Why the 1980 Mr. Olympia Bodybuilding Contest Was So Controversial

Arnold Schwarzenegger's swan song from competitive bodybuilding wasn't without a heap of criticism.

Since emerging on the bodybuilding scene in the late 1960s, Arnold Schwarzenegger has become one of the most influential and inspiring athletes in bodybuilding. What bodybuilder, or even general fitness enthusiast, doesn’t know of Schwarzenegger? Even if you’ve never picked up a weight, you probably know of the Austrian native — as a bodybuilder, movie star, politician, or environmental activist. He’s so popular that you can refer to him as just “Arnold” and most people know who you’re talking about. Since retiring in 1980, Arnold has cast a long shadow and is still revered for his importance in helping to popularize bodybuilding among the masses.

Arnold’s appearance in the 1977 film Pumping Iron, the George Butler and Charles Gaines’ documentary centered on the 1975 Mr. Olympia, helped propel both Arnold and bodybuilding into mainstream culture. (1) Fans and competitors owe him a great deal. Few people would dispute his legacy.

From 1970 to 1975 Arnold won six Mr. Olympia titles. After the sixth win, he retired to focus on his then-burgeoning movie career (which includes hits like Conan The Barbarian, Twins, and the Terminator series). He moved to greener pastures, or so it seemed. In 1980 Arnold shocked fans and competitors alike when he announced, the day before the Mr. Olympia contest, that he was making a comeback. (2)

The reactions were mixed. Competitor Mike Mentzer was furious and even tried to attack Arnold at a pre-contest press conference. Other athletes like Frank Zane and Boyer Coe, expressed pity that Arnold was going to return, lose, and tarnish his legacy. On the night of the show, many were shocked at Arnold’s conditioning. (3) The “Austrian Oak” failed to compare to a new generation of stars. When Arnold was announced as the winner, the audience booed, competitors stepped off stage and some retired from the sport in disgust.

Fans and competitors were outraged. Television networks separated from the competition. New rules regarding judging were set in place. Arnold’s 1980 victory isn’t just controversial — it changed the trajectory and perception of bodybuilding forever. 


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After the Austrian Oak

When Arnold retired from bodybuilding in 1975, it ushered in a new age for the sport. Arnold had won the previous six competitions. His retirement meant that others could now compete for the Mr. Olympia title. Taking over Arnold’s place was his training partner and close friend the late Franco Columbu, who won the 1976 Olympia. From 1977 to 1979, Frank Zane took the honors.

Although two men shared the title over four years, the time after Arnold’s victory was competitive. With Arnold out of the way, newer bodybuilders began to gain attention — competitors like Boyer Coe, Mike Mentzer, and a young Tom Platz. There was excitement in the sport. Arnold had previously been the athlete with the most sponsorships and magazine covers who monopolized all the media attention. (4) Now fans could choose from a variety of different athletes and body types. If Arnold represented the ideal physique of the 1960s and 1970s, these newer athletes were progressing the standard of bodybuilding further. 

Illustrative of this were the careers of Frank Zane and Mike Mentzer. Zane’s reign, for example, marked a stark difference from Arnold’s era. Compared to Arnold’s approximate competition weight of 235 pounds, Zane weighed 185 pounds on stage. He was smaller, but also much leaner. His physique, by many, is considered to be the most aesthetic ever.  

Challenging Zane at that time was Mike Mentzer, one of bodybuilding’s most controversial characters. Mentzer was known for going against the grain at the time. Whereas many bodybuilders opted for two-hour-long training sessions with high volume per body part, Mentzer trained using the high-intensity training principles of Arthur Jones. He’d perform just three exercises per body part, working up to just one or two sets for each exercise to absolute failure. As for his diet, Mentzer was a proponent of calorie and macro-counting before diets like If It Fits Your Macros were a fad. He’d eat protein-rich meals, but also consume treats like ice cream and pancakes, even close to a competition. (5

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In 1978 Mentzer won the Mr. Universe contest with a perfect score — the first time this happened in bodybuilding history. In the 1979 Mr. Olympia, he finished in second place to Frank Zane. When Zane, Mentzer, Chris Dickerson, Boyer Coe, and Tom Platz traveled to Australia in 1980 to compete in that year’s Mr. Olympia contest, few individuals could predict a winner. None could have predicted Arnold’s entry.

