Since the first show in 1965, the Mr. Olympia has been the premier contest for bodybuilders looking to push the boundaries of the human physique. And over the decades, this pursuit of more and more muscle has given way to some of the most impressive (and downright freakish) competitors ever to take the stage.
But by the end of the 1980s, bodybuilding was caught up in the growing anxiety over steroid use in mainstream sports. As the media and politicians took aim at the drugs, the men behind the Olympia — Joe and Ben Weider — knew they needed to do something drastic to avoid any controversy. So, to present bodybuilding in a more positive light, they decided to introduce strict drug testing at the 1990 Mr. Olympia show to ensure a clean contest.
Few realized just how disastrous it would be.
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Steroids Take Centerstage
Anabolic steroids have been used in sports at least as far back as the 1954 Olympics, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The issue grew serious enough that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began testing for the drugs at the 1968 Games, marking one of the first protocols of its kind.
Despite the crackdown, steroids weren’t illegal in the United States at this point. Speaking in 2005, seven-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger told ABC News that in his bodybuilding heyday of the 1970s, it was common for competitors to simply get the drugs from doctors and have them administered under professional supervision.
Outside of bodybuilding, however, the tide against steroids soon began to turn. In 1985, Sports Illustrated published a tell-all piece entitled “Steroids: A Problem of Huge Dimensions.” The article pulled the curtain back on chemical enhancements at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels, including in the NFL. Lyle Alzado, a former defensive end at the time, is quoted in the article saying that 75-90% of players on some teams were on steroids. No one could prove it since the NFL didn’t test its athletes, but it raised fears that drug usage was more prevalent than people initially thought.
A few years later, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson made headlines around the world after the IOC stripped him of his gold medal due to a failed drug test at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Controversies like this, coupled with revelations about the health hazards associated with steroids, began to become commonplace in the news.
Eventually, the United States Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, which classified steroids as a controlled substance and made it illegal to sell or buy the drugs.
The decision to introduce drug testing in bodybuilding in 1990 was due, in large part, to these broader changes within the United States and a desire to avoid unwanted attention. While the Weiders publicly said that they wanted to bring bodybuilding to the Olympics (and hence needed to bring IOC drug testing to the sport), it is clear that wider political pressures were being felt. They needed to act fast.
First Stop: The Arnold
Natural or drug-tested shows had taken place in America since the late 1970s, but 1990 was the first time that elite bodybuilding contests were tested according to the strict standards of the Olympics. It was decided that the protocols would take place at two of the sport’s biggest events: the Arnold Classic in March 1990 and the Mr. Olympia in September. And the Weiders made sure the media was well aware of the change.
“I don’t know of too many other sports that have made the massive efforts to clean up steroids that we have,” Ben Weider told the Los Angeles Times in July 1990. “We use only IOC labs for testing because local hospitals don’t have the techniques to pick up oil-based steroid usage within the last eight months.”
The 1990 Arnold Classic was, in many respects, a disaster. Competitors got tested at the show, but it took four weeks for the results to come back. This caused quite a stir in bodybuilding because Shawn Ray was actually crowned the winner initially but had the title rescinded after his failed test came in. (He also had to return his $60,000 in prize money.) Other athletes who failed included the 1983 Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout, Nimrod King, and Ralf Moeller.
Years later, Ray told fellow bodybuilder Flex Wheeler that he was as “drug-free as one could claim to be” for the Arnold Classic, having stopped his steroid cycle five months before the competition. His strategy didn’t pay off.
Incidentally, the man who eventually came in first, Mike Ashley, has gone on record saying he was a career drug-free bodybuilder who competed against non-tested athletes for years.
The Biggest Test at the Biggest Show
Close to eight months later, Ray and his contemporaries entered the first-ever drug-tested Mr. Olympia on September 15. While the protocols had changed (the results were available 24 hours before the contest), the same philosophy applied. If a test came back positive for an anabolic steroid, the competitor would be disqualified. The Arnold debacle proved just how ruthless organizers were willing to be on this point.
“The pros didn’t think we would [start drug testing],” Ben Weider told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’ll have to get off steroids if they want to continue. It’s not only the image of the sport we’re concerned with, it’s the health of the athletes. Bodybuilding is not body destruction.”
With news of the tests hitting the biggest media outlets in the U.S., it is staggering that so many athletes still failed at the Olympia. Four competitors got caught with the anabolic steroid Winstrol (the same drug that Ben Johnson used) in their blood, while one was due to elevated testosterone levels. The final list of failed competitors included: Berry DeMey, Mohammed Benaziza, J.J.Marsh, Van Walcott Smith, and Vince Comerford.
For those who passed the test, a noticeable difference existed between the physiques at the 1989 Olympia and the 1990 show. Speaking in 2018 on bodybuilding historian John Hansen’s podcast (see above), the late bodybuilding writer Peter McGough noted that reigning Olympia champion Lee Haney looked noticeably “soft” on stage while perennial runner-up Lee Labrada was “not as tight as usual.”
Hansen, who was himself a highly successful natural bodybuilder, was even more blunt, claiming that “most of the guys looked off, like way off. And some of them just looked terrible.”
Despite the soft showing, Haney still took the top spot, his seventh Olympia title in a row, with Labrada coming in second. It was a tight finish, as Labrada actually beat Haney in pre-judging but lost out in the finals.
Mike Christian, one of the few bodybuilders who McGough and Hansen said didn’t appear any smaller at the show, came in fourth. Though years later, he still believed he earned the win that night.
“Lee [Haney] was really off that year, small and not very cut,” Christian told Muscular Development in 2017. “Shawn Ray [who took third] and I were both in top condition, so it should have been one of us. Even Lee told me later that he thought I had it that time.”
Mercifully, the 1990 Mr. Olympia ended with a little more dignity than the Arnold Classic; at the very least, the champion got to keep his winnings. But for as much attention as the drug testing got throughout the year, it didn’t last — by 1991, the industry reversed course on the protocols and never looked back. When asked why they stopped the tests, National Physique Committee president Jim Manion had a simple response.
“Honestly, because we lost about half of the competitors in the show,” Manion told The Seattle Times in 1994. “The actual paying customer wants to see the biggest and most ripped up guys possible […] That’s been the problem with natural contests. The promoters can’t make money if people don’t show up.”
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Featured Image: Labrada Nutrition on YouTube