May 3, 2007
Joe ‘Master Blaster’ Weider still going strong
Web extra: Arnold introduces Joe at Muscle Beach
Even at 86 years old, Weider gives you the sense he might have once been one of those Olympians. As he approaches the head of the table inside this wood-paneled room, Weider appears dapper and powerful, his muscular torso still filling out the gray pinstriped suit he wears with a starched white shirt and red power tie.
A young assistant helps Weider into his chair, a concession to his age. But the man who says he was "born with a barbell in my hands" in his book, "Brothers of Iron: Building the Weider Empire" (Sports Publishing, 2006), retains a strong handshake even after undergoing a heart valve operation and back surgery in recent decades.
Weider's twin interests in history and art are reflected in the Frederic Remington bronze sculptures of cowboys and Indians on horseback that adorn the conference room, as well as sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and Weider himself outside the room. A teacher once told him that he should be an artist, and indeed he says that that could have been his career had he not chosen bodybuilding.
His artistic sensibilities can be seen in his illustrations of the male body framed in the downstairs lobby, which appeared in the inaugural issue of Your Physique, the first publication in his magazine empire and the precursor to Muscle & Fitness. In 2003, he sold Weider Publications titles, including Muscle & Fitness, Shape, Flex and Men's Fitness, to American Media, Inc., for roughly $375 million, Weider says. Not bad for a Depression-era kid with a seventh-grade education who invested his life savings of $7 into putting out the first issue of Your Physique in the late 1930s.
On this spring day, he sports an adhesive bandage around the tip of his nose to cover a precancerous growth he had removed. Were he a younger man, one might assume that he had gotten into a fight, as he once did as a teen in Montreal, knocking out an anti-Semitic French Canadian bully with one punch. However, Weider, who immigrated to the United States after World War II, has not gotten into any fights since that scuffle in Montreal.
Weider grew up in an era when many Jews fought for a living, but he did not fight in the prize ring; he fought to keep a business afloat.
"Judaism made me," he says. "It taught me to be a good boy, respect women, study and apply myself to work."
Weider and his brother and business partner, Ben, never denied their Judaism, even when Ben was making contacts in Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories as part of their effort to promote bodybuilding worldwide.
Over the years, they had to battle fierce competitors within their field, including Bob Hoffman, founder of the York Barbell Company and a U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach, who published magazines for weightlifters and served as head of the Amateur Athletic Union.
Joe Weider, who casually drops in references to Freud's pleasure principle, also had to battle psychologists, who claimed that weight training "would do you no good."
Looking resplendent with a full head of silver hair and matching silver moustache, Weider speaks for many young weightlifters when he says that "It made me feel I can change myself," then he adds, "and change other people."
Although bodybuilding improved the self-esteem of Weider and his disciples, he says that he had to counter another notion propounded by psychologists at the time -- that those who built up their physiques were "latent homosexuals" who liked to stare at their bodies. It seems an odd point to mention and certainly less serious than charges back then that lifting weights would leave one overly muscle-bound, that muscle could turn to fat and, worst of all, that weight-training could result in so-called "athlete's heart."
Like former pupil Schwarzenegger, Weider did have surgery for a leaky heart valve, but he says that both were born with the condition.
"Arnold's mother had it and died from it," he says.
Weider also says that his back problems were due to a freak accident and had nothing to do with weight training. However, he admits that handling weights improperly can damage the body. He is also well aware of the drug abuses of too many body builders and athletes in other fields, a scourge that has led to severe health concerns, including heart attacks, strokes and cancer.
In "Brothers of Iron," which is equal parts memoir, business primer and popular culture history, Weider stresses that he and Ben were always opposed to steroids. He writes that, "like much of the world's evil ... steroids ... came from the Nazis and the Communists," a point that resonates when reflecting on the multitude of East German Olympians, both male and female, who cheated their way to gold medals with bloated musculature through the late 1980s. Although the International Olympic Committee banned certain performance-enhancing drugs in 1967, steroids were not added to the list until 1975.
Ironically, many of those Eastern Europeans got their weight-training methodology from Weider, whose publications have been circulating the globe for nearly 70 years.
In 1950, Weider made his famous 10 predictions, some of which ended up being remarkably prescient. None more so than Prediction No. 1, "I predict that civilization will speed up in every phase, and that the stresses and strains on mankind will continue to increase," and Prediction No. 2, "I predict that the resulting increase in mental and physical illness will force the world to recognize the importance of systematic exercise and physical activities."
Most satisfying of all, he says, has been Prediction No. 10, "I predict that body building will one day become one of the greatest forces in existence, and that it may be hailed as the activity that actually saved civilization from itself."