fitness or figure, the bottom line is that fans like the way these women look but tend to be reluctant to pay to see them - reluctant to buy tickets and reluctant to buy physique magazines that feature them.
Bodybuilders, whether male or female, often attract long-term, highly devoted fans. With a few notable exceptions (Monica Brant, Timea Majorova for example), the fitness and figure women don't inspire the same kind of devotion.
But for some reason (perhaps because people are often too willing to believe what they read) this lack of a PAYING audience for fitness and figure seems to have escaped the understanding of the federations, the magazines and even many of the women themselves.
At the amateur level, ticket buyers are often friends and family of the competitors, so having so many women competing means that an NPC national event will make money from ticket sales (and from charging the competitors themselves to enter the event). But the same is not true of pro shows.
Ideally, if you combine female bodybuilding, fitness and figure in the same event there is a sufficient variety of different physiques on stage to help sell tickets (assuming anybody has gone to the trouble to promote the event and to publicize the individual "stars" involved). But the organizers of the Olympia Weekend 2005 didn't see things this way.
They allowed all three categories of women to compete together at the prejudging held on Friday afternoon at the Expo. But then scheduled the fitness and figure finals for Friday night at the Orleans Arena, along with a men's "Wild Card" event that allowed bodybuilders not qualified for the Mr. Olympia to win a single special qualifying slot.
As described below, the results of this decision were disastrous.
Seeing the competitors on stage in prejudging was an exercise in deja vu, or "round up the usual suspects." Adela Garcia won the Olympia Fitness in 2004 and was certainly a favorite here. I like the way Adela has filled out her physique over the years, resulting in a much more pleasing shape.
Jen Hendershott was probably the best gymnast on in the contest but strong, compact physiques like hers often have "symmetry" problems (the overall shape of the body, including a V-shape torso and small waist).
Kim Klein won the recent IFBB New York Pro Fitness Contest and so came into the competition with some momentum. The same was true of Tracey Greenwood, who won the Europa 2005 in Dallas last August.
There were no routines in prejudging, just quarter turns. The score sheets show us that Adela was in the lead, Kim second, Jen third and Tracey 4th.
If you want a clear idea of what figure is all about - and why women with compact fitness or bodybuilding physiques need not apply (at least on the pro level) as described above, take a look at the Ms. Olympia Figure line-up.
Four of the top five have that long-proportioned "model" physique described above: Davana Medina, Jenny Lynn, Amber Littlejohn and Mary Elizabeth Lado. The only exception to this was Monica Brant. Monica finished second the last two years in a row. This year she was third.
This gradual decline in placings is not inevitable, but it is probable. Monica looks fantastic, but has that "compact" physique which would allow her to win a lightweight bodybuilding title (if she just gained a few pounds of muscle and if the IFBB hadn't eliminated weight divisions for women bodybuilders).
She was lean but muscular two years ago, "softer" last year and in 2005 dieting down to the point of being somewhat "skinny." But you can't fool Mother Nature.
But overall you'd think the figure women would be considered highly promotable by the industry. I don't really consider figure to be a true "sport" as is bodybuilding (all sports are about going "to the limit" in terms of physical performance, and that's not figure).
But it's obvious looking at a pro figure contest that the women involved are hard-training athletes and extremely attractive as well. Given that sponsors and magazines have a reluctance to involve themselves with serious female bodybuilders, why on earth aren't all of them using the services of these fabulous looking figure competitors?
Why doesn't Muscle & Fitness (owned by AMI/Weider, a major owner of the Olympia) put these women on the cover instead of NFL cheerleaders? Why are so few of them ever features in Flex (which seems totally uninterested in IFBB or NPC women at all)?
The turnout for the finals at the Orleans Arena was dismal. Most years that the finals of female bodybuilding, fitness and figure held at the Mandalay Bay the ticket sales were quite respectable. But given the size of the Arena, there seemed to be almost nobody in the house.
So much for the idea of taking the Ms. Olympia out of the mix and adding a men's "Wild Card" contest. It stands to reason that fans of men's bodybuilding would prefer seeing the Mr. Olympia rather than buying tickets to an also-ran event being held in conjunction with a woman's competition and that fans of female bodybuilding would not be likely to buy tickets to see just fitness and figure.
Bad idea. Worse result.
