Bodybuilding has, in the past decade or so, become a very complicated affair. Since the creation of physique and classic categories, aspiring competitors can choose from a host of different competitions, divisions, and federations. This is to say nothing of the parallel worlds of test and untested competitions. The sport has, in short, become rather crowded from the top down.
That bodybuilding offers so many different opportunities is undoubtedly a sign of the sport’s potential and still growing popularity among men and women alike. That it offers so many different opportunities also signals the transformation of the sport from its humble beginnings.
Previously, we discussed the first official bodybuilding competition of the modern age, run by Eugen Sandow in 1901. Part of his contest’s popularity stemmed from the fact that it was the only one around. For those unable to enter, there were no alternatives.
As a competitive sport, bodybuilding grew slowly across the first half of the twentieth-century before experiencing a massive uptake in popularity from the 1970s onwards. While many will credit this popularity to a generation of iconic athletes — individuals like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu and Frank Zane to name a few — equally important was the subject of today’s post, the Mr. Olympia contest.
Founded by bodybuilding moguls Joe and Ben Weider in 1965, the Mr. Olympia contest quickly became the sport’s showpiece event. Where football has the Superbowl or Baseball the World Series, Bodybuilding has the Mr. Olympia. Others have attempted to challenge the Mr. Olympia’s supremacy, Vince McMahon’s WBF being one example, but none have succeeded.
That the Mr. Olympia is a special contest is obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the sport. It is the very metric by which serious competitors judge their success. Seeking to uncover the reasons for this, today’s article looks at the very first contest, held in 1965. As will become clear, the Olympia was a contest designed to propel the Weiders to the forefront of bodybuilding. It did that, and more.
The Birth of American Bodybuilding
The Mr. Olympia contest was not born in a vacuum nor was it born without incident. It marked another in a series of ongoing promotions by the Weider brothers to establish themselves as the patrons of bodybuilding. To understand why they held this desire, we need to track back a few decades from the 1965 contest.
In 1901, Eugen Sandow held the first recognized bodybuilding show in Great Britain. Some years later, Bernarr Macfadden held similar contests for men and women in the United States. Aside from small regional competitions, these competitions marked the only major physique contests of the 1900s and 1910s. During the 1920s, a handful of contests were held again in the United States, but, as a sport, bodybuilding was almost non-existent.(1)
This is not to say that lifting weights, going to the gym, and attempting to become lean were unpopular, far from it, but rather that men and women had no competitive outlet for such activities. This changed, however, in the late 1930s, when the Mr. America competition was first held.
Run initially by a private promoter, the contest was taken over by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) from 1939 onwards.(2) At this time the AAU was responsible for overseeing the governance of a vast remit of American sports, covering everything from archery to wrestling. Included in this was Olympic weightlifting.
Because the AAU oversaw Olympic weightlifting, they took over the running of the Mr. America bodybuilding contest. The reason for this was that many felt the AAU had the most expertise in dealing with physical culture.(3) There was a certain logic to this which, unfortunately, faltered in the face of reality.
Running the AAU’s weightlifting branch at this time was Bob Hoffman of York Barbell. Hoffman was, as John Fair’s wonderful biography makes clear, one of the strongest supporters of American Olympic weightlifting.(4) He funded the teams, supported their training, and publicized their results.
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As coach of the US Olympic weightlifting team, and as one of America’s most successful barbell manufacturers, Hoffman was well placed to oversee the running of American bodybuilding. The problem was Hoffman took a rather derisory view of the sport.
Weightlifting was Hoffman’s main priority and although willing to support bodybuilding, he relegated its importance to a secondary sport. Part of this stemmed from Hoffman’s ultimately correct fear that the more popular bodybuilding, and later powerlifting, would become, the less attractive weightlifting would be for lifters.(5) Thus, Mr. America shows of the 1930s and 1940s were often held after weightlifting contests, had a number of confusing rules, and, in time, became a point of criticism for those in the sport.
