On September 18, 1965, Larry Scott, Harold Poole, and Earl Maynard became the first men to step on stage at the Mr. Olympia competition. The brainchild of Joe and Ben Weider, the inaugural Mr. Olympia promised to determine the best physique in the burgeoning world of bodybuilding.
Although the 1965 competition gave little indication that the show would last more than a few years, it has since become the premier contest in the sport. To learn more about the show of shows, here are 10 facts about the Mr. Olympia.
Facts About the Mr. Olympia
- The Mr. Olympia Trophy Wasn’t Always the Sandow
- Two Mr. Olympia Competitions Have Gone Uncontested
- The First Overseas Competition Was in Paris in 1971
- Larry Scott Didn’t Like the Mr. Olympia Name at First
- The 1990 Mr. Olympia Was Drug Tested
- The Mr. Olympia Was Once Divided Into Weight Categories
- Only Three Mr. Olympia Champions Have Made Successful Comebacks
- Two Men Share the Record for Most Olympia Wins
- There Are Only Five One-Time Champions
- The Winners Are Getting Older
The current Mr. Olympia trophy is modeled on fitness legend Eugen Sandow and is a replica of the same award given out at his “Great Competition” bodybuilding show from 1901. (1) But it took a while for the Sandow trophy to become an Olympia staple.
At the debut Mr. O in 1965, winner Larry Scott was awarded a bejeweled crown that he begrudgingly put on his head for a photo op at the end of the show. And in 1969, Sergio Oliva took home a fancy silver plate, which you can see in the photo below. (2)
Frank Zane was the first bodybuilder awarded a Sandow trophy when he won the Olympia in 1977. As fitness historian David Chapman later explained, the decision to use a Sandow trophy came from conversations between Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Weider, and bodybuilding promoter Jim Lorimer. (3)
Sadly, we have no indication as to who initially came up with the idea. Nevertheless, the trophy gained its own mystique over the years, and “winning a Sandow” is now universally understood within the sport to mean an Olympia.
Though the Mr. Olympia typically crams more than a dozen of the world’s best onto the stage today, two of the shows only featured a single competitor. It happened to Sergio Oliva in 1968 and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1971. But despite the solo performances, the shows still had plenty of drama.
When Oliva grabbed the microphone after his victory to thank Weider’s line of supplements for helping to craft his physique, rival promoter Dan Lurie rushed onto the stage and told the crowd that Oliva had actually been using Lurie’s supplements the whole time. According to bodybuilding historian Randy Roach, who interviewed Lurie for the book Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, tempers eventually cooled and the two settled their differences at a coffee shop after the show. (4)
Arnold’s uncontested show proved equally unique as all of the other competitors — including Franco Columbu and Oliva — were disqualified for taking part in non-IFBB events beforehand. (4) Every Mr. O since 1971 has had more than one contestant, although the event still isn’t immune to controversies.
The Mr. Olympia took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1965 to 1969 before moving to The Town Hall, located near Times Square, in 1970. The 1971 Olympia finally went overseas to Paris, France, due to the IFBB’s broader design to expand its global reach.
In the years since, the show has taken place in Germany, Finland, South Africa, Sweden, Italy, and Belgium. Since 1999, though, Las Vegas, Nevada, has been the Olympia’s seemingly permanent home, with only a short stint in Orlando, Florida, from 2020 to 2021. (5)
When Joe Weider approached Larry Scott with the idea for a new bodybuilding contest, Scott was fully on board. Well, except for the name. Upon hearing that Weider wanted to call it the Mr. Olympia, Scott’s mind instantly went to the Olympia Brewing Company, a Washington-based brewery founded in 1896.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea […] it’s like we’re selling beer,” Scott recalled telling Weider in a later interview. (6)
“No! No! It’s like Mount Olympus, like where all the Greek gods were on Mount Olympus,” Weider replied, according to Scott.
Weider’s decision to create the Olympia helped reopen the playing field for America’s top bodybuilders. Prior to that point, the Mr. America competition, which was America’s biggest show prior to 1965, refused to let winners of the competition enter the show again. In contrast, the Mr. Olympia pit champions against champions to determine who was the top of the bodybuilding mountain.
In 1990, the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs in sports and on the streets became a talking point for politicians and the media. The heat was on, and bodybuilding was coming under pressure to curb steroid use, leading to the first drug-tested shows at the 1990 Arnold Classic and the Mr. Olympia.
While the tests aimed to clean up the sport, they mainly led to a number of last-minute disqualifications and a field of competitors who looked far from stage-ready, according to bodybuilding historian Peter McGough. (7) In the end, Lee Haney came out on top at the first and only drug-tested Mr. Olympia.
