Mountains of Muscle in the Land of Lincoln — A Trip to the Illinois Bodybuilding Championship in Chicago Illuminates a Dedicated Subculture: Column

Contestants in the Illinois State Championship of the National Physique Committee are pictured on May 11, 2024. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)Contestants in the Illinois State Championship of the National Physique Committee are pictured on May 11, 2024. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)

It was a beefy display, and WTTW News couldn’t wrangle an invite.

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Mighty men and well-toned women paraded through the lobby of the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park last Saturday, crossing paths with fans, supporters and vendors.

The muscled masses were competitors in the Illinois State Championship of the National Physique Committee (NPC), which bills itself as the world’s premier amateur physique organization.

The NPC hosts contests such as the Battle of the Bodies, the Mother Lode, and, for some reason, the Jay Cutler Classic.

It’s a portal to a professional career in the International Federation of Bodybuilders, founded in 1946. There, you can join an impressive group of sculpted humans and win prizes and the admiration of your peers.

First, a bit of backstory: WTTW News reached out to the NPC to request interviews and to cover the event. The request was politely but firmly denied.

Wait… isn’t this an exhibition of exhibitionists?

Out of genuine curiosity, we had hoped to garner a better understanding of a fascinating group of people and perhaps dispel some misconceptions. All of us want to get in shape, but who puts the time and effort into getting bigger than most others? And why?

But no means no, so we bought a ticket at the door for $25 and loitered near the green room, where security guards filled the doorway and scanned the mob for troublemakers and weirdos.

Elsewhere in the crowded lobby, a vendor’s T-shirt barely contained his mountain range of muscle. The words on his shirt said “Shut Up and Squat!” but the message was ignored — everyone was talking, and no one was squatting.

One brawny man shared an iPhone photo of himself and another contestant and asked his friend “Who looks bigger?” This was followed by “Dude! You got some serious hardware!” A female competitor’s friend said to her “We should go out afterwards!” Her friend confided, “I’ve already had a drink!” It was almost noon.

Contestants came and went from the green room at the front of the house. They had to pass through the lobby to get to the auditorium. Once inside the old movie house, they stood in queue in the shadowy aisles.

The Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park was once the Gateway Theater, a deluxe movie house that opened in 1930. In the auditorium, two coves flank the stage. Within these nooks, life-size sculptures of Greek gods look out over the setting.

Onstage, five men in black Speedos faced the judges and posed like Olympians. “Toes on the blue line, guys,” the announcer instructed. “Take a quarter turn to your right. OK, let’s see double bicep.”

Music played softly in the background. It was the Eagles’ “Desperado,” and Don Henley sang “Oh, you’re a hard one, but I know you’ve got your reasons….” As the afternoon wore on, Steely Dan was the favored artist for flexing.

The men flexed and held their stances impressively. After the cue “Now strike your favorite classic pose,” they squatted or twisted their bodies or raised their wingspans like demigods. They smiled at the crowd and smiled at their muscles. It was a sensational display of flaunting what you got.

But among these giants there was an elephant in the room.

Fully expecting spray tans and bronzer, this reporter was shocked by how brown some of the makeup was. White people wore full body makeup that made them cocoa-colored, not bronze or tan. One could look at a contestant below the neck and assume they were a person of color, only to look at their unpainted face and have the assumption upended. This was true of women as well as men. Lots of them.

The entire event felt oddly anachronistic, as if the 1980s had never ended. We now live in an era when decent folks don’t judge body types or skin color, among other things, yet here is a contest where we evaluate anatomies and wonder about flesh tone.

Most of the contestants looked happy and fit, but you are left with questions of how much bodily sacrifice is required to achieve their well-muscled goals.

There were so many questions, but our follow-up email to the promoters went unanswered.

A shame, because this unique amateur sporting event could use more attendees. For all the unexpected sights that greet a first-time visitor into this world, it really should be experienced in person.

The crowd of several hundred people shouted encouragement from the main floor. “Let’s go Bobby!” “Flex!” “Stay Tight!” “Nobody puts Krissy in the corner!”

In the aisles, contestants toned up with resistance bands and push-ups while waiting their turn in the spotlight. They greeted individuals coming off the stage with “That was sick!” and “You looked fantastic!”

The male competitors were barefoot. The women wore Lucite high heels with rhinestones that matched their one-piece bathing suits.

Between groups of contestants, the announcer addressed the crowd: “We have a cracked Nokia cellphone here that was found in the women’s washroom.”

There was no program or playbill for the event. It would have been helpful to know people’s names or delineate the many categories of exhibition. It seemed like there were several divisions. There was also an over-50 group, and there was a teen event.

Later, the announcer said, “We still have this cracked Nokia — and it keeps on ringing!” He got a laugh.

In the lobby, iron pumpers gathered in clusters near a bust of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish Renaissance man. A slim, elderly usher with a white crewcut eyed the crowd. He smiled at me, flexed a skinny bicep and said, “I’ve had the same muscles for 75 years, and they’re still good!”

The contest might simply be an expression of youthfulness and virility — no senior citizen can maintain that much muscle. Perhaps bodybuilders are searching for an eternal spring, a fountain of youth. There were lots of healthy people there with good intentions. Let’s hope they find whatever it is they’re seeking.

The Copernicus Center in November will host another bodybuilding show called “Midwest Gladiator.”

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