In the Victorian era, Eugen Sandow must have physically appeared godly. While professional strongmen existed long before Sandow appeared, none possessed such a chiselled physique previously.
He was born Friederich Wilhelm Mueller in Königsberg, Prussia in 1867, in what is today Kaliningrad, Russia. By the time he was 19, Sandow was already performing strongman stunts in various sideshows. He was initially known for his impressive barbell routines and for breaking a chain locked around his chest. However audiences quickly became far more fascinated by Eugen Sandow’s bulging muscles than by the amount of weight he was able to hoist. As a result, Sandow developed and performed poses. He dubbed these displays ‘muscle display performances’ and the routine was a precursor to the bodybuilding competition posses we see today. His routines and physique quickly made Sandow a sensation and a highly sought after carnival attraction.
Sandow was compared to a Roman god. His resemblance to the physiques of classic Greek and Roman sculpture was no accident. Sandow had visited Italy as a child and it was there, after gazing and admiring the bulging physiques of the ancient gods, that his passion for sculpting his body took root. In training, Sandow actually measured the marble artworks in museums. He viewed them as ‘The Grecian Ideal’ and as a formula for the ‘perfect physique’. Sandow eventually built his physique to the exact proportions of Greek and Roman Sculpture and, in the process, became one of the first athletes to intentionally develop his musculature to pre-determined dimensions. Today he is considered by many to be ‘The Father of Bodybuilding’.
Sandow performed all over Europe, and went to America to perform at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There he could be seen in a black velvet-lined box with his body covered in white powder to appear even more like a marble statue come to life. His popularity grew, due to his cultured appearance, high intelligence, and well-mannered disposition. He also dressed very well and had a charming European accent, coupled with deep blue eyes and hearty laugh. He was befriended by the likes of King George V of the United Kingdom, Thomas Edison and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He eventually married to a Blanche Brooks Sandow and had two daughters. But he was constantly in the company of other women who actually paid money to feel his flexed muscles after his stage performances. Sandow also had a close relationship to a male musician and composer he hired to accompany him during his shows. The degree of their relationship has never been determined, but they lived together in New York for a time. It is clear Blanche was jealous of his relationships.
Sandow was also a very astute businessman. He authored five books, owned a mail-order physical instruction and exercise equipment business and was the inventor of a unique spring-loaded dumbbell and a weighted rubber band resistance training system. Sandow’s fame was instrumental in popularising home training equipment. Sandow also produced and promoted Sandow Cigars, Sandow’s Health & Strength Cocoa and Sandow, a magazine devoted to physical culture. He opened a Physical Culture Studio in London, one of the first health clubs to contrast starkly with the ‘sweaty’ gymnasiums that had already existed, and he made exercise fashionable for all classes. Sandow organized the first ever bodybuilding contest on September 14, 1901 called the ‘Great Competition’ and held it in the Royal Albert Hall, London, UK. The event was judged by himself, Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the contest was a huge success and was a sell-out with hundreds of fans turned away.
At the time of his death in 1925, a cover story was released stating Sandow died prematurely at age 58 of a stroke shortly after pushing his car out of the mud. The actual cause of death was more likely due to complications from syphilis. Sandow was buried in an unmarked grave at the request of his wife, Blanche (who never divorced him) at Putney Vale Cemetery near London. In 2002, a gravestone and black marble plaque was added by Sandow admirer and author Thomas Manly. The gold-lettered inscription reads Eugen Sandow, 1867-1925 the Father of Bodybuilding.
Since 1977 , as recognition of his contribution to the sport of bodybuilding, a bronze statue of Sandow has been presented to Mr Olympia winners. The statue is simply known as ‘The Sandow’.
VIDEO: In 1894, Sandow featured in a short film by the Edison Studios. The film was of only part of the show and features him flexing his muscles rather than performing any feats of physical strength.