The fitness competitors did their routines and they were reasonably entertaining. There aren't many photos of these routines because they were done on the basic stage - so low that photographers found it almost impossible to get any pictures that didn't have the heads of the judges in the way.
Another thing that made it more difficult for the photographers, the judges and the audience was how dim the lighting was. It wasn't bad lighting, just too dark. In my experience, this comes from lighting for video with no regard to anything else. Since modern video cameras are so forgiving - they can make a foggy twilight look like a bright afternoon - this is not the standard to use in setting lighting levels. If the light looks good for still photos, it will also be ideal for the judges and audience.
Many of the women complained later at the amount of time they had to stand around backstage while the Wild Card contest went on and on and on. When the fitness and figure women finally did get to stand onstage they didn't even get to be compared doing quarter turns. They only appeared wearing one piece suits, not bikinis as well.
Many had friends and family in the audience who had gone to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money to attend the event. But although the organizers advertised this as a women's night, it seems as if they had little confidence that anybody actually wanted to see the women. So there was no female bodybuilding and much less fitness and figure than there should have been. Instead they added a "made up" event for men of no significance except to those athletes actually competing.
The fitness results once again demonstrated that fitness is too often nothing more than a gymnastics contest. Jen Hendershott, who was third in physique, placed first based on a really well-done (and gymnastically-based) routine. Kim Klein was third in physique, second in the routine and finished second. Adela Garcia was first in physique, third in the routine round and finished third.
You have to wonder, why bother to have the physique round at all if the routines are going to determine the outcome of the contest to such a great extent? And why are the IFBB and NPC, which are physique federations, sanctioning gymnastics contests?
There were few surprises when it came to figure. Davana Medina won, as she has twice before. Jenny Lynn was second, as might have been expected. One twist was that Amber Littlejohn finished 4th, one place in front of Mary Elizabeth Lado, who had beaten Amber at the Los Angeles Pro.
Monica Brant was third, mostly I think because the judges don't want to place somebody with a compact rather than long proportioned physique at the top - but Monica looks so good they don't want to drop her too low. Second last year, third in 2005 - this is likely to be a trend that will continue in the future.
Meanwhile Monica is likely to continue to be one of the most popular and successful women in figure. If you want proof, just look at the line of fans waiting to buy photos from her at an Expo.
As things stand, if you want to see exciting, well done women's events - fitness, figure or female bodybuilding - you should attend the Arnold Weekend rather than the Olympia. Jim Lorimer and Arnold Schwarzenegger have promoting been these contests down to a sign. The women are treated with the respect they are due and the women's finals are extremely well attended.
The current organizers of the Olympia have a lot to learn. If they want to hold prejudging at the Expo rather than looking for a way to sell tickets, so be it. But the Friday finals needs to include female bodybuilding as well as fitness and figure, they need to do away with the seating arrangements (having VIPs up front, then the judges way back and the press way, way back!), and they need to PROMOTE the event all year long - which they can do as the new owners of the Weider magazines.
They also need to open the backstage to the press, at least during the women's events. Fitness, figure and women's bodybuilding needs all the attention it can get and photos showing the women getting ready in the dressing rooms and pumping up backstage all help to create additional fan interest.
Click Image To Enlarge.
A Rare Backstage Shot. For The Most Part,
The Backstage Area At The Olympia Was Closed To
All But Weider Photographers.
But Where Will AMI/Weider Run Those Photos?
Don't Hold Your Breath.
When Vince McMahon of the WWE tried to move into bodybuilding years ago he made the mistake of trying to reinvent the wheel. In effect, he did EVERYTHING wrong because he was inexperienced in this industry but still wanted to do things his own way.
The current Olympia organizers keep trying to make physique competition more "exciting" and appealing to the "general public." What they should be doing is finding ways to create a weekend that uses all the successful approaches from the past, add a huge amount of promotion and publicity (neither the IFBB nor the NPC have full-time public relations and AMI/Weider doesn't seem to have filled this gap) and THEN see if there are some additions that can be made to make the Olympia even more attractive to ticket buyers.
But it is NOT a valid strategy to alienate the audience you already have in search of an audience that you can't be certain even exists.
However, on the plus side nobody was talking about the "lose 20% muscle rule." Perhaps the IFBB is catching on to the fact that the physique audience likes muscle and EVERYBODY likes muscles on women as long as the women are attractive enough.