Then came the Weiders.
The Battle for Bodybuilding
Beginning their bodybuilding enterprises in Montreal in the late 1930s, Joe and Ben Weider displayed a shrewd eye for detail and opportunity. When the Weiders began selling Your Physique magazine in the late 1930s, they took Bob Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine, tracked down his subscription lists, and began sending targeting advertisements to Hoffman’s customers.(6) At the time Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine was one of the most popular weight training magazines in North America.
[Related: How the ancient world lifted weights]
Targeting Hoffman’s customer base was a great idea, but undoubtedly Machiavellian. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to a great deal of tension between the Weiders and Bob Hoffman. What made matters worse was the fact that Hoffman had initially published the Weiders’ advertisements in his own magazine as a means of support for a fellow entrepreneur. It was for these reasons that Weider and Hoffman soon embarked on an incredibly bitter feud which lasted several years.(7)
Hoffman’s disapproval of Weiders’ actions stemmed, in part, from his belief that Weider was attempting to undermine his position in the weight training community. Hoffman was, as we’ve discussed, largely the figurehead of American gym cultures at this time. Up and coming entrepreneurs like Weider threatened Hoffman’s influence.
Hoffman’s concerns were largely validated but not in the way that he envisioned. Weider was not interested in becoming the leader of American weightlifting but rather American bodybuilding. This reflected the Weiders’ own interest in bodybuilding as well as their desire to gain some foothold in the American market.
Hoffman cared about American weightlifting, and few would displace him in that realm. Bodybuilding however, was an entirely different ballgame. Hoffman and the AAU oversaw the Mr. America contest, but in such a paltry way that resentment from competitors was perhaps inevitable.
The leading criticisms directed toward the AAU’s Mr. America during the 1940s and 1950s centered on its judging process. Because the early Mr. America contests were modeled on the Ms. America pageant, contestants were judged based on one’s physique, personality, and weight lifting abilities.(8) What this meant in practice, was that competitors would flex their muscles, do Olympic lifts, and then be interviewed. One such example was the 1941 Mr. America, John Grimek.
For people interested in strict bodybuilding, the format was clearly problematic. It was here where the Weiders found their opening. As retold by John Fair, the 1940s and 1950s saw the Weiders run a series of new bodybuilding competitions under the banner of their International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) organization. Their appeal? Unlike the Mr. America competition, their shows would only judge people based upon their physiques. No personality tests, no weightlifting competitions, just the physical appearance.(9)
Equally problematic were allegations of racism within the Mr. America competition. From its inception in 1939 to 1970, no black or latino Mr. America was crowned until Chris Dickerson became the first black Mr. America in 1970.(10) That black or latino bodybuilders were not awarded the Mr. America contest, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, fostered a great deal of resentment among athletes towards the AAU and the contest in general.
It was this dissatisfaction which Weiders and others began to capitalize on. This, incidentally, came at a time when other bodybuilding shows began to emerge. In 1948, the Mr. Universe contest was first held. It was soon followed by the Mr. World competition.(11) Unlike the Mr. America show, these competitions were strict bodybuilding affairs. Within this context, the Weiders took their shot.
The First Mr. Olympia
The Mr. Olympia contest was not the first bodybuilding show organized by the Weiders. That accolade went to their 1946 Mr. Canada contest.(12) The Mr. Olympia was, however, their first contest to provide a truly unique prospect. At that time, the mid-1960s, bodybuilding was in a somewhat strange situation.
The three major shows were the Mr. Universe, the Mr. World and, of course, the Mr. America. As these shows were held at different times of the year, in different locations around the world and with a different set of rules, it was difficult to distinguish who was the world’s best bodybuilder in a competitive sense. Put simply, there were three major championships each year but no one Superbowl event to determine the best.(13)
This problem was compounded by the fact that, in some of these competitions, like the Mr. America, competitors could not enter again if they had previously won. This meant that bodybuilders at the peak of their career were effectively re-iterated. There would be no 8-time Mr. America.
