What An Opportunity

Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding

In Sports on September 29, 2013 at 6:07 pm


Sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life: I spend most of my day in the intellectual realm of academia, coaching writers and evaluating scholars, and then head to my second home, which sometimes feels like the most shallow place on earth – the gym.

I became committed to weight lifting about five years ago, the first time I did the popular fitness program P90X. Shortly after completing the 90-day regimen, I joined a local gym and started hitting the weights with one of my close friends, who had been a serious weight lifter for a few years. The gym quickly became a way of life, and gripping cold steel became an enjoyable reprieve from every day.

I have a couple of friends who have gotten into serious bodybuilding. That’s never been for me, but I see the physical and emotional toll it takes on a human being; it’s intense. That’s why I particularly enjoyed this Grantland piece – Atlas Flexed: A behind-the-scenes look at Mr. Olympia Phil Heath’s 2012 defense of bodybuilding’s most important title, on the weekend of this year’s competition – and have declared it The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week (slams gavel).

Just what makes it so good? Glad you asked.

The full-disclosure method 

I was taught that you should never use pronouns like “I” or “me” in writing, but Grantland is no old-school journalism site; it’s modern, it bends rules in many of its stories, and all of it works. It is my favorite sportswriting website, so I forgive the disregard for traditional journalism rules that is sometimes prevalent in Grantland’s articles. In this case, author William Giraldi talks often about his own modest career in bodybuilding as a teenager, and it’s a vital addition.

It makes the story feel more personable, and frankly, some of his descriptions of Phil Heath would have sounded downright creepy if I didn’t know he had an eye for bodybuilding. Which ties into point number two…

The ludicrous-but-effective descriptions

Giraldi makes Phil Heath sound like a deity with his egregious accounts of Heath’s body. Let’s run down a few:

Heath’s arms are almost two feet in diameter and would make the good Lord run the other way in shame.

Heath looks suspiciously either of no race at all or else of every race on earth, a glorious global amalgam.

One marvels at his bubbled superhero form, at the faultless proportions of his mass, how it all jells and melds.

They’re preposterous analogies – making God run away in shame, really? – but the writing is so beautiful and creative, and Heath’s physique so preposterous in its own right, that it simply works here.

The compelling set-the-scene description of the gym 

If you’ve read any of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week before, you know how much I enjoy a well executed set-the-scene description. Giraldi makes us feel like we’re there with him and Heath in the gym as Heath rocks his wireless headphones and black baseball cap and others stare as he does military presses on the Smith machine (might I add, that’s a great exercise not just for safety but for isolating the shoulder muscle and attaining a solid pump) (NEVER FORGET).

Oh, and there was also this flawless piece of writing describing the gym: Everywhere the tall mirrors give the impression of spaces within spaces, of other rooms within other rooms to vanish into. The scent of rubber and oiled metal begins to smell aphrodisiacal.

The insight

As I mentioned, I like that Giraldi explained that he had a background in bodybuilding. With that in mind, it makes sense to us as readers why he can analyze Heath’s training and provide commentary on lifting like an expert.

What I didn’t like 

I’m being nit-picky here, but what is a thorough review without at least one suggestion for how the subject could have been improved?

Here is my one issue with this piece: Either the writer has an insane vocabulary (he might) or he used a thesaurus quite a bit. A few big words are OK, but I think words like “élan” cross the line from reasonably understandable to “what does that even mean?” I was taught that you don’t want to confuse your reader, and several of the dollar-fifty words in this piece had me perplexed; they felt unnecessary.

  1. […] Sept. 29, 2013: Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding […]

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