The History of the Ms. Olympia Contest

Female bodybuilding continues to challenge the preconceived notions of beauty.

There’s a lot to be excited about for this year’s Mr. Olympia. The “Superbowl of bodybuilding,” which takes place on Dec. 18-19, 2020, will see the return of seven-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath who is donning posing trunks for the first time since his 2018 dethroning. Also, Flex Lewis — the former reigning seven-time 212 Olympia winner and a general crowd favorite — is making his Open division debut in an attempt to out-muscle returning champ Brandon Curry

Unfortunately, all of this excitement has somewhat hidden the genuinely historic part of the 2020 contest: the return of Ms. Olympia. Women’s bodybuilding has, since its true inception in the late 1970s, played second fiddle to the men’s division. The history of the Ms. Olympia division is a testament to this fact. 

[Related: The Historical Significance of Phil Heath and the 2020 Mr. Olympia]

In 2014, the IFBB Professional Leauge disbanded the Ms. Olympia competition with little indication that it would ever come back. Amidst claims that fans no longer cared, the premier women’s bodybuilding contest was canceled. How and why the Ms. Olympia was dropped speaks to the barriers facing the sport. Specifically, what is and isn’t an acceptable female body. Such a question has plagued female bodybuilders long before the Ms. Olympia. 

The Origins of Women’s Bodybuilding

The Mr. Olmypia came a full 15 years before the Ms. Olympia.(1) Though men publicly flexed their guns far before that. The late Eugen Sandow — a bodybuilder who’s widely credited with popularizing muscle and strength to the masses — held the first male physique show in 1901. Shortly after, bodybuilding enthusiast and magazine publisher Bernarr Macfadden held a series of bodybuilding shows. Macfadden’s spectacles included both men and women. Aside from those inclusive competitions, physique contests for women did not consistently emerge until the 1970s.

This is not to say that female physical enthusiasts and bodybuilders did not exist, but rather that contests were not open to them. Female American weightlifter Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton was awarded the Miss Physical Culture Venus award in the late 1940s by Macfadden based on her physique. Likewise, women often joined male contestants at physique shows in the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes battling against one another.(2)

What was missing was a competition designed to compare female muscularity. The closest thing to a female bodybuilding competition was the Miss America pageant, which had a swimsuit portion to the contest. But Miss America rewarded slender female bodies — not muscle mass.(3

Female bodybuilding, if such a thing was to exist, would privilege muscle. In her 1998 book, “Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Body Building,” Leslie Heywood made clear the relative unease many found (and still find) with the muscular female body.(4) Now it’s 2020, and athletic, strong, powerful women are largely celebrated in today’s culture, but this was not the case for most of the 20th century.

Aside from allegations that weight training would make women look “too masculine” in appearance, female weightlifting and strength culture were often discouraged based on older Victorian ideals concerning “appropriate” exercise for women.(5) It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that female strength sports were promoted. As more women entered the gym, and male organizers became comfortable with female contestants, things like female bodybuilding seemed probable. 

Competitive female bodybuilding’s foray into the mainstream started with a woman named Doris Barrilleaux — a female bodybuilder and promoter who is credited with competing in what is generally considered to be the first modern women’s bodybuilding show. The contest was organized in 1978 by Henry McGhee’s National Women’s Physique Championships, and it caught the eye of two other major bodybuilding organizations.(6

The year after Barrilleaux competed, the IFBB Pro League, which holds the Mr. Olmypia contest, hosted a competition. A woman by the name of Lisa Lyon won, and many argue that she furthered the appeal of the sport in the United States.(7) Encouraged by the reception of the contest, the IFBB Pro League created the Ms. Olympia, which launched the year after Lyon’s win. 

The Early History of the Ms. Olympia

Originally titled the “Miss Olympia,” Rachel McLish win the inaugural 1980 competition. Buoyed by her victory and an athletic build, she became the poster child for women’s bodybuilding.

Right as the sport of women’s bodybuilding began to take off, critics debated the ideal form for female bodybuilders. Should competitors aim for slimmer, more athletic builds (deemed by many at the time to be feminine), or should they push the boundaries of muscularity?(8) McLish’s victory pointed to the former. Well, for the time being. 

In 1981, Ritva “Kike” Elomaa dethroned Mclish. Though Mclish did regain her title in 1982, it was her last hurrah. The sport was changing, and a new generation of athletes was coming into the fold. Cara Dunlap won the crown in 1983, and then, in 1984, the sport welcomed its first dominant athlete in Corina’ Cory’ Everson.

