If Venice is weird, then maybe the epicentre of its weirdness is Gold’s Gym. When you see a man regarding his own flexed bicep in a mirror, and that bicep has a circumference of some 20-plus inches, resembles the torso of an adolescent, deserving of its own arms and legs, you may notice on that man’s face a look of surprise as much as satisfaction. Behind the determination that it took to get here, is the shadow of the uncanny. My God, he’s thinking, what have I become?
We get corporate membership of Gold’s at work and I try to go there three times a week to lift weights. I’ve got that narrow-shouldered, tubular English physique and I live in fear of becoming ever more strangely-shaped as I approach middle-age. A pot-bellied skinny bloke, with a flared back, like the creative directors I worked for in my twenties. So I go there and I do a limited range of physical jerks: squats, deadlifts, overhead press, bench press, pull-ups. I’m doing just enough of it to get it, just enough to understand the actual adrenaline rush you get from lifting something heavier than you, and to discover that you don’t get to choose the sound you make when you do so. Enough to know that if I came more I’d be able to lift more. What if I came 5 times a week? Or 7? Or 14? And so it begins.
Bodybuilding is as much about repetition as strength, the real strength being the mental toughness required to endure the boredom of lifting weights until your muscles scarrify into a shape of your choosing. Like bulimia, it’s a control issue turned into a lifestyle. It starts off with the fixation on the outline of your person, but it’s talking to something deeper, which is the extent to which you can affect the world outside your head through the action of your will. You may feel powerless or insignificant in certain areas of your life, and yet your body can be a walking contradiction of those hard facts. Or that’s the theory anyway. It’s maybe no coincidence that Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter in the Charleston massacre, was pictured wearing a Gold’s gym vest that he could never hope to fill.
The actual premises is scruffy, a triple-wide warehouse filled with functional machinery. But the scruffiness is part of the aesthetic. A kind of real-deal approach to lifting, not requiring steam rooms, laundered towels or fancy apparatus. Google are refitting the building nextdoor and its only a matter of time before they displace Gold’s also. Venice’s loss will be greater than theirs. The spirit of Gold’s is indestructible, and the brand is world famous. They have a great name, redolent of victory, and some great typography. It’s not clear exactly what their strapline is because there are so many of them painted all over the building. Gold’s: The Most Famous Gym In The World Since 1963. Gold’s: The Mecca Of Bodybuilding. Gold’s: Where Legends Are Made. But I think if anywhere deserves more than one strapline it’s Gold’s Gym. My own starter for 10 would have to be Gold’s: Where More Is More.
Because the people here are huge. If you’re used to a London gym’s ratio of 5% extremely buff to 95% normal, you want to, aptly, invert that triangle. Here fully 95% of people, irrespective of gender, would have no problem breaking off your arms. Seeing a man squat 400Ibs, which is four of the big plates on each side, the kind of feat that would draw a circle of cooing onlookers in Hackney or W12, is nbd.
Of course the patron saint of Gold’s is Arnold Schwarznegger. Colleagues of mine claim to have seen him manifested corporeally in the gym, but his image is everywhere. There he is striking a pose in a tiny wet-look posing pouch above the squat cages, his waist liquid, his shoulders enormous, out-charisma-ing ever other of one of Mr. Olympia winners up there, still now, 34 years after his last win. There he is on the huge TV screen which plays the 1977 doc Pumping Iron on repeat. It seems clear to me that Arnold’s reputation as a meathead was a product of his acting, and the roles he was cast in. The young man in Pumping Iron gives an impression of intelligence and extreme good humour, a kind of exuberance, an intense consciousness of his own beauty. I have never seen Arnold in the flesh, but I have seen Van Damme more than once. He comes to Gold’s on the regular, accompanied by two personal assistants, two blue-eyed huskies and wearing a JCVD cap. I shit you not.*
Occasionally I go outside to plug away at the leather punch bags which hang in the shadow of the building. Some lunatic has tiled the outdoor area with black rubber gym tiles, which, in 38 degree sunshine, actually shimmer with radiated heat. It’s especially weird out here. On Friday there was a tiny Filipino attacking the bag next to mine with fighting sticks. I saw the guy that plays the Sandor Clegane (‘The Mountain’) in Game of Thrones standing on another guy’s stomach while he did a bridge — a mere Tuesday afternoon. People pull sleds stacked with weights to-and-fro, they skip, do pull-ups, handstands or strange and demeaning calisthenics. There’s also, if you care to look, a seven inch gap between Gold’s and the building nextdoor, with a strip of daylight visible on the other side of the building’s width, and although the bottom of the gap has a roll of frayed carpet stuffed in it, covered in pigeon feathers and other ancient detritus, it would be possible for a cat or a weasel to traverse the space. No person could ever fit in there, surely? And yet, there is an extraordinarily skinny man, with the body of a hindu aesthetic, tan all over and completely hairless, who always seems to be naked in the changing room, dripping wet, weighing himself. And I sometimes wonder whether his own personal fitness goal is to insert himself into this gap. Whatever your dream man, you know, is coo.
This is Venice after all.
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