The Man Whose Arms Exploded

Monday, August 14, 2006 by

You pretty much know what you’re going to get when you watch a documentary on five entitled The Man Whose Arms Exploded. It might have been shown as part of the Hidden Lives strand, but it would have been equally at home in Channel 4′s Bodyshock range, where the name of the game is medical grossness crossed with faux human interest.

Gregg Valentino was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the largest biceps in the world. He achieved this through the usual body-building skills of workouts and diet, in conjunction with an additional fillip – injections of steroids at doses normally used to help racehorses cheat.

He didn’t know when to stop, so nature gave him some pointers. His arm soon became infected, thanks to a sterilisation policy for his needles that could generously be described as “blowing the dust off the tips”. Despite some self-administered surgery, he had to be rushed to hospital where his biceps more or less fell apart thanks to a massive haematoma that needed to be hacked away.

If that had been the extent of the story, it would have been a warning – although quite what of, it’s not entirely clear. But Valentino also became a steroid dealer during his worst periods. He became involved with gangs and came close to being murdered, with only the timely intervention of his girlfriend with a shotgun saving his life. The cost to him was still dear. Not only did his girlfriend die of a drugs overdose, he lost a million dollars of his competition winnings and was arrested and imprisoned for dealing.

The supposed aim of The Man Whose Arms Exploded was to show the terrible intertwining between professional bodybuilding and steroids. But it’s hard to give that explanation too much credence. Valentino’s story is just so outlandish, it would be hard to find anyone who could truly identify with him. Would you not only perform your own surgery and tape it for posterity, but let it be televised internationally? Valentino is almost certainly in a very tiny minority. Anyone thinking of taking steroids is highly likely to think that no matter how bad things get, they’ll never let it get as bad Valentino did – no matter what happens.

The one test of the cautionary value of this tale presented in the programme was of a young Englishman, Joe Middleton, embarking on a bodybuilding programme and considering taking steroids. Unsurprisingly, Valentino didn’t really have as much of an impact on him as the programme makers might have hoped. So as with most of these bodyshock shows, it’s clear this was intended less as warning and more as a draw-in for the prurient.

All the same, sandwiched around the almost literal freakshow that is Valentino was an interesting documentary on steroids, their effects and their use by bodybuilders. The programme gave a reasonable rendition of the modern history of bodybuilding, starting from its popularisation by Arnold Schwarzenegger and working through to the present day.

Bodybuilding’s effect on the ideal of masculine physical perfection was well illustrated using the changing musculature of Luke Skywalker action figures of all things: Darth Vader’s lovechild has been getting a significant bulking up over the decades as bigger has become decidedly better. In turn, that change in ideal has led to the modern phenomenon of “bigorexia”, the bulking-up male’s equivalent of anorexia where big is never quite big enough.

To the growing boy, worried about his looks and unwilling to face the years of gym and protein shakes necessary for building muscle the natural way, steroids can seem like a short-term lifeline, whose long-term effects are so far off they can be ignored, the programme argued. Rather than condemn outright this attitude, it took a more nuanced view, giving time to steroid guru Mick Hart, who provides advice on healthy (or possibly “healthy”) steroid-usage through his newsletter No Bull.

To counterpoint this, there were interviews with former Mr Universe Steve Milchalik, who has suffered liver tumours, a heart attack and a stroke thanks to the steroids prescribed to him by doctors during the ’70s. The programme itself didn’t come to any real conclusion about whether steroids were a true evil or an acceptable one, leaving that decision up to the viewer.

Yet despite this intelligent yet flawed exploration of steroids, Valentino was the star attraction and the centre of attention. It was his story most people were there to see – if only from behind the sofa – and unfortunately, he took up the most screen time. The programme makers certainly seem to think that old-school issues journalism needs to have a shock component to help the medicine go down.

Unfortunately for them, if there was one true message the programme gave us, it was that no matter how clever and sophisticated you might make a documentary, it’s hard to forge a lasting argument when your centrepiece is an extended clip of a man siphoning pus from his own arm into a tumbler.


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