Long before the creation of the 212 Olympia division in 2008, the Mr. Olympia was briefly divided between lightweight and heavyweight categories. This lasted from 1974 to 1979, splitting the contest between competitors who weighed over 200 pounds and those who weighed under. (8) Winners of the heavyweight and lightweight categories were then pitted against one another to determine the overall Mr. Olympia.
Remarkably, the shows remained competitive despite the weight disparities between athletes. In the six years this format ran, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a heavyweight, won the overall twice, while lightweights Franco Columbu and Frank Zane won it one time and three times, respectively.
Bodybuilding is a notoriously fickle sport. Champions can seem invincible one year and then suddenly lose the title and disappear down the card the next. As a result, comebacks are rarely seen on the big stage.
During the course of the Mr. Olympia’s history, only three bodybuilders have staged successful — and by that, we mean title-winning — returns to the big show. Schwarzenegger returned to the top in 1980 after last winning in 1975. Then in 1981, Columbu returned to win five years after his previous championship run in 1976.
The only bodybuilder to regain the Olympia after losing it is Jay Cutler. In 2008, Cutler lost the crown to Dexter Jackson, after winning the show the previous two years in a row. Cutler then rallied in 2009 and 2010, winning both years and solidifying his dynasty. (8)
While bodybuilding fans fondly know eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman as “The King,” he should, in truth, share that moniker with the often underrated Lee Haney, who racked up the same amount of Sandows during his career. (8)
Haney won his first Olympia in 1984, beating Mohamed Makkawy in the process. He went on to win the next seven years before retiring as champion in 1991. Coleman, on the other hand, won his first Olympia in 1998 when he beat Flex Wheeler.
Unlike Haney, who retired as champion, Coleman lost his crown to Jay Cutler in 2006 and unsuccessfully tried to win it back in 2007. Coleman finished fourth that year and then decided to put an end to his illustrious career.
In the video interview above from 2009, Coleman called Haney the best bodybuilder of all time due to the stiffer competition he faced. This, Coleman believed, meant that Haney’s victories were harder-fought affairs.
The Mr. Olympia has had 16 separate winners as of 2021, many of whom have won the title more than once. The aforementioned Haney and Coleman won the Olympia eight times, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Phil Heath won it seven times, and Dorian Yates came away with six.
Interestingly enough, there have been only five one-time Mr. Olympias so far: Chris Dickerson (1982), Samir Bannout (1983), Dexter Jackson (2008), Shawn Rhoden (2018), and Brandon Curry (2019). The multi-time champs outnumber the one-time winners at a rate of more than two to one. (8)
The average age of all the Mr. Olympia winners as of 2021 is 32.6 years old, but the range of ages is relatively wide. (9) Arnold holds the distinction of being the youngest to ever win at just 23 years old in 1970, while Shawn Rhoden’s 2018 victory came when he was 43 years old, making him the oldest to hoist the Sandow.
Bodybuilders like Dickerson and Rhoden winning Olympias well into their 40s might not be an outlier for much longer. It turns out that the average age of Olympia winners from 2000-2021 is around 36 years old. And in 2022, Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay looks to score his third Sandow at the age of 38, with many saying he’s never looked better.
The Mr. Olympia competition returns in December, the weekend of the 16th at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. While it is unlikely that any of the facts listed here will be surpassed this year, the Olympia’s longevity means that there’s always history to be made. For fans of bodybuilding, the sport never ceases to amaze.
- Roach, Randy. Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors Vol. 1. 2008. AuthorHouse. https://tinyurl.com/2p8pcd7r
- Merritt, Greg. “The First Mr. Olympia: 1965”, The Barbell, 9/27/2022, https://www.thebarbell.com/first-mr-olympia/
- Chapman, David L. “The Story of the Mr. Olympia Trophy”. The Sandow Museum https://web.archive.org/web/20060106135926/http://sandowmuseum.com:80/mrolympia.html
- Roach, Randy. (2008). Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors Vol. 2. 2008. AuthorHouse. https://tinyurl.com/mn7erbnc
- “Mr. Olympia”. https://mrolympia.com/mr-olympia
- Rafiq, F. Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Life of a Legend. Arena Sports. 2021. https://tinyurl.com/29r4zf3p
- McGough, Peter. “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
- “Competitor History of the Mr. Olympia,” IFBBPro.com, https://www.ifbbpro.com/competitor-history-of-the-mr-olympia/
- Merritt, Greg “Peak Muscle: The Ideal Age for Bodybuilding Success.” The Barbell. December 6, 2021. https://www.thebarbell.com/the-ideal-age-for-bodybuilding-success/
Featured image: @mrolympiallc on Instagram