Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

For all the splendour of the setting at the beachside Casino Municipal in Biarritz, day two of the International Federation of Fitness and Bodybuilding (FBB) World Fitness Championships had been a long one.

Bodies - some lithe, some bulky, some flexed, most oiled, all tanned - had filled the stage in droves, successively. Down in row one of the auditorium, judges had monitored arrivals and departures with impassivity, converting pecs and lats into points. How symmetrical was this torso? How well developed were those calves? How correct was that posing stance? Ladies, stand up straight please…

It was approaching eight in the evening, and the thoughts of most were turning towards a meal, and then a bar…

For the IFBB President Rafael Santonja, however, these were but joys deferred as he convened a meeting in one of the event hotel’s side rooms that would help him and his organisation in their long game of achieving Olympic representation.

Santonja, who had popped up all over the place in the course of competition, patting a shoulder here, having a quiet word there, between regular presentational duties on the stage, was sitting at the head of the table - intense, urgent.

En route back from the Casino, there had been two calls to one of his trusted assistants who was travelling separately - just checking on progress…

Rafael Santonja, President of the International Federation of Fitness and Bodybuilding since 2006, has Olympic ambitions for his organisation and is putting all his effort in to make the dream come true ©IFBB
Rafael Santonja, President of the International Federation of Fitness and Bodybuilding since 2006, has Olympic ambitions for his organisation and is putting all his effort in to make the dream come true ©IFBB

Around the table sat invited guests from Andorra, Malta, Cyprus, Monaco, Liechtenstein , Luxembourg and Iceland – smaller states in Europe, yes, but states whose vote counted as much as the larger states when it came to European Olympic Committees issues.

All present were then politely but insistently quizzed on what progress had been made with advancing the IFBB cause in their countries, and most particularly with the National Olympic Committees or equivalents…

The IFBB, governing body of the sport of bodybuilding and fitness, was founded by brothers Joe and Ben Weider in 1946 in Montreal, Canada.

Santonja was the founder and first President of the Spanish Association of Bodybuilding, created in 1982, and he joined the IFBB two years later as Ben Weider’s executive assistant.

From 2000 he dedicated himself exclusively to his work with the IFBB, where he became President of the International Committee of Judges.

When Weider stepped down in 2006, Santonja was voted in unanimously as his successor.

In 2010 Santonja - born in the western Spanish town of Béjar in 1956 - re-located the organisation’s headquarters to Madrid after being re-elected, and he was re-elected for a second time in 2014 at the IFFB Congress in Brasilia.

Under his direction, the IFBB is now a member of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF, formerly SportAccord), the International World Games Association, UNESCO, and the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education.

It is also recognised as the sole International Federation for the sport of bodybuilding and fitness in full compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency Code.

The President’s 2017 Report for the IFBB testifies to a fearsome drive, not to mention itinerary.

Here is Santonja pictured with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Julio Maglione, President of the International Swimming Federation and Emmett Lang Salmeron, President of the Central American Olympic Organisation.

IFBB President Santonja with Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, President of the Association of National Olympic Committees and the Olympic Council of Asia, in Prague last November ©IFBB
IFBB President Santonja with Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, President of the Association of National Olympic Committees and the Olympic Council of Asia, in Prague last November ©IFBB

Here he is pictured in Punta Del Este with Neven Ilic Alvarez, President of the Pan American Olympic Sport Association.

Here he is in Mongolia with the country’s President, Khaltmaagiin Battulga.

Here he is in Aruba pictured sitting alongside International Olympic Committee member Nicole Hoevertsz, watching the finals of the Ben Weider Legacy Cup…

Clearly Santonja is a man on a mission. But what is driving him? As he told insidethegames, his commitment to bodybuilding goes back more than 40 years.

"I started practising bodybuilding when I was a teenager and competed as an athlete in bodybuilding events in the 1970s," he said. "Since that time I have been training with weights every single day of my life.

"I'm a doctor in pharmacy and I have an Honoris Causa doctorate from the National Academy of Physical Culture of Sofia.

"In my life as very important role models there were my parents, both, and in particular my mother, one of the first female medical doctors in Spain.

"In the area of bodybuilding, I would cite the brothers Joe and Ben Weider, the great pioneers of the bodybuilding and founders of the IFBB in 1946, with whom I had the honour of collaborating for many years, having a close life friendship.

"Bodybuilding is a sport and a lifestyle, and the IFBB is a large family with 197 countries. I am very honoured to receive the trust and support of our members.

"I have been active all my life in the sport. As an administrator I was first President of the Spanish Federation, then a member of the Executive Council and President of the European Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation.

"I have travelled during the last 30 years around the world, visiting a total of 158 countries, creating direct relationships, mutual trust, and friendship.

"I always try to be close to our events, to our athletes and our officials. This is a duty but it is also a source of enjoyment because we share passion for the sport and building a future together.

"In my opinion, a President is as good as his team."

IFBB President Santonja pictured in the1970s during his time as an actively competing bodybuilder ©IFBB
IFBB President Santonja pictured in the1970s during his time as an actively competing bodybuilder ©IFBB

Santonja has been clear about his ultimate ambition for the IFFB. Speaking last November during the opening of the IFBB's Annual Congress in Benidorm, he told insidethegames that his organisation had a "duty" to achieve recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"With this, nobody will be able to say to us 'no' over something that we deserve - the full Olympic recognition," he said. "We are going to make it happen."

He revealed he has held regular meetings with IOC President Thomas Bach, whom he claimed was receptive and aware of the good progress the IFBB is making.

"It [the IOC] is a powerful organisation which has to be conservative," he added. "We are really working with them and approaching them with due respect. I am sure we are going to have good news soon."

The IFBB was granted provisional recognition by the IOC in 1998 but it was withdrawn nearly four years later.