From 1984 to 1989, Cory Everson won six consecutive Ms. Olympia titles. In other words: Everson set the physique standard. John Romano, a fitness and bodybuilding industry insider, positioned Everson’s era as the golden age for female bodybuilding.(9) It was, according to Romano, a time when large attendances at female contests were common, when competitors could influence the general public, and when people seemed to care about the sport.

This was made more evident by the fact that in the early 1990s, Everson appeared in action movies and television shows. She was the first female bodybuilder to move into Hollywood in a major way. (10)

“Pumping Iron II” and the “Problem” of Women’s Bodybuilding

Everson’s era was not, however, without its problems. In 1985, women’s bodybuilding spilled into the public with the premiere of “Pumping Iron II: The Women.” The film was a sequel to the wildly popular “Pumping Iron,” the 1977 docudrama that popularized men’s bodybuilding and weightlifting in general — in large part thanks to a charismatic performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Whereas “Pumping Iron” focused on the rivalry between Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno for the 1975 Olympia title, “Pumping Iron II” centered on Bev Francis and Rachel McLish’s efforts to win the Caesars World Cup, a bodybuilding contest designed for the movie. 

Francis was a world champion powerlifter who was competing in her first show. Trained by former Mr. America Steve Michalik, Francis displayed a level of muscularity unmatched by fellow competitors. The entire movie can be crudely summed up as an investigation into whether or not Francis was “too manly.” In the clip below, Francis completed her posing routine before returning backstage to ponder whether or not her muscularity was too “masculine.”(11)

While the judges did not say it, Francis’s eighth-place finish suggested that strict ideas were applied to the female frame. Such debates continued throughout Everson’s time as Ms. Olympia. In an article on Everson in 1988, the LA Times spelled out the concern for uninformed readers:

“Off in its own corner of the sporting world, female bodybuilding has been undergoing an identity crisis. Historically, a female bodybuilder would have seemed self-contradictory, like a bird trying to become a fish. The sport, as a result, has had difficulty deciding whether its participants should be women first and bodybuilders second, or whether femininity should even be a consideration…”(12)

It was a largely sympathetic view of the difficulties female bodybuilders faced. As sports like weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding were becoming more open to women, it seemed inevitable that female bodybuilders (and strength athletes) would become more muscular. Promoters began to fret about where this would lead. The dominance found in the next decade did little to assuage concerns.

The Murray Age and Beyond

From 1990 to 1999, the Ms. Olympia title was shared between two women — Lenda Murray and Kim Chizevsky-Nicholls. Murray won consecutive championships from 1990 to 1995, while Chizevsky-Nicholls claimed the title from 1996 to 1999. 

Murray’s first Ms. Olympia win came in 1990 from a field of 30 competitors. The following year in 1991, Murray won at the first-ever televised Ms. Olympia contest. The runner up? Bev Francis. Francis’ runner-up status was an indication that muscularity was coming into vogue. (Ironically, the 1990s is when men’s bodybuilding entered what is now known as the Mass Monster era, thanks to Dorian Yates. The public was concerned).   

The IFBB Pro League took notice. In 1992, judges were told to favor women with a “more feminine physique.” Claiming that they were concerned with aesthetics, and publicly speaking out on the use of anabolic drugs, the IFBB Pro League sought to change the course of the women’s division. That they were unsuccessful in this pursuit was evident when Lenda Murray won again (albeit with a slightly less muscular physique than previous years).(13

Such controversies continued during Chizevsky-Nicholls’ reign. Many commentators, both during and after her time as champion, cited Chizevsky-Nicholls’ period as a time when women’s bodybuilding was ruined by steroids.(14) When it became clear that muscular female physiques were here to stay, the IFBB Pro League split female bodybuilding into a number of different divisions. (Today those division include: Bikini, Figure, Physique, Women’s Bodybuilding, Fitness, and as of 2019, the Wellness division.)

Chizevsky-Nicholls’ last Olympia win came in 1999, even though it appeared that the contest would, at one point, not go on. A month before the event, the promoter, Jarka Kastnerova, canceled the contest citing low ticket sales. A last-minute fundraiser, which included a $50,000 donation from FLEX magazine, saved the show.(15) It was for this reason that the following year, the Ms. and Mr. Olympia contests were held on the same weekend. That same year, contest promoter Jim Manion also sent a letter to female competitors, informing them that judging for next year’s contest would be based on a healthy appearance, face, makeup, and skin tone.(16).

