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  • The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym by Eric Chaline
  • Ben Pollack
Chaline, Eric. The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym. London: Reaktion Books, 2015. Pp. 272. Index, select bibliography, and illustrations. $30.00, hc.

Eric Chaline attempts an ambitious goal with his new book The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, aiming to understand what motivates individuals to go to the gym and why the gymnasium itself appeared, disappeared, and reappeared over the past 2,800 years. According to Chaline, “[T]he history of the gym is also a history of the human body,” (7) a history of “transformative training,” (9) and a history of “the meaning of fitness” (12). A full examination of any one of these aspects of physical culture could constitute several books, and, indeed, several books have been written about many of the topics Chaline touches on. However, few are referenced in his book, a major shortcoming in a work intended for academic audiences.

The Temple of Perfection begins with the first Olympiad, in 776 bce. The lack of citations and evidence is immediately apparent. Chaline includes three full pages of text without a single footnote, and the sources he does include are themselves insufficient for a full examination of his subjects. The first chapter considers the influence of Hippocrates and Galen with no mention of Jack Berryman’s several articles on the subjects; there are just two references for the discussion of Renaissance physicians Cristobal Méndez and Girolamo [End Page 114] Mercuriale; and his single chapter devoted to the history of women’s physical culture omits any mention of the work of Roberta Park or Patricia Vertinsky. The purported “leitmotiv” of his third chapter is “the equivalence between soft living and moral decay, contrasted with the social and moral benefits of physical education” (85), but Chaline devotes just three sentences of one paragraph to a discussion of muscular Christianity.

Another example of Chaline’s lack of research is found in his statement that Mary Wollestonecraft’s ideas about women and physical activity found “no major feminist constituency among women . . . and were largely ignored and quickly forgotten” (177). Throughout the book, Chaline borrows heavily from Jan Todd’s articles in Iron Game History (in, for example, his discussion of Johann Guts Muths and his 1793 physical training manual Gymnastik für die Jugend). However, he failed either to read or understand her book, Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful (1998), in which Todd traces the impact of Wollstonecraft’s ideas on women’s exercise on the nineteenth century and demonstrates that her ideas were far from forgotten.

Furthermore, Chaline’s emphasis on homosexuality somewhat distracts readers from the ostensible goal of his book. For example, the epigraph to the first chapter reads, “You met my son coming from the bath after the gymnasium and you neither spoke to him, nor kissed him, nor took him with you, nor ever once felt his balls. Would anyone call you an old friend of mine?” It is hard to imagine that Chaline could not find a single quote more appropriate to introduce the history of Greek physical culture. Then, in his discussion of the YMCA, instead of considering the roles of Robert J. Roberts or Luther Halsey Gulick, Chaline almost entirely limits his analysis to “the Village People’s chart-topping gay anthem of 1979” (105).

Finally, Chaline on a number of occasions invites the reader to trust his own experience, despite a lack of supporting evidence. He interjects a personal anecdote into the discussion of Eugen Sandow and Hippolyte Triat whereby the benefits of Olympic weightlifting are explained by the accomplishments of someone referred to only as “Big Nick” (129). He questions Harrison Pope’s conclusions in The Adonis Complex (2000) about male body dysmorphia, writing, “From my own experience, in gyms all over the world, I think Pope’s dire warnings about a bigorexia epidemic are somewhat exaggerated. Dissatisfaction about oneself, after all, is part of the human condition” (165). Chaline fails to give any further support for his counterclaim and omits mentioning Todd’s own extensive examination of Pope’s argument (see Jan Todd, “Size Matters...


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pp. 114-115
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