It's a crisp Saturday and a large sampling of Southern California's hyperfit, workout-addicted adrenaline junkies line up outside Gold's Gym in Venice for the chance to put on a blue or red outfit, step into a padded arena and battle towering, two-legged slabs of angry muscle with names like Titan, Mayhem, Fury, Venom — and other scary nouns — on the hit NBC show American Gladiators.
It would be easy to glibly compare the ancient Roman Empire to current America, but there really are some vast differences. For instance, ancient Rome had much more efficient government services, greater tolerance of diverse religious beliefs and far more decadent orgies. We, however, are clearly superior in our treatment of gladiators. Roman gladiators risked horrific, bloody death at the end of a sword, spear or set of lion's teeth, while ours only risk getting smashed around by colossal superathletes brandishing cushioned quarterstaffs on national TV.
Potential competitors are subjected to a battery of physical tests in a fenced-in, semi-outdoor area on the edge of Gold's property, the first station being the dreaded pull-up. While a decent portion of the competitors I see whip through an impressive 20 or more in the allotted 30 seconds, it's clear that — just as when you took the Presidential Physical Fitness Test back in elementary school — pull-ups are an especially torturous task for those without the correct weight/strength/size ratio. I watch an imposing, huge-armed brute struggle while nearby a ponytailed, moderately in-shape coffeehouse intellectual wearing Bermuda shorts tears through the pull-up station like a Camp Pendleton recruit.
After the pull-ups, Gladiator hopefuls drop down onto a mat in a squat position with arms forward, and then kick legs out into a full push-up, pull legs back in, stand up and repeat multiple times. At the next station, aspiring Gladiator slayers maneuver through a "ladder" of tape squares on the floor. Done well, it resembles something like a stunt dancer doing an especially speedy segment in a Fred Astaire movie.
The final station is the shuttle run, which requires dashing back and forth between two orange cones, several yards apart, while negotiating another taped "ladder" pattern on the ground. Even the leanest, most ripped and conditioned among the wannabes struggle with this one after the three previous stations.
Folks from all backgrounds wait in a line that snakes around the building for their shot at glory. "The hardest part has to be mentally pushing yourself," says Greg, 20, from San Bernardino, a student and personal trainer with a 10-year background in wrestling and bodybuilding. "The pull-ups are probably gonna be tough. These tryouts are all about how long can you go." Greg's wide, rounded shoulders, husky arms and sense of personal gravity did much to compensate for his short stature. It dawns on me that this kid probably started a rigorous physical regimen at age 10!
"You have to be a little bit psycho to work out as a way of life," says pretty, reddish-brown-haired Suzy, a 42-year-old insurance executive from Simi Valley. "You don't just do it to get in shape or look good, it's on the inside." The confident, upbeat Suzy competes in marathons and triathlons and works out six times a week. She allows that pull-ups might be hard for her, but sees her attributes as a strong upper body, speed and stamina — products, she says, of her German heritage.
"From what I saw, I don't think any of it is gonna be a challenge," boasts 26-year-old Don from North Hollywood. Don is a personal assistant who played football at USC. "Personally, I think the hardest thing is standing in this line, staying still."
Walking away, I notice an unlocked mountain bike leaning against the street side of a parked car. I casually mention to some of the folks in line that someone has left his bike unlocked.
"Well, dude ...," responds a bullnecked blond guy with a rhinoceros chest and colorful, jagged-line tattoos across the tops of his telephone-pole arms, "I don't think anyone's gonna try anything with about 20 tons of amped-up muscle heads standing just a few yards away."
I nod and head home, suddenly motivated to find that 30-pound dumbbell I have lying around somewhere.