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55 Years Of The Mr. Olympia

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By: 
Wil McKeown

Olympia Coverage Sponsored By Redcon1

The Greatest Bodybuilding Show on Earth!

Canadian-born Joe Weider had a dream. As a matter of fact, he had several: create a publishing empire (we’re sure you’ve heard of Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Men’s Fitness and Shape), bring the sport of bodybuilding and fitness to the masses, cofound the International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB), and create the pinnacle of bodybuilding competition, the Mr. Olympia contest. Before the Mr. Olympia came along, the Mr. America contest and the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association (NABBA) Mr. Universe contest were the big shows for bodybuilders. Unfortunately, these shows weren’t really bringing any prize money to the competitors. With the birth of the IFBB came professional status. And Weider’s Olympia contest promised to pay. Although the original winners pocketed only $1,000 for their efforts (not exactly chump change in the mid ‘60s), the prize money would soon grow. By the end of Lee Haney’s run in the early ‘90s, the prize money had grown to $100,000. And by 2012, the prize money had ballooned to a quarter million dollars.

Getting Started
To be fair, creating the Mr. Olympia contest wasn’t a completely selfless act. Joe Weider was a shrewd businessman. He knew this contest would help stoke the fires of sales of his magazines and make stars of the competitors within their pages. He couldn’t lose with this formula. The Olympia contest would grow his business, and his business would promote the contest and its competitors. It was a win-win scenario, and Joe and his brother Ben knew this. So the Mr. Olympia was born in New York City in 1965 and “The Golden Boy” Larry Scott became the first champion. And he was soon followed by Sergio Oliva, who took the crown in 1967.

Here Comes the Seventies … And Arnold!

With the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger to American shores, Weider’s Mr. Olympia contest was on its way to true prominence. And with Arnold’s fifth win in 1975, the Olympia would soon garner more attention than it ever had before … but it would take an additional two years. Although bodybuilding was known in America, it was by no means a mainstream sport. That all changed when young filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore and writer Charles Gaines released their independent documentary Pumping Iron in 1977. That film went on to become a cult favourite and part of every bodybuilder’s video and DVD library (Hey, George, let’s get that Blu-ray already!).

After 1975, Arnold retired from the sport. The success of Pumping Iron only served to help boost his forward momentum and grow the Olympia’s popularity. The late ‘70s saw perennial bridesmaid Franco Columbu finally get his first win, and that was followed by Frank Zane’s reign, which showed that shape was just as important as size when it comes to bodybuilding.

Welcome to the Eighties
In 1980, the whole bodybuilding world was excited to see the most popular bodybuilder of all time take back his title. Schwarzenegger was Mr. Olympia once more. But that contest wasn’t undisputed (see our “Controversy in Oz” sidebar). But after his win, Arnold would fully dive into his growing film career and never compete again. After that, the Sandow changed hands every single year (from Schwarzenegger to Columbu to Dickerson to Bannout) until the reign of Lee Haney began in 1985.

Bring on the Mass!
Haney’s dominance went undefeated for eight consecutive years before he retired. Next came “The Shadow” Dorian Yates to take his turn on top of the mountain. And it was safe to say at this point that mass reigned supreme at the Mr. O, with aesthetic physiques such as Shawn Ray, Kevin Levrone, and Flex Wheeler continuing to be dominated by the big Brit’s hulking mass. Dorian retained the title five times before a Texan police officer named Ronnie Coleman rocked the bodybuilding world to its foundations, matching Haney’s incredible eight-win streak. By this point, the contest had set up permanent shop in Las Vegas, and prize money had grown to staggering proportions. The Mr. Olympia was on fire.

Here and Now
Fast forward to 2006, when Jay Cutler became the next man to heft the Sandow. His reign was interrupted by the beautifully proportioned Dexter Jackson, but Cutler went on to be only the third man in history to have non-consecutive Mr. O wins. Cutler was eventually usurped by the current champion, three-time winner Phil Heath. Can he make it four in a row? We will find out soon enough.


THE CHAMPIONS
Larry Scott (Mr. Olympia 1965-66)

The very first Olympia winner was Larry “The Legend” Scott. After already having been crowned Mr. America and Mr. Universe, little was left for this ‘60s superstar of bodybuilding to conquer. Enter Joe Weider’s inaugural Mr. Olympia contest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1965. Scott handily took the title and defended his crown the following year. Larry retired from competition shortly after his second Olympia win. Sadly, Larry passed away earlier this year due to complications from Alzheimer’s.