The Road to the 1980 Olympia 

At this point in the timeline, Arnold had two separate careers. He became a movie star, appearing in films like Stay Hungry or Pumping Iron, and he promoted bodybuilding shows. (6) Alongside Jim Lorimer (who is also Arnold’s partner for the Arnold Classic), Arnold helped to organize the Olympia shows from 1976 to 1979. The 1980 show was organized by Australian bodybuilder Paul Graham who, author John Fair found, was Arnold’s good friend. (7)

Arnold had retired from bodybuilding but his influence was still felt. This does not explain why he decided to return to competing. The reason for that came from his movie career — specifically his role in Conan the Barbarian. Released in 1982, Conan told the story of a young, muscular warrior (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) who avenges the death of his parents. 

Starring in Conan required Arnold to transform his body from ‘a lean young warrior of about 215 pounds to a full-bodied, robust king of about 230’ pounds. Arnold set to training and began using his old bodybuilding routines to build a Conan body. Somewhere along the way, his training partners encouraged him to enter the Olympia. (8)

But did he listen? Initially no. Although Arnold continued to ask the opinion of bodybuilding coaches and athletes about whether or not he should enter (including Joe Weider and Franco Columbu), he publicly dismissed rumors that he was competing. Instead, Arnold signed up as a commentator for the Olympia.

The then-reigning Mr. Olympia, Frank Zane, even asked Arnold’s advice as to whether or not he should enter the 1980 contest. Early in 1980, Zane suffered a freak accident that interrupted his training. (9) Arnold encouraged him to enter despite this disruption. Zane was worried about competing against Menzter, Dickerson, Coe and Platz. Arnold, it seemed, reassured him.

So when did Arnold actually enter the Contest? One day before the event! He traveled to Australia to commentate for CBS, who had planned to film the contest. When he announced his decision to enter, there was confusion and anger in equal measure.


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At that year’s press conference, Arnold belittled competitors, disrupted discussions about the rules, and attempted to bring the spotlight onto himself. Mike Mentzer was so enraged by Arnold that he tried to attack him at the conference. As Mentzer was pulled away from Arnold, other competitors began to worry about what Arnold’s involvement would mean the following day. (10)

One factor that appeared to reassure competitors not to worry was that Arnold’s conditioning was worse than previous Olympias. Although his chest, back, and biceps were back to former glories, his legs, triceps, and midsection all lagged in definition and size. Some put him at 90% of his former glory. Others put him at 80%. (11) The general consensus among fans and competitors was that Arnold was no longer a threat. 

Arnold at the Olympia

The following day, at the Mr. Olympia contest, Arnold lined up against Zane, Mentzer, and the other stars of the day. What he lacked in muscularity and leanness, he made up for with charisma. Arnold told jokes to competitors on stage to break their concentration and then jumped out of line to strike poses. (12)

The crowd at the Sydney Opera House showed their approval for the ‘Austrian Oak.’ Although few expected him to win, the sight of seeing Arnold back on stage prompted warm applause and cheering. Remember that his return was unexpected for competitors. It was an even bigger shock for those in the audience.

Surprises continued as the judges ranked the competitors. The two finalists chosen were Chris Dickerson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Frank Zane, the reigning champion, Mike Mentzer, the favored challenger, and Boyer Coe, sporting supreme conditioning, all failed to impress. It seemed incredible that Arnold, who many said didn’t deserve a top-five finish, placed in the final two. (13)

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As the two men ran through their poses, many agreed that Dickerson would take the title. He was leaner, had more muscle, and presented a better visual package. Arnold, on the other hand, tried to hide flaws through clever posing and rely on his stage presence to win the day. 

At the end of the night, Arnold was declared the winner. The judges awarded Arnold 300 points to Dickerson’s 292. The crowd, competitors, and even bodybuilding entrepreneurs like Ben Weider, were incensed. It is estimated that as much as 40% of the 2,000 seated spectators booed Arnold. Several competitors walked away in disgust as Arnold accepted his trophy and quickly disappeared to avoid the audience. The competition had descended into a farce. What happened? (14)

The Aftermath 

In bodybuilding and fitness magazines, Arnold’s victory was instantly criticized. Iron man magazine had to edit testimonies from fans to remove all the explicit language used to describe the decision. In public and private, Ben Weider claimed Dickerson had been robbed of the title. Even Arnold kept relatively quiet. (15)

