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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

FORGOTTEN BODYBUILDERS: John Terilli (and the era he represents)

My wife’s Australian friend Jacinta is staying with us for a few weeks. She spent a number of years living in London when she was younger, and always enjoys coming back here to see friends, and spend time wandering the length and breadth of our fantastic city. One evening we were all sitting about, chatting about life, love, relationships, etc; when she asked me if I knew of an Australian bodybuilder called John Terilli, as one of her friends used to date him. Well I most certainly did remember Mr Terilli, and was a great admirer of his to boot. He was an 80’s bodybuilder that I had long revered for his shape, symmetry and proportion. Not the biggest man ever to step on a bodybuilding stage — but there is more to bodybuilding than huge, crunching, ponderous size. Actually, this post is not so much about his life, but about his look. About the fact that his type of well-proportioned, what I like to think of as “thoughtful”, physique would not stand a chance in today’s bodybuilding world, where “thoughtless “ mass at any cost is the overwhelming order of the day. John was born in Italy in 1959 but moved to Australia with his family when he was a young boy. He was over-weight for most of his pre-teen years but, in an effort to change himself and his appearance, he started lifting weights and eating more sensibly. When I looked him up in Wikipedia, I read the following, which amused me — and resonated with me, very much: “He began bodybuilding after first seeing his lifelong inspiration Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover of a magazine. He started his amateur career at home by lifting bricks tied to each end of a broomstick handle.” I too was inspired, and still am, by the Great Man Himself, the One And Only, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Granted, this is not so much of a big deal, as many young aspiring bodybuilders in those days were inspired by Arnold. But still, I always feel a kinship with anyone who feels a love and respect for Our Hero! Furthermore, John’s makeshift “brick barbells” reminded me of the time when I served in the South African Defence Force, specifically when we were “on manoeuvres“, during the dreaded “Bush Phase” of our Basic Training. At the end of a hard day’s slog through the bush, whilst the other guys would sit about relaxing, I would feel compelled to do at least some sort of weights training. I did this to try keep some muscle size, but also to enable myself to still feel mentally connected to my physique. Apart from Press Ups and Sit Ups etc; I lifted whatever I could find, and in a bush camp, what I mostly lifted were Fire Buckets filled with sand. I can still picture my teenage self, stripped to the waist in my army fatigues, sweating and straining (and dreaming of American bodybuilding glory) as the African sun dipped slowly down behind the Magaliesberg Mountains.  

With my two good friends and training partners (in our underpants!) in the SA Army. From left, “Prince” Prinsloo, Alex De Sogus, and myself. Fat and bloated in the “off season.” At least I did not have a moustache!

John first competed as a teenager in 1976, and four years later, won the best in Australia in 1980 - on the same night, and the same stage, as his inspiration Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the 1980 Mr Olympia at the Sydney Opera House. Competing all throughout the 80’s, John won the Amateur Mr Universe in ‘83 and, right at the end of his career, the Pro Mr Universe in ‘94. After which, he retired from competitive bodybuilding, though he remains very active in the bodybuilding world as a personal trainer and gym owner. So finally, we get to the crux of this post — the pleasure that is the physique of Mr John Terilli. It is only in retrospect that we can truly appreciate the physiques of the 80’s and early 90’s. It is only by comparing the modern-day mass monsters, with those more moderate and, now, “classic” bodies of the 1980’s, that we can view them again with a fresh perspective, we can see once more, how beautifully put together they were. Everything we took for granted in those physiques, we now marvel at, because so many of those attributes have been discarded, and actually, almost forgotten. A tight, well-defined midsection, clean lines and well separated muscles — shape (for goodness sake!) once a must-have quality, now an optional extra.  

Bob Paris, showing all the attributes of the 80’s bodybuilder, and why he is generally acknowledged as having one of the most beautiful male bodies of all time.  Apart from the ubiquitous presence of anabolic steroids, the guys these days are inflicting upon themselves (and our sport) a crazy cocktail of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), insulin and thyroid medications, and in ever greater dosages. Bad for them and bad for us. It is largely thanks to these new drugs that the detail, the cleanness, the crisp and sharp muscular look has been lost. The so-called “bubble gut”, caused by HGH and insulin, is the most visibly distressing and obvious manifestation of this new era of excess.  

Phil Heath, a multiple Mr Olympia winner, can not hide his distended stomach.  Another “side effect” of the pursuit of size above all else is the loss of the posing routine; I am not quite sure why this is, though. Partly, I suppose, the reason is that if your physique lacks shape, proportion and balance, then it is hard to pose to show these non-existent attributes. If all you have going for you is extreme mass, then that is what you pose to show. Furthermore, a 5’8” guy weighing 260lbs cannot physically get into the positions required to show some sort of flair and individuality when displaying his physique. 

So back to John Terilli. And his look. And his era. The era of bodybuilding that had just the right balance — a harmonious combination of size, shape, symmetry and conditioning . We look back with admiration for those men who showed us what physical perfection can be, and with sadness for a time that will never return.  

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