Sergio Oliva (Mr. Olympia 1967-69)

When Sergio Oliva started his three-peat Olympia reign back in 1967, it was the birth of freaky bodybuilding. Oliva’s mass is truly that of mythic proportions—hence his nickname, “The Myth.” Few bodybuilders will even risk attempting Sergio’s famous arms-above-head signature pose to this day. Sergio has many bodybuilding distinctions. He was the first nonwhite athlete to win Mr. America, Mr. World, Mr. International, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia. In 1968, Oliva was the only bodybuilder to ever win the Mr. Olympia contest unopposed, a distinction that stands to this day. FAST FACT: Sergio Oliva is one of only three men to have ever bested Arnold in competition (the others being Frank Zane and Chet Yorton), and that was in the 1969 Mr. Olympia.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Olympia 1970–75, 1980)

What would the Mr. Olympia—or all bodybuilding, for that matter—be without Arnold Schwarzenegger? The Austrian Oak helped make the sport as popular as it is. His impact on the industry has been mind-blowing since he burst onto the Olympia stage in 1969. And Schwarzenegger’s own show, the Arnold Classic, is the second greatest championship in all of competitive bodybuilding. While Arnold would eventually go on to become a Hollywood superstar, a savvy businessman, and the governor of California, to us he will always be the greatest bodybuilder of all time.

Franco Columbu (Mr. Olympia 1976, 1981)

Pound for pound, “The Sardinian Strongman” was one of the most powerful bodybuilders of all time, despite his diminutive stature. Franco’s bodybuilding career will forever be linked to Arnold as his training partner from their competitive days, his longtime friend, and Arnold’s costar and compatriot in Pumping Iron. Franco finally took his first Olympia title in 1976, the year after Arnold retired, and claimed his second in 1981, the year after Arnold’s Sydney comeback. Only Franco and Larry Scott have two Mr. O wins, and he is only one of three men to win the title in non-consecutive years. FAST FACT: In 1977, Franco competed in the first World’s Strongest Man competition, in which he placed fifth—a remarkable feat, considering that Columbu weighed considerably less than all the competition.

Frank Zane (Mr. Olympia 1977–79)

Known as the “The Chemist” (he was a former chemistry and math teacher), Frank Zane is easily the most Zen-like of the Olympia champions. And he is only one of three Olympia winners to own the title at a contest weight of under 200 pounds. His average contest weight for his Mr. O wins was about 185. That would practically make him emaciated by current Olympia standards, but Frank was all about conditioning. No other victor has ever been as razor-sharp, symmetrical, and aesthetically pleasing as Frank Zane. No wonder he took the Sandow home three years in a row in the late 1970s. Although he retired from competition in 1983, the now 72-year-old Zane still trains regularly.

Chris Dickerson (Mr. Olympia 1982)

Chris Dickerson was the first of three one-time-only Mr. Olympia winners. Much like Frank Zane, Dickerson’s conditioning was excellent, winning the top title at 190 pounds. Dickerson holds several bodybuilding distinctions. At age 43, he was the oldest Olympia winner at the time. He is one of the only men to win both the Mr. and Masters Olympia titles. He is the only openly gay Mr. O champion, and was the first African American to win the AAU Mr. America title. Chris was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2000.
FAST FACT: Chris Dickerson is also an accomplished opera singer.

Samir Bannout (Mr. Olympia 1983)

“The Lion of Lebanon” may not be the most memorable Mr. Olympia, but he truly had a stellar physique—an excellent balance of muscle mass and spot-on conditioning. Samir is also noted for his charisma while still being incredibly humble. Born in Beirut, Samir had little access to workout equipment, so he made his own by filling canisters with concrete to fashion makeshift weights to train with. Samir began competing in his homeland at the age of 17 and never looked back. At his first Olympia in 1980, Samir managed to place 15th. Every year though, he jumped in position, finally capturing his first and only win in 1983 at a contest weight of 197 pounds.

Lee Haney (Mr. Olympia 1984–91)

At the time Lee Haney took his first title in 1984, no one could have imagined the Georgia native would ultimately crush Arnold’s five-time Olympia wins record. By the time he finally called it quits, Haney had amassed a staggering eight consecutive Mr. Olympia wins. Total-Lee Awesome! One reason why Lee was so successful is that in his era, size began to really matter. The mass freaks were taking control of the sport, and Lee Haney was big, thick, and supremely muscled. But he would also show up onstage ripped and ready. No wonder his name will forever loom large in bodybuilding history.