There were larger ramifications at play, too. In 1979 CBS agreed to broadcast three Mr. Olympia contests beginning in 1980. When the CBS film crew returned to the United States, they refused to produce the recordings because, in their view, the contest had been rigged in Arnold’s favor. CBS Executives even showed Chris Dickerson the footage of the 1980 contest to prove the judges’ poor decision. (16)

CBS’s relationship with the Olympia show disappeared. The decision also hurt competitor relations. Immediately after the contest, Mentzer retired from bodybuilding. Zane and Coe withdrew from smaller competitions in the immediate aftermath, and Dickerson was heralded by many as the real champion. When Ben Weider introduced Dickerson at a training seminar months after the contest he referred to him as the man who should have won the Olympia. (17)

Across the board, it seemed that Arnold’s victory was wrong. What happened? Of the seven Olympia judges, four were, in John Fair’s words, ‘arguably predisposed towards Arnold, owing largely to personal considerations.’ (18)

Some, like former bodybuilder Reg Park, were Arnold’s close friends. Others like Albeti Busek helped Arnold break into American bodybuilding in the 1960s. Even the contest organizer, Paul Graham, was Arnold’s close friend. This put others at a disadvantage including Chris Dickerson whose own mentor, Bill Pearl, had excused himself from judging owing to his friendship with Chris. (19)

Due to his close ties to the show’s promoters and his status, many folks chalked up Arnold’s victory to politics.

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Fair never claimed the contest was rigged but illustrated that Arnold was given the most favorable conditions to win, that the crowd reacted negatively to Arnold’s victory, and the media was shocked. The most damning reaction came from the IFBB (now the IFBB Professional League) which attempted to overhaul judging protocols after the show. (20)

At the November 1980 IFBB Congress in Manila, a resolution was made which forbade contest organizers from choosing the Olympia judges. Instead, an independent judging director would choose the panel. It was a clear sign that the IFBB was angered by the circumstances surrounding Arnold’s victory. 

To avoid any controversies Ben Weider, IFBB President, met with Oscar Slate, the federation’s general secretary, to choose judges for the 1981 show. (21) While they hoped this would prevent further upsets, Franco Columbu’s victory at the 1981 Mr. Olympia furthered suspicions that the contests were being rigged. (That, however, is a different story.)

There is no denying the cultural and sporting impact that Arnold had on bodybuilding. Through Pumping Iron and his Olympia victories, Arnold (and his magnetic personality) propelled bodybuilding into the mainstream. He is still an influential voice in the sport, provides support and inspiration to millions, and is rightly viewed as a bodybuilding ambassador. 

Summing up Arnold’s 1980 victory, John Fair suggests that Arnold’s charisma likely won him the contest. (22) It is this same charisma that means few people dispute his seven Olympia victories. Due to a combination of legacy, fortunate judging policies, and experience, Arnold won the 1980 Olympia. It is and will continue to be one of the most disputed and contested victories in all of bodybuilding. 


  1. Klein, Alan M. “Pumping iron.” Society 22.6 (1985): 68-75.
  2. Hansen, John. “The 1980 Mr. Olympia Controversy,’ Iron Man Magazine, December 11, 2011.
  3. Fair, John, ‘The Intangible Arnold: The Controversial Mr. Olympia Contest of 1980,’ Iron Game History, 11.1 (2009): 5-7.
  4. Ibid., 17.
  5. Mentzer, Mike. Heavy duty. ABM-Fitness-u. Kraftsport-Verlag, 1979.
  6. Boyle, Ellexis. “The intertextual terminator: The role of film in branding “Arnold Schwarzenegger”.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 34.1 (2010): 42-60.
  7. ‘The day they booed Schwarzenegger,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, October 11, 2003. 
  8. Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold,’ 6-9. 
  9. Ibid., 6.
  10. Peter McGough, ‘The 1980 Mentzer Arnold Punch Up,’ Digital Muscle, October 9, 2011. 
  11. Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold,’ 6.
  12. Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and Bill Dobbins. The new encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding. Simon and Schuster, 1998, 694-198.
  13. Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold,’ 12.
  14. Ibid., 15-16.
  15. Ibid., 9.
  16. ‘Boyer Coe – Why the 1980 Mr. Olympia was not on TV’, YouTube.com
  17. Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold,’ 15-16.
  18. Ibid., 12.
  19. Ibid., 8-10. 
  20. Ibid., 15
  21. Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold,’ 15-16.
  22. Ibid., 15-16.

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