Rocky Balboa kicking the behind of Ivan Drago. Hulk Hogan dropping a leg across the Iron Sheikh. Arnie brutalising anything that stepped across his path. The America of Reagan was America on steroids – in the sense of the metaphorical clichè and also, to some extent, as a literal truth. Arnie, Sly, the Hulkster and innumerable other objects of the nation’s pride had been on as many drugs as the most debased of pop stars.
One of many interesting points in Christopher Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster is that the outraged, faintly hysterical reactions to the exposure of steroid use in professional wrestling, baseball and elsewhere probably had a lot to do with its despoiling a national myth. Americans, like other peoples, are often preoccupied with their greatness but they’re also fond of the belief that this has been achieved through the purest of ideals and honest labour. Hulk Hogan, the “real American”, told kids that if they wanted biceps to rival the basket balls atop his upper arms they’d have to say their prayers and take their vitamins. While Ivan Drago was the product of a team of scientists and the dubious offerings of their cabinets Rocky Balboa chopped logs, ran through the snow and probably enjoyed a steak once he’d returned to his humble dwelling. The knowledge that their heroes were, in fact, reliant on unnatural assistance – obtained through weird, dishonest means at that – was something akin to a personal affront.
Bell feels that the dangers of juicing have been overstated. He claims that more people enter hospitals with conditions related to multivitamins than steroids. (Look upon your works and despair, Hulk Hogan. Despair.) I don’t know enough to offer a reliable opinion but I suspect that there’s truth to this. While pro wrestling is infamous for its association with steroids, for example, the most dangerous factors are liable to have been the cocktails of painkillers and, often, recreational drugs that have allowed wrestlers to maintain their schedules, and the damage increasingly hazardous matches have wreaked upon their bodies. Even if they aren’t as physiologically harmful as some might have assumed, though, the psychology of the users Bell profiled was eerie. All of them were desperate to lift that little bit more or add that extra inch of muscle. For what? In case they got trapped beneath a landslide and had to shift a 600 rather than 500lb boulders? So that they could rent out room on their biceps and deltoids? When one’s goals are so arbitrary, so essentially unproductive and yet so beyond what nature has catered for one has to ask what’s behind such hubristic desire. In exploring this question Bell said a bit about the modern male but more than was immediately obvious about his country.