And while these competitions have given way to some inspiring victories and fierce rivalries over the years, they’ve also been home to plenty of divisive moments that fans still debate decades later. From questionable winners to some eyebrow-raising rule changes, here are nine of the most controversial Olympia moments ever.
Controversial Olympia Moments
- Arnold Wins in 1980
- Franco Wins in 1981
- The Drug-Tested 1990 Mr. Olympia
- Bev Francis Loses in 1991
- Rule Changes at the 1991 Olympia
- Jay Loses to Ronnie in 2001
- The 2005 20% Ms. Olympia Rule
- Victor Martinez Loses to Jay Culter in 2007
- Phil Heath Kai Greene ‘Fight’ in 2014
In 1980, then six-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger landed his biggest movie role to date as the lead in Conan the Barbarian. (1) While training for the part, he began to toy with the idea of competing in that year’s Olympia, which he originally decided to skip. He was, after all, already in good enough shape to play the iconic warrior king — an Olympia title wasn’t so far-fetched.
He flew to the contest in Sydney, Australia, to act as a commentator for the show, but he surprised everyone when he revealed he was officially stepping on stage at the very last minute. Arnold’s physique was impressive that day, but far below his previous standards. In fact, many believed he didn’t warrant a top-three finish. Despite the doubts, the “Austrian Oak” came out on top, causing an immediate backlash from the crowd and his fellow competitors.
Several bodybuilders refused to compete the following year in protest and rumors swirled for decades (continuing today, in fact) that Arnold only won because of his Hollywood fame and connections with the show’s promoter. It is, to date, the most controversial Olympia decision in history.
Arnold didn’t make any surprise return at the 1981 Mr. Olympia, and his controversial victory the year before caused several high-profile names like Frank Zane, Mike Mentzer, and Boyer Coe, to sit it out as well.
One bodybuilder who did return for the show was Franco Columbu, the 1976 Mr. Olympia whose bodybuilding career nearly ended thanks to a freak leg injury suffered at the first World’s Strongest Man contest in 1977. But when Franco unveiled his physique at the show in ‘81, his legs were noticeably out of proportion with his upper body, according to fitness writer John Hansen’s account of the event. (2)
Despite assurances from organizers that the judging would be fair, the contest proved just as controversial. That year Danny Padilla, Roy Callender, Chris Dickerson, and Tom Platz all had a claim to be the champion — but in the end, Franco took home the crown.
The boos were deafening, and the fact that Franco was one of Arnold’s closest friends didn’t help matters. Hansen later wrote, “When compared to the outstanding wheels of Dickerson, Padilla, Callender, and Platz, Franco truly didn’t have a leg to stand on.” (2)
In the late ‘80s, steroids were becoming a bigger issue in the mainstream, and lawmakers in the United States wanted to crack down. In April 1990, the U.S. Congress introduced the Anabolic Steroids Control Act, which aimed to classify steroids as a class III controlled substance and would target anyone selling or in possession of the drugs without a doctor’s prescription. (3) The act was eventually signed into law by President George H. W. Bush and took effect in 1991. (4)
During this time, it was decided that the 1990 Mr. Olympia would employ a rigorous drug testing protocol to weed out steroid users. This was on the heels of the new drug testing at that year’s Arnold Classic, where Shawn Ray got disqualified for failing a test after being announced the champion. This testing protocol promised the fairest and cleanest Olympia in history. It went about as well as you’d expect.
Of the 20 competitors, five failed the drug test right before the Olympia got underway, including Berry DeMey, Mohammed Benaziza, J.J.Marsh, Van Walcott Smith, and Vince Comerford. And those who didn’t fail were in visibly worse condition than in previous years, according to late bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough. (5)
The entire fiasco shined a light on the importance of steroids in the sport and only served to fuel criticism. While Lee Haney ultimately won the contest, the show itself is far better remembered for the behind-the-scenes drama.
Trailblazer Bev Francis possessed an exceptional amount of muscle mass during a time when the women’s bodybuilding division featured physiques that were far leaner and more slender. But while Francis’s size was impressive, it didn’t necessarily lead to titles. From 1987 to 1990, she finished third three times at the Ms. Olympia — but it was her second-place finish in 1991 that many fans still talk about.
That year, Bev was the total package: muscular, well-proportioned, symmetrical, and conditioned. And she seemed primed to overtake the reigning champion, Lenda Murray. It was the first Ms. Olympia to air on ESPN, and the network flashed the judges’ scores on the screen halfway through the second day of the show, confirming that Francis was indeed in the driver’s seat. But with just the posing round left, Murray managed to edge out Francis for the victory, much to the surprise of fans. (6)
“Of course, it was said that the powers-that-be and ESPN didn’t want a woman who would have beaten most middleweight men to be recognized as the planet’s premier female bodybuilder,” McGough later wrote. “A few months later, an edict went out warning that overt muscularity would be marked down [for women.]”
Whether McGough’s point about bodybuilding’s head honchos is true or not, Francis’s shocking defeat certainly raised questions.
“If all the girls on stage are really muscular, the judges only have that to choose from,” six-time Ms. O Cory Everson said during the show’s ESPN broadcast. “So I think what’s happening is they’re trying to say ‘Hey girls […] still be muscular, but really focus on symmetry in proportion.’”
These aesthetic changes were problematic for two reasons. First, they appeared to treat women bodybuilders unfairly. (After all, the men never had to slim down.) Second, despite the IFBB’s intentions, the reigning champion, Lenda Murray, still won the contest with a physique similar to the previous year. The organization eventually scrapped the femininity rules, although efforts to regulate the athletes’ size reappeared in later years.