2002 and 2003 saw Lenda Murray return to win her seventh and eighth overall Ms. Olympia titles, thereby becoming the most successful Ms. Olympia in history. To put that into context, only two men have won the Mr. Olmypia eight times — Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman. It would take something special to overtake Murray, and few thought it was possible. Enter: Iris Kyle.

The 10-Time Ms. Olympia

Hot off her eighth win, Murray hoped to cement her legacy by winning her ninth Ms. Olympia. It was a dream abruptly squashed by a woman named Iris Kyle. Growing up reading FLEX and Iron Man magazine, Kyle idolized Murray. She later claimed that Murray served as inspiration for her physique: 

“I remember the first time I saw a photograph of Lenda Murray in a magazine. I was in complete awe. I cut out that picture and placed it on my refrigerator and, from that point on, my goal was to develop a physique like hers…” (17)

In 2004, Kyle’s goal was realized as she shocked the world of bodybuilding by dethroning Murray. Kyle’s physique was so muscular and so astonishing that the IFBB Pro League introduced the controversial “20 percent rule,” — which asked competitors to “decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%” for the 2005 contest. Later reflecting on the rule, bodybuilding photographer Bill Dobbins cited the IFBB Pro League’s unease with Kyle’s muscularity.(18

Whether or not this was the case, Kyle lost her title in 2005 to the less muscular, but equally impressive, Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia. Despite the IFBB Pro League’s efforts, complaints from fans and competitors meant that the 20% rule was discontinued for the following contest. Kyle went on to win nine consecutive Ms. Olympia titles from 2006 to 2014, for a record 10 wins. Unfortunately for Kyle, this came at a time when support for the sport was severely waning.(19)

Institutional support for the Ms. Olympia continued to decrease during Kyle’s reign. New divisions were established which sought to promote less muscular female frames. Ticket sales fell, and, through no fault of her own, people became somewhat disillusioned with Kyle’s dominance.

The sport was suffering. Faced with discontent among its judges and fans about the direction of the sport, the Ms. Olympia contest was canceled after 2014. Iris Kyle had just won her 10th Olympia, and, like that, the sport was gone

Women’s Bodybuilding Second Wind

Following the cancellation of the Ms. Olympia, Kyle retired. The largest contest no longer existed, and many questioned the female bodybuilding’s viability. What saved the women’s bodybuilding was the intervention of a private company, Wings of Strength — and their newly inaugurated Rising Phoenix World Championships.

Promoted by Tim Gardner Productions and sanctioned by the IFBB Pro League (the group formerly in charge of the Ms. Olympia), the Rising Phoenix World Championships became the de facto replacement for the Ms. Olympia. The contest helped to sustain and enhance the sport’s popularity.(20)  The Ms. Olympia’s cancelation shocked many within the sport. But remarkably, it also led to a redoubling of efforts on the part of fans, promoters, and athletes to support women’s bodybuilding. Jake Wood, the owner of Wings of Strength, proved to be pivotal in this regard.

Not only did Wood host Rising Phoenix, he worked alongside others to get the Ms. Olympia contest reinstated. Following the 2019 Mr. Olympia, the IFBB Pro League announced that this wish would be granted. Rather than disappear, the Rising Phoenix contest would become a qualifier for the Ms. Olympia. The optimism attached to the announcement was strengthened in 2020 when it was announced that Wings of Strength would be responsible for the hosting of the entire Olympia weekend. For the first time in a long time, the future looks bright for women’s bodybuilding. 

Concluding Remarks

In 2015 Female Muscle Blog ran a thought-provoking rebuttal to John Romano’s piece on the death of female bodybuilding.(21) The post spoke to an inherent tension in women’s bodybuilding, namely the idea of beauty. Many of the criticisms aimed at women’s bodybuilding — that the competitors are too muscular, too “masculine,” or not feminine, are based on preconceived notions of female beauty.

Shelving that America’s first major bodybuilding contest, Mr. America, was initially modeled on the Miss America pageant, beauty has rarely been a pressing concern in the men’s divisions. This is not to say that male bodybuilders are not aesthetic. Rather, I have seldom heard a fan critique the facial beauty of a Mr. Olympia. 