Dorian Yates (Mr. Olympia 1992–97)

Dorian “The Shadow” Yates was a big, strong bodybuilder who trained like a beast. Yates was clearly a disciple of the Mentzer form of Heavy Duty training … and that form of high-intensity training paid off in spades! To behold his massively thick yet shredded frame was awe-inspiring. His reign was one of power and size. Even his stiffest competition, four-time Arnold Classic winner Flex Wheeler, couldn’t dethrone this British phenom. In fact, Dorian’s incredible muscle size forced other bodybuilders who relied more on shape and symmetry (such as Wheeler, Shawn Ray, and Kevin Levrone) to play the size game. Training injuries (biceps and triceps tears) eventually led Dorian into retirement. A private man, Yates reportedly turned down many lucrative endorsement deals to focus solely on his training … you gotta admire that in a champion!

Ronnie Coleman (Mr. Olympia 1998–2005)

Next up is the big Texan, Ronnie Coleman! This former long arm of the law (make that big arm of the law) accomplished only what one other man in the history of the Mr. Olympia managed to do: win eight consecutive titles. Big Ron was an extremely popular champion during his reign. Fans loved him, and the competition feared him. With good reason, too. Ronnie had an indomitable will and a physique that simply could not be matched. He dominated the sport in a time of fierce physiques. And he beat them all soundly. Ronnie has a an amzing 26 IFBB pro career wins. In 2011, Ronnie Coleman launched his own line of Signature Series sports nutrition supplements.

Jay Cutler (Mr. Olympia 2006–2007, 2009–10)

Growing up working in his family’s concrete business, Jay surprised no one by growing up to be a strong young man. At the age of 18, Cutler got serious about the iron game. His goal? To become one of the largest bodybuilding competitors ever. He succeeded. While his reign didn’t go uninterrupted (see Dexter Jackson), Jay was a true champion, doing much to help promote the sport. While his comeback bid in 2013 (after a torn biceps the previous year) met with limited success, we admire his tenacity. Jay has earned a special spot in our—and all of bodybuilding’s—hearts.

Dexter Jackson (Mr. Olympia 2008)

Jay Cutler seemed unbeatable. Freaky size ruled the Olympia—and most of bodybuilding— since the mid-‘80s at this point. Enter Dexter “The Blade” Jackson, a throwback to days gone by: symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing with a freakishly tiny waist, full and round muscle bellies coupled with smaller joints, and cuts on top of cuts. Who’d have thought that this Floridian would topple the reigning champ? Dexter did. And why shouldn’t he have? At this point, he’d already won the Arnold Classic three times. The man had champion written all over him. Although he may have only gotten one Olympia win (so far), he did what no man has done before: interrupted a dynasty. Sure, Cutler would come back and take the title the following year, but on that one day in Vegas in 2008, he proved he was the better man. Good on ya, Dex! And at 44 years of age, Jackson continues to compete … and win.
FAST FACT: Along with Chris Dickerson, Dexter Jackson is the only other Mr. Olympia to also hold the Masters Olympia title.

Phil Heath (2011-2017)

With seven wins currently under his belt, Phil “The Gift” Health. has kept it a bit of a mistery whether he is going to make a run for an eighth. At MUSCLE INSIDER, we love Phil’s physique. He’s got it all—muscle mass and exceptional conditioning. The man always shows up dialed in and ready to compete. Phil got some extra exposure when Generation Iron made its debut. In the vein of Pumping Iron, Generation Iron followed the lives of many top pros and their training and lives, leading up to the Mr. Olympia. Phil’s victory was immortalized onscreen for all to see … just as Arnold’s 1975 win was over two decades prior in George Butler’s legendary documentary. What does the future hold for Phil? Only time will tell … and we can’t wait to see it unfold!

Shawn "Flexatron" Rhoden (2018)

Defeating seven-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath. Shawn Rhoden is the oldest bodybuilder to win the Mr. Olympia title, at the age of 43 years and five months. Before him, Chris Dickerson was the oldest at 43 years and 2 months. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Shawn and his family moved to the US in 1990. He was very athletic growing up, playing soccer and cricket whenever he had the chance, but bodybuilding is what stuck. It hasn’t been an easy road for Shawn. He suffered a terrible back injury in 1993 and lost his father in 2002, but through adversity Shawn managed to rise and continue in his goal to be the best bodybuilder in the world.