Now, however, the IFBB is recognised by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, the Association of Pan American Sport Federations (ACODEPA) and some 90 National Olympic Committees.

The IFBB participates in several Regional Games recognised by the IOC including the Asian Games, the South American Games, the Asia Beach Games, the Arab Games, the Pacific Games and the World Games.

On the subject of his immediate Europe ambitions, Santonja told insidethegames: "The participation of the Small States of Europe is an important goal for our sport.

"IFBB is recognised by the Asian and American Olympic organisations, it was participating as a medal sport at the Asian Beach Games. In America we are recognised by the Pan American Games. In Africa, we are recognised by Association of African Sports Confederations.

"We are also recognised by the Olympic Committees of Oceania and now it comes to the turn of approaching - with all the respect and all the consideration that the matter deserves - the recognition by the European Olympic family."

Category winners at last December's IFBB World Fitness Championships in Biarritz ©ITG
Category winners at last December's IFBB World Fitness Championships in Biarritz ©ITG

Santonja added: "Bodybuilding in Europe is very well established across the continent. In fact, our European Championship has a massive presence of all countries from Europe. In the meeting at Biarritz I referred to gaining a better status of recognition from sports authorities and Olympic bodies.

"We consider that there is a good job already done in that sense. There is part of the road already made in the case of Eastern European countries, and still some road to be made in the area of recognition by the authorities and the National Olympic Committees in Western Europe.

"Our great ambition is to get IOC recognition. In the meantime, we consider that our participation at regional games level is a nice contribution of a dynamic, young sport that is joyful, very visual and with thousands of followers.

"On the other hand, the participation at regional games is, for our officials and athletes, a great school of education in Olympism and its values, as well as in the fight against doping."

How vital does Santonja think it is to IFBB’s continuing growth that it is officially WADA-recognised?

"The IFBB is an organism that has a great tradition, has over 70 years of experience and enjoys a great universality. It is continuing its growth and, for us, to comply with all the regulations and specifically with WADA Code is an integral part of our philosophy.

"It is an indispensable part of our standards and we believe that it is the legacy that has to be left in a sport, as well as in a lifestyle.

"We believe that we have a great capacity of influence and we consider that we must make all the efforts we can make for a clean sport, and to transcend the sport and reach out to the society.

"Therefore it is very important for us to work in line with the WADA Code to underline all the educational efforts that can be made for a doping-free sport and society."

Anti-doping seminars are organised regularly by the IFBB ©IFBB
Anti-doping seminars are organised regularly by the IFBB ©IFBB

Santonja is consistent in these beliefs. Two years ago he told the International Sports Press Association: "The relationship between the IFBB and Olympics at international or national levels is a pyramid that at its base has the necessity of increasing the relationship between our National Federations and National Olympic Committees.

"The main issue on which the entire sports movement is focused is the fight against doping – this is why we have decided on the adoption and implementation of the IFBB Anti-Doping Code by our National Federations as the solid ground for any future steps.

"The National Federations have to prioritise this; supporting IFBB relation and acceptance by the Olympic institutions…without further delay."

Several of the categories at last December’s IFBB World Fitness Championships involved acrobatic and gymnastic movements which had clearly taken a long time to learn. Asked if such movements would continue to be a mainstream part of IFBB competitions, Santonja replied:

"Fitness does not pretend to adopt specific movements from other sports. The aim of the Fitness free posing routine is that the athlete displays his or her physique with the beauty of the moving muscles, through actions that can coincide with movements of any other sports discipline.

"But in no case is the scoring based on the perfection of those movements within the parameters of another sport. Points are scored based on the harmonic conjunction of a posing routine with free exercises that are performed through the inspiration of the athletes.

"In other words, an athlete may feel more inspired by interpreting his or her elasticity, physical beauty, movement muscles, through classical ballet or through acrobatics or more related gymnastics, or the combination of all of them"

Asked if he thought there is a limit to bodybuilding beyond which bodies start to look unnatural, the President responded: "The limit in high-performance sport is always a question in debate, in any sports discipline, and - why not? - in bodybuilding and fitness.

"Sometimes limits are changed by changing the rules.

"I think that while evaluating the symmetry, harmony and muscularity, it is important to have in mind the limits that genetics mark, and, of course, taking into consideration training and a proper diet.

"We are adapting standards with different body weights and adapting new modalities such as bikini fitness and men’s physique, where they look for different parameters to what was the traditional bodybuilding years ago.

"I mean, it's not just about looking for limits, it's about looking for ways to allow new expressions of progress in sport."

IFBB President Rafael Santonja pictured at the South American Sports Organisation general meeting in Asuncion ©IFBB
IFBB President Rafael Santonja pictured at the South American Sports Organisation general meeting in Asuncion ©IFBB

Later this week, from Thursday to Saturday (March 22 to 24), the IFBB President Santonja Cup event will take place in Greece.

"It is for me an honour that the Greek Federation requested to use my name," he said. "Of course, for me is a source of pride and I deeply appreciate this gesture.

"I think that the important thing is that it is an international event in which athletes from many countries will participate, in Nafplio, a very attractive site on the Greek coast, near to the ancient site of Olympia. It is an opportunity to mix sport, culture and friendship."

In a site tantalisingly close to the heart of the IFBB ambitions…

Santonja has already made it clear how strong he feels is the connection between his modern-day sport and the Olympic past.

 "From our point of view bodybuilding is a special sport that promotes symmetric, harmonic, and muscular bodies, and an art at the same time. Look at ancient sculptures – Discobolus of Myron, Apoxiomenos of Lisip, The Thinker, by Doryphoros of Polykleitos, and more. Now, look at actual bodybuilding competitions and find out the answer. Bodybuilding is passion for health. Bodybuilding is anti-aging healthy lifestyle."