Only Natural For Bodybuilders

OFTEN, bodybuilding and steroid use seem to go hand-in-hand - how else could seemingly ordinary people have such chiseled physiques? That is not acceptable to Raymond Hobi, who will stage a drug-free competition tomorrow.

Their eyes bulged as they strained to make every muscle in the human body appear larger than life - not just stand out, but seize the front-row judges by the throat.

You WILL notice me, their bulk commanded. You WILL admire me.

On stage behind the bodybuilders, as at most contests, were advertisements for nutritional products, gyms and other services that, ostensibly, make ordinary men and women into Titans.

"I'd love to go to a bodybuilding contest once with a banner that says, `Bodies by Dianabol,' " said Raymond Hobi, speaking of the popular, and illegal, anabolic steroid.

"That would be infinitely more honest."

Unusually honest.

Room for the drug-free

As founder and promoter of the Spring Natural Bodybuilding Championships, tomorrow at the Carco Theatre in Renton, Hobi is trying to carve a niche for drug-free activity in a sport that has all but given up on clean competition.

The entrants in Hobi's contest will be slighter than those at last Saturday's Emerald Cup, in which bodybuilders ages 15 to 77 flexed muscle on stage before a Paramount Theatre audience.

There will be more emphasis on posing and aesthetics, rather than sheer bulk.

But bulk sells, as demonstrated by the several thousand fans who paid $12 each to attend the Emerald Cup, a prominent bodybuilding event in the state where competitors, as at the larger national events, were not tested for drugs.

But spurred on by a small, local faction of bodybuilders who have tired of the direction of their sport, Hobi is putting on his own drug-tested event for the second consecutive year. He made a profit last year and, with a sellout crowd of 300 expected, projects the same this year.

A 15-year veteran of the local bodybuilding circuit, Hobi, 29, decided to develop his own event after concluding that only the rarest of bodybuilders could win a competition without taking drugs.

His resolve grew after placing third in a local competition several years ago. He said that an official for the National Physique Committee, the governing body for the sport, suggested that he "stop running into a wall" by trying to win contests drug-free.

"You get tired of seeing the same thing over and over," he said.

"You get to the point where either you change the sport entirely or you get out."

It's a lonely battle.

In 1990, in an attempt to get away from the stigma of steroids, competitors in the Mr. Olympia contest were subjected to drug tests for the first time in the event's 26 years.

The tests, though, were abandoned the next year and haven't returned.

Why? "Honestly, because we lost about half of the competitors in the show," including five of the world's top 20 bodybuilders, said Jim Mannion, NPC president.

Drug tests also can be expensive (costing up to $250 per person) and don't catch every drug user, said Mannion. When the tests falsely peg someone for drugs, there can be legal concerns, he said.

But mostly, drug tests can hurt the popularity of bodybuilding as a spectator sport, Mannion said. At Mr. Olympia in 1990, the winners were smaller than in previous years.

"The actual paying customer wants to see the biggest and most ripped up guys possible," Mannion said.

"That's been the problem with natural contests. The promoters can't make money if people don't show up."

Mannion shrugs at the notion the sport is now captive to the prototype advanced by movie star and ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a former steroid user. "It's become a business."

Hobi calls Mannion's reasoning "a copout." He ventures that if Mannion and the NPC made a lasting commitment to natural bodybuilding, crowds would adjust their expectations.

A new standard

But like Mannion, Hobi said cleaning up the sport goes beyond drug tests. Hobi, a personal trainer and administrator at the Renton Community Center, wrote last year in a newsletter he sends to his clients and other bodybuilders that the key to ridding bodybuilding of steroids is setting a new, healthier standard of appearance.

"The criteria almost forces these guys to use steroids because they judge so much on size," he said.

"There's only so much muscle, only so many gobs and gobs of clay, you can put on the ordinary frame."

Hobi prefers the judging criteria used for women bodybuilders, where drug use is considered less prevalent.

Women are more heavily rewarded for creative and fluid posing routines and actually can be marked down for showing too much high-definition muscle.

Steroids and related agents tend to lower body fat levels at the same time they add bulk, creating the effect of paper-thin skin over rippling muscle.

Judges still like bulk

Mannion said "size isn't everything" to NPC judges, but concedes that the winners of the men's competition have gotten increasingly bulky. The current Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, won at 257 pounds; the winner 10 years ago weighed 195 pounds.

The NPC is trying to promote natural bodybuilding by sanctioning more drug-tested contests around the nation, while leaving the bigger events alone. Mannion said there are about 50 such drug-tested events now, including those in Kennewick and Olympia later this year, and he expects twice that many by next year.

But Hobi is skeptical the NPC will treat natural bodybuilding as anything other than a cute little brother. He plans to go it alone with his natural event, beyond the umbrella of NPC support.

So far, so good. Hobi even plans to open his own gym next month with a no-steroids policy. Anyone suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs would be asked to leave.

Despite his outspoken criticisms, Hobi said, he hasn't received any backlash from the competitive bodybuilding community, most of which he believes is on drugs.

"How can you really have any problem with what I'm doing?" he said.

"Even people who are for steroids know it's bad; it's like smoking.

"They know I'm just trying to help promote the sport."

-----------------------------------------------------. Spring Natural Bodybuilding Championships.

What: Drug-tested competition for some of the state's top bodybuilders.

When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m.

Where: Carco Theatre, 1717 Maple Valley Highway, off Maple Valley exit of I-405 in Renton.

Tickets: $12 for night final ($7 for pre-judging, at 9 a.m.-noon), available at box office or by calling 235-2560 or 277-8322.