Bodybuilding is about the symmetrical development of muscle. Something that has always struck me about Lenda Murray and Iris Kyle’s interviews on their careers is the additional stresses and criticisms they faced from those who fixate on beauty. Such criticisms rarely take into account that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder or, more importantly, these women want to work hard, compete, and win bodybuilding contests. Female Muscle Blog summed up this tension far better than I ever could:

“The mainstream media tells people that being thin is the ideal for women. Some people reject this and decide for themselves the ideal. We have been told that curvy and being plus-sized is a positive attribute. There is still resistance to women with muscle. They are still viewed as anomalies.” (22)

Female bodybuilding at the Olympia has finally returned. What happens next is up to supporters and promoters because the athletes themselves have never been anything other than committed, inspirational, and hard working. That Iris Kyle is coming out of retirement to try and claim her 11th title at 46 years old is all the evidence you need. 

References

  1. Martin, Leena St, and Nicola Gavey. “Women’s bodybuilding: feminist resistance and/or femininity’s recuperation?.” Body & Society 2.4 (1996): 45-57.
  2. Lowe, Maria R. Women of steel: Female bodybuilders and the struggle for self-definition. NYU Press, 1998.
  3. Watson, Elwood, and Darcy Martin. “The Miss America pageant: Pluralism, femininity, and Cinderella all in one.” The Journal of Popular Culture 34.1 (2000): 105-126.
  4. Heywood, Leslie. Bodymakers: A cultural anatomy of women’s body building. Rutgers University Press, 1998.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Todd, Jan, and Désirée Harguess. “Doris BarrilleauxAnd the Beginnings of Modern Women’s Bodybuilding.” Iron Game History 11.4 (2012): 7-21.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Romano, John. “The Death of Women’s Bodybuilding.” T- Nation, 15 August 2015. https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/death-of-womens-bodybuilding
  10. Ravalli, Richard. “The Bodybuilding and Entertainment Careers of Cory Everson.” Gender and Popular Culture: Identity Constructions and Representations 100.3 (2019): 77.
  11. Aoki, Douglas Sadao. “Posing the Subject: Sex, Illumination, and” Pumping Iron II: The Women”.” Cinema Journal (1999): 24-44.
  12. Johnson, John. “She’s the Queen of Flex and Form.” LA Times. 4 December 1988. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-12-04-me-1590-story.html 
  13. Weik, Matt. “A Look at the Ms. Olympia History And 2006 Ms. Olympia Preview.” Bodybuilding.com 5 November 2018. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/weik24.htm.
  14. Andreasson, Jesper, and Thomas Johansson. “Negotiating female fitness doping: gender, identity and transgressions.” Sport in Society (2019): 1-17.
  15. Weik, Matt. “A Look at the Ms. Olympia History And 2006 Ms. Olympia Preview.” Bodybuilding.com 5 November 2018. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/weik24.htm.
  16. Ibid.
  17. “Iris Kyle.” Evolution of Bodybuilding.net. https://www.evolutionofbodybuilding.net/iris-kyle/ 
  18. Dobbins, Bill. “Ms. Olympia Bodybuilding Finals 2005: To Be Replaced By A Fitness Model Contest.” Bodybuilding.com 25 January 2019. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/billdobbins10.htm 
  19. Romano, John. “The Death of Women’s Bodybuilding.” T- Nation, 15 August 2015. https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/death-of-womens-bodybuilding
  20. Berg, Michael. “Spreading their Wings.” Muscle and Fitness. https://www.muscleandfitness.com/flexonline/flex-news/spreading-their-wings/
  21. “Rebuttal To John Romero’s…” Female Muscle Blog 18 October 2015. https://femuscleblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/rebuttal-to-john-romanos-the-death-of-womens-bodybuilding-did-ugly-kill-female-pro-bodybuilding/
  22. Ibid.

Feature image from JC’s Instagram page: @80sbabeswithbiceps

2 thoughts on “The History of the Ms. Olympia Contest”

  1. The amount on inaccuracy in this is mind blowing first of all for 2020 Olympia the dates are Dec 17-20th with the main events taking place Friday the 18th and Saturday the 19th. Secondly Phil Heath lost year 2017 not 2016… he won 2016 just saying. I’m not going to go on with everything else that is false but what a disappointing read.

    • Hi, there. You are right that Phil didn’t lose in 2016. It was 2018. We corrected the article to reflect this. However, while the Olympia weekend takes place from Dec. 17-20, the actual competition portion is Dec. 18-19. Thank you for pointing that out.

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