In the most straightforward terms, the Natural Olympia is a drug-tested bodybuilding contest held annually by the International Natural Bodybuilding Association and Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association, more commonly referred to as the INBA/PNBA.
Intended as a venue for elite bodybuilders who master their craft under strict tests for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, the Natural Olympia is tied to a larger mission of the INBA/PNBA: to promote a version of the sport that could one day be recognized by the Olympic Games. Here’s how the show came to be:
Humble Roots, Noble Aspirations
According to the league’s website, the INBA/PNBA has roots in a publicity event. In 1977, architect-turned-entrepreneur Denny Kakos opened Mt. Olympus Health Spa in California and sought to attract membership by holding a local bodybuilding competition right there in his gym.
It made a lot of sense to capitalize on the bodybuilding fever gripping pop culture at the time. This was the same year that a young Arnold Schwarzenegger lit up screens in the seminal documentary about the sport, Pumping Iron. For Kakos, associating a club with bodybuilders could likely generate buzz for the new gym.
The strategy paid off, as Kakos continued holding more contests as the years went on. He soon turned to the National Physique Committee (NPC) in the early 1980s to promote the California Natural Bodybuilding Championships, which attracted 135 competitors, all of whom the organization said were “drug-free.”
The Creation of the Natural Olympia
Finding a market in natural bodybuilding shows, Kakos and a few partners created their own competitive league in 1988 called the American Bodybuilding Association (ABA). That soon led to the creation of a professional league called the Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association (PNBA) in 1990, which served as the pro league that elite ABA competitors qualified for.
The PNBA soon replicated the global aspect of the much larger (and longer-established) IFBB Professional League. Within a few years, the PNBA had its own international events, adding the INBA to the PNBA acronym.
By 1998, the league had enough momentum to hold their first Natural Olympia in Corinth, Greece, as a seeming nod to their stated goal to eventually promote bodybuilding as an Olympic sport. Bodybuilder John Hansen won the inaugural show.
Sort of the Same, Sort of Different
While the Natural Olympia offers a spot for the typical bodybuilding divisions found during the IFBB’s Olympia weekend — including Men’s Open, Classic Physique, and Bikini — there are quirkier amateur categories like a Men’s Ink/Tattoo class and “formal wear” divisions where the men come decked out in suits and women strut on stage in an evening gown.
The biggest difference, however, remains the drug testing protocol in place for the PNBA/INBA. The leagues — and, by extension, the Natural Olympia contest — follow the testing protocols put forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). This agency tests for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and its list of prohibited drugs ranges from dozens of anabolic androgenic steroids to diuretics and masking agents. (1)
The drug testing protocol for IFBB Pro League shows — like the Olympia — is not readily available through the league’s website. In 1990, there was mandatory drug testing at the Mr. Olympia show that made headlines, but since then, protocols have been less clear.
In 2017, The New York Times reported that a spokesperson for the Olympia told the outlet that drug testing is random but is not conducted during the contest itself. Over the years, IFBB Pro League bodybuilders like six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates and eight-time Mr. O Ronnie Coleman have openly admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs during their careers. And in September 2022, current IFBB Pro competitor Hunter Labrada acknowledged the role steroids play in bodybuilding on his YouTube channel.
[Related: How Strong Was Arnold Schwarzenegger? We Look Back at the Oak’s Short-Lived Powerlifting Career]
According to the PNBA/INBA, their competitors get “blood or urine” tests on-site at shows and random tests outside of competitions. Athletes also pay a portion of these test costs with each contest entry fee.
Penalties for a failed test range from a yearlong suspension to a lifetime ban from competition, depending on the results of the tests. Those athletes then have the ignominious honor of appearing on the INBA/PNBA Wall of Shame, which spotlights dozens of competitors who, according to the organization, failed one or more drug tests. Whether this is a righteous or juvenile move is up to the individual, but it feeds into the league’s strict views on drug use.
The league’s rules make it clear, however, that athletes can appeal suspensions within 10 days of a failed test by providing (at the athlete’s expense) a second test to confirm or refute the findings. False positive tests — where an athlete who was not doping has a test that comes back positive for reasons other than PED use — do happen occasionally with any drug tests. (2) Though some evidence suggests blood testing remains the most accurate, no method is perfect. (3)
The Natural Olympia Today
The Natural Olympia has taken place nearly every year since 1998. In recent times, it typically runs in Las Vegas every November, around the same time as the IFBB’s Olympia.
Here’s a full rundown of the past winners of the Natural Olympia in the Men’s Open Bodybuilding division:
- John Hansen (1998)
- Keith Bullock (2001)
- Ron Williams (2002)
- Rodney Hawthorne (2003)
- Danny Chau (2004)
- Komang Arnawa (2005)
- Warren Clampit (2006)
- Philip Ricardo Jr. (2007, 2008, 2015, 2019)
- Kiyoshi Moody (2009-2014)
- Michael Waddington (2016)
- Rob Terry (2017, 2018)
- Meshack Ochieng (2020)
- Paul Krueger (2021)
- Tommi Thompson (2022)
An Olympia Alternative
The fact that the Natural Olympia continues after over a couple of decades speaks to the continued interest in an elite, drug-tested arena for bodybuilders. It is hard to say whether or not the Natural Olympia will ever eventually garner the attention from the IOC that it claims to covet. Regardless, the INBA/PNBA organization has carved out a niche for itself that manages to act as a true alternative for athletes and fans.
More Bodybuilding Stories
For more on bodybuilding, check out these stories from BarBend:
- Bodybuilding’s Uncrowned Mr. Olympia: Nasser El Sonbaty
- The 10 Best Bodybuilding Nicknames of All Time
- 10 Memorable Performances From the Arnold Classic Bodybuilding Contest
- World Anti-Doping Code International Standard Prohibited List
- Aaron Hermann, and Maciej Henneberg. Anti-doping systems in sports are doomed to fail: a probability and cost analysis. Journal of Sports Medicine & Doping Studies, 2014; 4(5):1000148-1-1000148-12
- Faiss R, Saugy J, Saugy M. Fighting Doping in Elite Sports: Blood for All Tests! Front Sports Act Living. 2019 Sep 20;1:30. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2019.00030. PMID: 33344954; PMCID: PMC7739585.
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