Bodybuilding: Putting body and soul into flex appeal: Richard Edmondson reports from Wembley on a perfect stage for the abdominal showmen and women

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SIMON MORGAN, and the rest of the men, took a swig of alcohol, their first for 12 weeks, and went out to face the crowd wearing just their skimpy briefs. The comparison with the Chippendales was easy but here was the real thing - the MFI warehouses of the British body-building championships.

The men, and women, who gathered on stage at the Wembley Conference Centre yesterday, were, according to Julian Feinstein, the president of the English Federation of Body Builders, the 'tip of the iceberg'. They looked more like a floe.

These were the best endowed specimens that 12 regional heats could provide, about 80 practitioners, whose every twitch last night excited a crowd of around 2,500. At stake were various British titles, the most important being that of overall champion, which brings with it the chance of going professional.

This is a sport of abdominals, ridged in corrugated layers, great dry-stone wall slabs of arm muscles, baby oil for glistening the skin and other lotions for producing a complexion near to Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii. Bodystaining can take up to a week to disperse. 'Some of it's sunbed but most of its pro-tan,' Simon revealed.

In the foyer, a full range of body enhancers was available. A carton of flakes which is the pumping man's pot-noodle, cans of Carbo-force and a little something to toast on a fork in front of the logs to keep you going through the night, called a 'power muffin'.

Simon is 28 and comes from Egham. Like many builders, he is a renegade from a different sport. He hurt his leg playing football, and after restoring it to shape with weights he forgot to stop.

'My mates admire my body,' he said. 'Like most blokes at this standard I'm an easy-going person. It's the ones that do their chests and arms and like to be seen in a pub with a pint in their hand that give us a bad name. They soon quieten down when they see us.'

Juli Avery likes to hear noise from the audience to calm her nerves. 'It's very scary going up there,' she said. 'I feel like a prat dancing around in my underwear. But if you've worked hard for it and you've got a body, you might as well show it off.'

To those who find bodies like Simon's and Juli's less than appealing, 25-year-old Juli has a practised response. 'I find people who don't look after their bodies repulsive. When you see a skinny guy or a fat one you think, 'Sort yourself out'. You've only got one body.'

Kimberley-Anne Jones's body becomes the object of attention between women in nightclubs. 'If I see them nudging each other, I'll go up to them and say 'Oh my God, I've turned into a man',' she said. 'They don't know how tough it is. It's the only sport I know where you have to feel your worst to be your best. I haven't eaten or drunk properly for about 14 to 16 weeks.'

This is a long way from the origins of the sport, when men stripped down to their waists for physical examination in the Albert Hall at the beginning of the century. At the beginning of the last decade, the EFBB was formed, and Britain now boasts the sport's world champion, Dorian Yates from Birmingham, who won the title Mr Olympia in Helsinki earlier this year.

For many years that title belonged to the man who is still the public face of body building, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As Simon comes off the stage he is still fazed from the alcohol taken to stimulate the bloodstream. He passes Mick, who has a muscled tattoo on his arm. For once, the marking does not do justice to its commissioner.

Simon knows he has not won, but the ambition, and the language, of a Schwarzenegger remain. 'I've stepped into the big league here, but they've seen who I am and in two years they'll be frightened of me,' he said. 'I'll be back.'

(Photograph omitted)