The Sandow Trophy

Every bodybuilder who sets foot on the competition stage dreams of one day holding aloft the greatest prize in bodybuilding—the Sandow trophy. But who was Sandow? Born in 1867, German-born Eugen Sandow was the original strongman and a true pioneer in the sport of bodybuilding. You have likely seen his image in bodybuilding magazines over the years, either in that old-timey, one-piece muscle outfit … or a fig leaf over his privates. (Sure, we can laugh at the bodybuilding fashions of the time, but people in gyms also used to be decked out in spandex or crazy pants not that long ago.) Funny outfits aside, Sandow was a driven man who traveled the world displaying his physique and performing tremendous feats of strength for the adoring crowds. He even organized the very first bodybuilding competition of all time, back in 1901 in London’s Royal Albert Hall.
In 1977, the Sandow was brought back from obscurity (having formerly been used as a bodybuilding trophy only in 1901 and 1950) and has remained the most cherished prize in all bodybuilding to this day. Without men such as Eugene Sandow and their fortitude in bringing bodybuilding to the forefront, our favourite sport would never have achieved the heights it has reached. Forget Charles Atlas. Forget Steve Reeves. Forget Arnold. Eugen Sandow was the original bodybuilding icon … and every bodybuilder to this day wants to claim his trophy as their own.

Controversy in Oz
In 1980, 33-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to make his comeback to the Mr. Olympia stage in Sydney, Australia’s famed Opera House. This shocked many of the competitors … including one Mike Mentzer, whom many experts felt was destined to take top honours in Oz that year. As you all know, Arnold won the show. But the controversy had a lot to do with his conditioning. Was his physique truly a winning one that year? In pre-judging, Arnold looked okay according to people in attendance, but by the time the night show rolled around, the Austrian Oak was truly dialed in. He looked great. Was it better than the rest? According to the judges, it was … and that all that matters in the end. But Arnold being in the contest had a way of working against the competition’s psyches. Out of nowhere, they found themselves battling against the greatest bodybuilding champion of all time. That kind of pressure causes determination to falter and fear to creep in. Arnold isn’t just the greatest bodybuilder of all time; he’s also probably the greatest competitor, winning with brains, bravado, and brawn. In the end, the outcome was inevitable.

The Reign Game
The Mr. Olympia contest is no stranger to the word “repeat.” It has also seen more dynasties than China’s entire history. Here is a rundown of the Olympia champions and their winning records:

  • Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman are tied with a record of eight consecutive wins apiece.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger has six wins total: five consecutive wins and his comeback win five years later.
  • Dorian Yates has five consecutive victories.
  • Jay Cutler has four Mr. Olympia titles and shares the distinction with Arnold and Franco Columbu of being the only men to win the title in consecutive years.
  • Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, and Phil Heath are all three-time champions … although Phil has the opportunity to jump up by another win in 2014.
  • Larry Scott and Franco Columbu are the only two-time winners.
  • Samir Bannout, Chris Dickerson, and Dexter Jackson share the distinction of being the only men to win the Mr. Olympia title just once. Better one than none!

An International Affair
While the USA may have been home to more Mr. Olympias than any other country, and the past four consecutive champions (over the past 16 years straight) have been Americans, the Mr. Olympia contest has always been considered an international affair, with winners from Italy, Cuba, Lebanon, England, and Austria, and competitors from all over the world. And long before it permanently set up shop in Vegas, the contest was held all over the world in such amazing locations as Paris, France; Essen, West Germany; London, England; Brussels, Belgium; Munich, West Germany; Rimini, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; and Sydney, Australia. But what was the most famous location to host the Mr. Olympia in its long history? That’s easy—Pretoria, South Africa—home of the infamous 1975 Olympia contest. It was here where filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore brought a formerly subculture sport into the mainstream with their legendary documentary, Pumping Iron. It also introduced the world to Lou Ferrigno and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rest was history.
Since 1999, the biggest award in bodybuilding has been given out in Las Vegas. It seems fitting that a sport once deemed to be freakish gives out its version of “the gold” in Sin City. And at MUSCLE INSIDER, we love it! See you there!


Nickname Game
Part of being a successful bodybuilding champion is getting labeled with a nickname. Some are good, some are great, some are bad, and others practically nonexistent. Here we rank our favourite Mr. Olympia nicknames, from best to worst.

  1. “The Shadow” Dorian Yates
  2. “The Myth” Sergio Oliva
  3. “The Blade” Dexter Jackson
  4. “The Gift” Phil Heath
  5. “The Lion of Lebanon” Samir Bannout
  6. “The Chemist” Frank Zane
  7. “The Legend” Larry Scott
  8. “The Austrian Oak” Arnold Schwarzenegger
  9. “The Sardinian Strongman” Franco Columbu
  10. “Mr. Symmetry” Chris Dickerson
  11. “Cuts” Jay Cutler
  12. “Big Ron” Ronnie Coleman
  13. Shawn "Flexatron" Rhoden
  14. “Total-Lee Awesome” Lee Haney

 

*Some images courtesy of Instagram

 

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