WHEN I first read the one-paragraph blurb in the paper that the TV show "American Gladiators" was holding tryouts for contestants, I half expected Peter O'Toole to show up in a toga.
As it turned out, the joke was on me. I found this out soon enough when it took me a half hour to park. I ended up in a slot seven blocks away and followed a horde of this city's best and bulgiest as they walked, in Spandex tights and tank tops, toward an asphalt lot behind a CBS studio here.
Two thousand showed up. It had to be the biggest display of pectoral pride since Jack LaLanne swam San Francisco Harbor on his 60th birthday in handcuffs and shackles while towing a 1,000-pound boat with a rope clenched in his teeth.
It shouldn't have surprised me. "American Gladiators," the TV show in which ordinary mortals go up against Mr. T types with telegenic smiles in various primal competitions, is one of the top 5 weekly syndicated series on television.
The show is sort of respectable professional wrestling. Each week lawyers, nurses, cops, and others compete in events like the "human cannonball," in which contestants swing on ropes and try to knock gladiators off elevated platforms, and the "joust," in which they pummel one other with giant Q-tips. The gladiators are the iron-torsoed regulars whom the guests compete against.
I was going to try out, but jettisoned that idea when I could find no one with an arm smaller in circumference than my thigh. More than likely I would have flunked the first test, doing 24 pull-ups in 30 seconds (women had to do seven).
Of four fitness tests, the chin-ups were the hardest. Some 80 percent never made it to the second event, the 40-yard dash, which men had to do in less than five seconds and women in less than six. After that, there was a rope climb and a sideways run.
Those who survived the boot-camp gauntlet got to play "powerball," one of the events on the show. Judges weren't interested in who won the game but in who showed agility. A select few were chosen to be interviewed and videotaped.
As Executive Producer Julie Resh put it: "They don't have to have star charisma, but we're looking for someone who can answer a question in more than one word."
I caught up with Rory Mosley after he had just failed the rope climb by a few inches. Mr. Mosley is an aerospace engineer with a chest big enough to show a movie on. He trained only three weeks for the competition, but normally works out five days a week, enough to allow him to bench-press 400 pounds.
"I watch the show," he says. "I looked at those guys and said, `Why not? I think I can do it.' "
The tryouts amount to a mini-Olympics for Walter Mittys. They attract ex-jocks, current jocks, body builders, doctors, firefighters, the old, the young, bureaucrats, bouncers, those who should be bouncers - all dreaming of a shot at the limelight.
Mingling with the participants are some of the show's gladiators, testaments to what a lot of time at Gold's Gym can do. One, "Sabre" (Red Williams), played professional football and holds a black belt in karate.
Does he see anyone here who would intimidate him by swinging a giant Q-tip? "I want the biggest, the baddest, the most confident," he says. "That makes for better TV."
After hours of grunts, groans, and rope burns, 150 make it to the final interview. They still aren't in Hulk Hogan heaven: Only 48 contenders will be chosen - from five city competitions.
The finalists, it turns out, aren't that big. The pullups and sprints seem to winnow out those built like condominiums. Show producers confirm the "grand champion," the overall winner each year, is usually about 5 ft., 10 in., and 180 lbs.
My guess is the men aren't all that big, either.