Though Ronnie Coleman racked up a record-tying eight Mr. Olympia wins (with Lee Haney) during his career, he wasn’t always at his best during the big show. In 2001, a young Jay Cutler surprised everyone by not only challenging Coleman, but perhaps even surpassing him on stage.
Coleman came in bloated and off on day one, and later revealed that he suffered from severe dehydration the morning of the contest. (8) Cutler, by contrast, was lean and muscular, landing him at the top of the leaderboard early in the show. On the second night, however, Coleman came in transformed. His bloating had vanished and his muscle density was superb, which was enough to edge out the upstart.
A theme in women’s bodybuilding for a great deal of its history has been the tension between competitors and organizers. Competitors continually push the boundaries of muscle size and density, while organizers have often attempted to rein them back in.
In 2005, the IFBB released an announcement asking competitors to reduce their muscularity by at least 20% from the previous year. According to author and bodybuilder Tanya Bunsell’s book Strong and Hard Women, the IFBB claimed the rules stemmed from concerns about both aesthetics and competitor health. (11) But there were no similar guidelines for men, even as competitors seemingly grew larger each year.
The 2005 show saw reigning Ms. Olympia, Iris Kyle, fall to Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia — but the real story was the controversy surrounding the new mandates. Despite the constant controversy over competitors’ size, the Ms. Olympia would go on until 2014, with Kyle winning every contest. The show then went on hiatus until 2020.
In the mid-2000s, Jay Cutler was at the top of the bodybuilding world. He had defeated Ronnie Coleman to win the Olympia in 2006, and it looked like 2007 would be another sure thing. But that year, Victor Martinez nearly stopped Cutler’s burgeoning dynasty before it even started. And some still believe he should have.
Martinez showed up on the first day of the contest with a package worthy of an Olympia crown, while Cutler, on the other hand, came out “flat,” according to McGough. At the end of the first day at prejudging, the reigning champ was ahead of Martinez by just two points — after the posing round, it was down to just one.
People sensed an upset, but, controversially, none came. As the evening continued, Jay’s bloating disappeared and, as McGough reported, he appeared to get even larger in stature. (12) While Cutler’s physique improved, Martinez’s appeared to diminish in size and impressiveness. When it came time for the final posedown, Jay did just enough to pull out the victory.
McGough wrote that some believed Cutler’s affiliation with Joe Weider and Muscletech, an Olympia sponsor, played a part in his win. But as he eloquently stated, that theory “holds as much weight as a gnat’s jockstrap.”
This list wouldn’t be complete without the Phil Heath/Kai Greene debacle at the 2014 Mr. Olympia. Like Cutler and Coleman, the rivalry between these two men defined the sport for several years. The only difference was that where Cutler eventually won his Olympia crown, Greene never tasted victory.
And while other rivalries had underlying professionalism to them, Heath and Greene’s oozed bad blood. Even before the 2014 Olympia began, the two men made headlines for continually interrupting one another. Notably, Greene cut Heath off as the reigning champion spoke about his recently deceased father during the pre-show press conference.
The two later tussled on stage, and although fight is perhaps too strong a word, they did get physical with one another to the point of shoving and squaring off.
Bodybuilding feuds are built on tension, but it says volumes that his Olympia is remembered more for the altercation than Heath’s eventual victory.
At its heart, bodybuilding is inherently subjective. Judges, fans, and contestants are rarely in complete agreement with each other, making the sport ripe for clashes both on and off the stage. Though the perfect physique is always in the eye of the beholder, one thing is certain: The next controversy is always right around the corner.
- John Fair, “The Intangible Arnold: The Controversial Mr. Olympia Contest of 1980,” Iron Game History, 2009, https://tinyurl.com/4ne2jb7a
- John Hansen, “1981 Mr. Olympia Report: Part 2,” RX Muscle, 1 December 2012. http://www.rxmuscle.com/articles/john-hansen/7083-1981-mr-olympia-part-2.html.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Anabolic Steroids, March 2004 https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/pubs/brochures/steroids/public/
- Ronny Tober and William Llewellyn, Underground Anabolics, 2010, https://tinyurl.com/26txc7sz
- Peter McGough, “Bodybuilding’s Blackest Day,” Muscular Development, April 21, 2016. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/15132-bodybuilding-s-blackest-day-drug-bust-decimates-1990-mr-o.html
- Peter McGough, “Bev’s Last Stand,” Muscular Development, August 7, 2013. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/bodybuilding-news/11926-bev-s-last-stand.html#.Y1FhzulKit_
- Jonathan Black, Making the American Body, University of Nebraska Press, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/2p9y9z5p
- Shawn Ray, “Exclusive Ronnie Coleman, 8X Mr. Olympia at Home, Sit Down Interview,” DigitalMuscleTV, September 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7Jb7WcGacU
- Wayne DeMilia, “Greatest Promoter of Bodybuilding Opens Up,” Valuetainment, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVQRR0OUALA
- Peter McGough, “How the 2001 Mr. Olympia was Fixed!,” Muscular Development, April 11, 2014. https://musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/12973-how-the-2001-mr-olympia-was-fixed-muscular-development.html
- Tanya Bunsell, Strong and Hard Women, Routledge, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/scm54nza
- Peter McGough, “The 2007 Mr. Olympia – Did Victor Martinez Beat Cutler?” Muscular Development, August 15, 2014. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/13497-the-2007-mr-olympia-did-victor-martinez-beat-cutler-muscular-development.html
Featured Image: @mrolympiallc on Instagram