Pumping Iron

Pumping Iron

I enjoy watching movies and reading books. Completing this sport psych degree, I’ve started reading more and more about the subject and have even gotten myself a projector, now watching sport psych-related movies often with friends from the program. I’ll be posting brief notes for items that merit it, using my own personal rating style. Here’s the first!

Pumping Iron (1:25, 1977, 7.5, 96|88%) is a docudrama focusing on the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, the former an amateur and the latter a professional event. The story first follows Mike Katz as he prepares for Mr. Universe, showing snippets of Ken Waller, who went on to win the event. Mike is shown as a nice family man who was bullied in the past, while Ken is portrayed as a shrewd, conniving athlete who willingly employs underhand tactics to secure a title. Throughout the film Ken Waller continues making appearances and you just can’t help but wonder what he’s up to this time. The film then moves to follow Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno (the original Hulk!) as they train for Mr. Olympia in Pretoria, South Africa. Lou is shown to be a bit slow and hesitant, clearly displaying the four-year age gap separating him from his older hero, Arnold. Arnold, on the other hand, is shown to be extremely confident and also willing to use mind games to psych his opponents out, though not to the same extent as Ken. Italy’s Franco Columbu and France’s Serge Nubret also make appearances, the former shown to look up to Arnold in a younger brother sort of way and the second a dark horse who unexpectedly enters the competition at the last minute and ends up winning silver. A favourite scene is when the Italian lifts a car to help someone get out of a parking spot, disproving the notion that bodybuilders are all show and no strength (at least during the sport’s 70s golden era that crowned Arnold king).

This movie was excellent in building a renewed resolve in my continuing training even harder. It also showed Arnold in a realistic light — that when he was focused on a competition, he let absolutely nothing swerve him from his course. This was best shown when he talks of his father’s death: when his mother called from Austria to inform him of what happened and to ask if he would be returning home to attend the funeral, Arnold easily made up an excuse and missed the event, explaining in the interview that he had a big competition coming up two months later and he had already entered training mode mentally, something that for him meant strict distance from unfettered emotions. A second event that really made you go, “Hmmm,” occurred when Arnold was asked if he would win against his friend and gym mate, Franco. Arnold quickly brushed this off as an easy task. “Franco looks up to me for advice,” he explained, “It would be easy for me to give him the wrong advice if necessary.”

It was also enlightening watching the intense mind games happening in the shared dressing room minutes before the actual contest. I couldn’t help but think of the group as a pride of hungry lions in a tight cage, just waiting for the weakest to make the first stumble. Arnold proves king of gaining the mental edge here, something that easily transfers over into a physical edge on stage. And a good thing too — he had no intention of competing a sixth time and actually only did so when the filmmakers approached him, asking if they could film him in training and leaving him with only three months to prepare.

At the end of the event, when all the testosterone is cleared from the air, Arnold gives his winner’s speech and formally retires from bodybuilding competition after six straight wins… though he ended up coming out of retirement to win a seventh title in 1980. This is an interesting story in itself: Arnold was then training for his role in the fantasy-adventure flick, Conan, and had gotten into such good shape that he decided to go for it. Booked as a commentator for the event, he kept his participation secret to not lose face in the event of an injury, only announcing eleven hours before the event that — since he was already there — “Why not compete?”

Classic Arnold.

The Arnold you know after the film

The last points I look home away from this film were twofold: first, running again across the problem of defining exactly what “sport” is. Arnold, during his retirement announcement, proudly asserts that bodybuilding is the “greatest sport”. I agree that it is a sport indeed, though it occupies a grey area and I’ll have to think in greater depth to come up with a satisfactory definition of the term. The second point was Arnold’s view of pain, and specifically of something he calls a pain “barrier”. Says Arnold: “When you’re working out, you need to hit the pain limit and push past it, because that is where growth happens. This is what differentiates the champions from the rest of the crowd.” Something to mull over, that.

In the end, I maintain a high level of respect for Arnold. His confidence, drive, and raw power are a force to behold, even after all these years. That his personal life was marred with a few bad decision is unfortunate, but we all have our demons. Arnold remains a hero in my eyes, at least as far as pure determination goes.

Ratings follow: full points for all categories apart from recommendability because I can only recommend it to friends who love sport or psychology. It would be a bit dry otherwise, as would any documentary if you don’t enjoy the subject. Total: ★★★★¼, so highly recommended!

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