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The American Way: ‘Bigger, Stronger, Faster’


Still Courtesy of: Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

When Mike, Chris and Mark Bell, were striving to become champion iron pumpers in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the brothers never dreamed that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan and their other idols were juiced. Steroids were for commies –like Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. Rocky himself was clean and sober. He chopped wood to get buff.

But, as they got older, the Bells learned the dirty little secret: their heroes were on ‘roids. The Bells would have to take them too, if they wanted to compete. Years later, Mark—who went by “Mad Dog” when he wrestled for World Wresting Entertainment, the WWE, and “Smelly” Mike – who can bench press 700 pounds– are still using the stuff.

Chris, the middle brother, tried steroids for a few months, stopped and decided to make a movie about them instead. His documentary film, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American,” is a hilarious, poignant and thought-provoking look at the hypocritical culture of competition.

“I was brought up to believe that cheaters never prosper,” he narrates, over footage of President George W. Bush speaking against steroid use — though his Texas Rangers used them. “But in America, they always prosper.”

With the Olympics beginning Friday and millions of kids primed to watch their U.S. heroes compete with the world, Bell sadly reflected on what he learned about the clandestine doping that goes on beyond the noble striving for national glory. Bell, 35, spent three years working on the film, which incorporates dozens of interviews and other footage.

“I used to think the Olympics had the best drug testing, but it’s a big façade,” he said in a phone interview. The Balco scandal — in which a San Francisco steroid producer provided hundreds of baseball players with hard-to-trace steroid shots — revealed some of the tricks that trainers use to evade testing. Olympic committees have done little to keep pace with the cheaters, Bell said. “You can skirt the rules on hormones. There’s no test for human-growth hormone. There’s an improved test for Epo [which increases oxygen in the blood], but it won’t be ready for the Olympics.”

“I don’t want to be one of those conspiracy-theory guys, but there are a lot of people juicing,” he said. “You’re never going to have a 100-percent clean Olympics. It’s sad. Kids look up to these people.”

News accounts indicate a certain vigilance against doping Olympic athletes. But the history of such scandals, Bell suggests, is that only the unlucky get caught. During the 1988 games, Jamaican sprinter Ben Johnson lost his gold medal in the 100 meters for steroid use. Carl Lewis, to whom the gold was awarded, had also tested for banned substances in his blood during training. Rather than disqualify him, according to Bell’s well-documented account, the U.S. Olympic Committee changed the rules.

Anabolic steroids became controlled substances in 1990, and are banned by most professional sports associations, but it’s an open secret that you can’t be the best bodybuilder, weight lifter or home run hitter (or swimmer?) without them. And so, people cheat.

Bell’s film, which incorporates his own interviews, news footage and cartoons in a hilarious gallop through the issue, makes two main points about steroid use. The first is that steroids, as bodybuilder Gregg Valentino puts it during the film, “are as American as apple pie” — that the American drive to win trumps the American sense of fairness every time. This, Bell is saying, is what really bothers Congress, which held more hearings about steroids in 2006 than it did on the war in Iraq. Steroids aren’t nearly as dangerous as tobacco, alcohol or dozens of other legal substances, but their use reveals something ugly about America, and not just its athletics industry.

“There’s this assumption that steroids kill, but no one can find the bodies,” Bell said. Valentino has biceps that look like a python swallowing a pig. But Bell shrugs. “Some people just want big arms. If people want to look like freaks, why can’t they? Is it any worse than piercing strange parts of yourself?”

Or as Valentino himself puts it, “I wanted to be big. I couldn’t get taller, so I got wider.”

Bell may be underplaying the potential side effects of steroid use. While it’s true that the scientific evidence of liver damage and hyper-aggressive “roid rage” is mixed, longterm steroid use definitely raises your bloodpressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels, shrinks your testicles and gives you “bitch tits,” in the ineffable phrase of the Bell brothers. It probably also stunts the growth of teenagers. Bell, to be sure, isn’t exactly promoting steroid use. “I know people who’ve been abused by steroids. If you think one minute my brothers are fine and not screwed up in the heads from fact they rely on steroids … when you rely on a drug to do anything, you’re looking for trouble.”

Too, juicing goes against the American sense of fair play. But if Tiger Woods can get laser eye surgery, and students can take legal speed to ace tests, why shouldn’t athletes improve their torque with chemistry? Bell manages to make even Barry Bonds look sympathetic, as the slugger tells the press, “All of you have lied. How would you like it if there were asterisks by your names?”

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” united Chris Bell’s two obsessions: movies and body-building. A music video he made at community college got him from Poughkeepsie to film school at the University of Southern California. While studying there, he worked as a bouncer, lifted at the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach,and later wrote for the WWE. A short film about tobacco addiction got the attention of the producers of “Farenheit 911″ and “Bowling for Columbine.”

The film achieves something unusual — it manages to convey respect and affection toward subjects whose foibles are hilarious. The narration makes it happen. Bell is schlubby in a Michael Moore kind of way, but unlike Moore, he’s sincere, because the pain is personal. A regular guy in gym clothes and a backwards baseball cap, he depicts America’s identity confusion through his own family’s struggle with obesity, drug use and obfuscation.

In a section about how the wildly under-regulated dietary-supplements industry uses juiced lifters to deceptively sell its products, Bell hires some Mexican guys to make a supplement in his kitchen. “It was all perfectly legal — except for the illegal aliens.”

His brothers are symbolic stand-ins for the conflict. “Smelly’’ is emotionally stable, a loving father who coaches high school football. “Mad Dog” is bipolar, has tried to kill himself, hates his job, drinks too much and takes drugs. They’re both lifetime steroid users.

Ultimately, in this film, we see steroids as just another substance that Americans use to fill emptiness. Bell’s mother is shocked to hear how dependent on them her boys are. “Why did our boys feel like they were not good enough?” she asks. “Mad Dog” responds that he can’t handle a life in which he’s just OK. “I need to attain greatness,” he says. “I know there’s something in here that the rest of the world needs to know about.”

“In my experience, bodybuilders are like little kids in a gorilla suit,” Bell told me. “They pack on armor so nobody can hurt them. When I was lifting weights, I thought I’d be the coolest kids in school if I could bench press the most. It felt good.

“But I found out from the film,” Bell said, “that I’m a much better filmmaker than I am power lifter.”

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