This was a ruling that Joe Weider latched on to in promoting his new Mr. Olympia concept. Writing in his own Muscle Builder magazine in April 1965, Joe Weider compared then Mr. America winner Larry Scott to Alexander the Great. Weider’s reasoning was that Alexander had conquered the world at 33, but Scott had conquered bodybuilding at 24. For each man, there was nothing left for them to do. Expanding on this point, Weider claimed that such strong rules had deprived bodybuilding stars like Bill Pearl or Reg Park from gaining the recognition they truly deserved.(14)
[Related: The untold history of the barbell]
Equally problematic was that different men had won the Mr. Universe, Mr. World and Mr. America contests. In 1965, Sergio Oliva won the Mr. World, Dave Draper the Mr. America, and Earl Maynard the Mr. Universe.(15) How could bodybuilding thrive as a sport without clarification as to its champions?
With this question in mind, the Weiders invited Oliva, Draper, and Maynard to compete in their show. Room was also extended to Larry Scott, a former Mr. America winner trained by Vince Gironda, whom Joe Weider had taken a particular shine toward. Scott, as Weider would later write, largely redefined arm training in the 1960s, as his freakish arm development inspired a generation to use the dip station.
Held at the end of an IFBB show, the first Mr. Olympia took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 1965. It may have only featured a handful of athletes, but the quantity did not matter. What mattered was the quality on offer. Here was the best that bodybuilding had to offer — the champions among champions —sss who would finally compete against one another to determine the sport’s undisputed champion.
Reporting on the event in Muscle Builder magazine in 1966, Joe Weider presented a somewhat rose-tinted, but nevertheless fascinating, account of what happened on stage that night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Weider’s favorite who seemed to garner all of the attention:
“As each man stepped into the light he received a tremendous ovation. but even before Larry Scott came out, the fans chimed: “We want Scott…we want Scott!”
As soon as he stepped out of the wings, the auditorium exploded with thunderous applause. It was deafening…a roar…and flashbulbs flooded the stage with so much light that it seemed as if the sun had rose.
The roar became a deafening hum and the floor actually trembled from the pounding of feet. the crowd went wild — mad with excitement and enthusiasm.” (16)
Aside, perhaps, from Dorian Yates’s first Mr. Olympia victory, I cannot remember a comparable time in recent memory when crowds at the Olympia responded with such shock and admiration. The romantic in me would say this validated the faith shown by the Weiders in such an experiment. The cynic in me says of course Joe would write favorably of his own contest!
That being said, it is clear the Olympia had an almost immediate impact on bodybuilding. Professional bodybuilder and contest organizer Dan Lurie later wrote that the first Olympia made clear the demand for professional bodybuilding and encouraged him to begin his own federation in 1967.(17)
Likewise, we know that the cash prize of $1,000 made the contest one of the most profitable in the sport (and this continued to be the case for many years with some WBF influenced exceptions). There was, as the rare film footage from the night shows, something undoubtedly special about what went on that night.
Having seen the footage, it is useful to return to Weider’s report of the event. Viewing the film in 2020, it seems apparent to me that Scott was the runaway winner. Weider agreed:
“…it was clear that Scott was the winner — that he had been unanimously declared the world’s greatest bodybuilder…the first of the great bodybuilders – the first Mr. Olympia. When the beautiful jeweled crown was awarded to Scott, the fans were numb — but they still cheered. And after several hundred more photographs were taken, the curtain slowly closed — only to end another annual IFBB spectacular.
Snapped into reality again by the houselights, the fans rushed into the streets and surrounded the academy. It was a sea of people — and as each contestant left the theatre that night, each was greeted with a round of applause and cheers. Several contestants were tossed onto the shoulders of enthusiastic well-wishers — as they triumphantly marched them through the streets. Until 2am and later, hundreds were still outside — waiting for the great Scott.
Think this report is exaggerated? Believe us…we couldn’t begin to express on paper the excitement you missed if you were not there.” (18)
At the end of the night, Larry Scott was crowned the first ever Mr. Olympia champion followed by Harold Poole in second place and Earl Maynard in third. Unlike other bodybuilding contests, Champions were invited to return again to compete the following year. This meant that far from an isolated victory, fans could, and would, see a Superbowl of bodybuilding every single year.
How the Olympia Changed Bodybuilding
In 1966, Larry Scott returned to successfully defend his Mr. Olympia trophy. It was one of the first times since Charles Atlas in the 1920s that a bodybuilding champion had been invited back to a contest. Far from unusual, this was part of the changed landscape in the sport.
At its most basic level, the 1965 Mr. Olympia’s decision to invite former champions to compete against one another was monumental for the sport. It meant that legacies could be built and forged through competition as was shown in the careers of Schwarzenegger, Haney, Yates, Coleman, and, more recently, Heath. Imagine a world in which Superbowl or World Series winners could no longer compete. That was bodybuilding prior to 1965!
Looking in more detail, the 1965 contest marked a shifting point in the history of bodybuilding, specifically in the power of the Weider brothers. The two men were important entrepreneurs prior to 1965. They were challenging Bob Hoffman and York Barbell at several points, but it was only after 1965 that they managed to gain an almost vice like grip over bodybuilding.
Sure other competitors existed in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was the Weiders who controlled the Mr. Olympia contest. As the first elite contest the sport had ever seen, owning the Mr. Olympia meant owning a special place in the sport. Without the Mr. Olympia, the Weiders would have continued, but not with the same influence. Given that Joe Weider was known as the ‘Trainer of Champions’, that he was known as a man who influenced the careers of Schwarzenegger, Zane, and countless others, it is fascinating to think about what would have happened had his influence been reduced.
Finally, the Mr. Olympia contest helped to raise the production standards of bodybuilding. It helped bodybuilding become a much more respectable, and successful, pursuit. It was the Mr. Olympia featured in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, which many have credited with creating a fitness boom in America. Had the Olympia been a poorly produced, ill-conceived contest, it is unlikely Pumping Iron would have held the same gravitas. In becoming the Superbowl, World Series, and Game Six all rolled into one, the Mr. Olympia contest gave the bodybuilding calendar something to plan for, to look forward to and to enjoy. What began in 1965 continues to shape the sport today.
- Reich, Jacqueline. ““The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” Charles Atlas, Physical Culture, and the Inscription of American Masculinity.” Men and Masculinities 12.4 (2010): 444-461.
- Fair, John D. Mr. America: The tragic history of a bodybuilding icon. University of Texas Press, 2015.
- Fair, John D. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell. Penn State Press, 1999.
- Weider, Joe, Ben Weider, and Mike Steere. Brothers of Iron. Sports Publishing LLC, 2006.
- Fair, Mr. America.
- Fair, John. “Mr. America: idealism or racism: Color consciousness and the AAU Mr. America contest, 1939-1982.” Iron Game History 8.1 (2003): 9-29.
- Fair, Mr. America.
- Black, Jonathan. Making the American body: The remarkable saga of the men and women whose feats, feuds, and passions shaped fitness history. U of Nebraska Press, 2013.
- Fair, Mr. America.
- Conor Heffernna, ‘The First Mr. Olympia’, Physical Culture Study, August 15, 2018.
- ‘Here Is The Great Contest Picture Story You’ve Been Waiting For,’ Muscle Builder, Vol 15, No 10, (1966), 68.
- Lurie, Dan and Robson, David, Heart of Steel: The Dan Lurie Story. AuthorHouse, 2009.
- ‘Here Is The Great Contest Picture Story You’ve Been Waiting For,’ Muscle Builder.
Feature image from Strength Oldschool’s Instagram page: @strengtholdschool