Mr. Olympia Part 1: Shaping Bodybuilding’s Biggest Showcase – Winners and Trends

Joe Weider’s annual IFBB Mr. Olympia pro bodybuilding spectacle has, since its inception, showcased the best elite-level bodybuilders on the planet. From humble beginnings, the contest which in its infancy hosted a mere three competitors has grown to where it is unquestionably the biggest event of its kind. Envisioned by legendary contest promoter and fitness industry icon Joe Weider as a way to bring together Mr. Universe winners from around the world to compete for money and to foster long-term career prospects, the Olympia has secured a reputation for featuring only the very best physique athletes.

In The Beginning

The first ever Mr. Olympia contest, held on September 18, 1965, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, was won by the classically-shaped Larry Scott. Ironically, Joe Weider was, in naming the world’s biggest bodybuilding extravaganza, inspired by a beer manufactured in Olympia Washington (Olympia Beer).

For Joe, just as Mt. Olympus was where the Greek gods resided, the Olympia stage was where the gods of bodybuilding would compete.

As the bodybuilding god of his age, Larry Scott (massive biceps and shoulders, a megawatt smile, and a perfect tan) catapulted bodybuilding into the public consciousness, something the Olympia event has since done throughout the world.

Scott again won in 1966, but retired that year, which left the door open for huge, symmetrical Cuban immigrant Sergio Oliva to snatch the world’s biggest bodybuilding prize in ’67, which he secured twice more. With his perfect proportions (including a 28” waist, 21” upper arms and 31” upper legs) and charismatic demeanor, many fans and insiders felt Sergio would for many years reign supreme and retire on his own terms.

The Austrian Oak

A massive newcomer with all the physical attributes needed to not only beat Oliva at his own game, but a psychological edge that he would employ to his advantage time and again, had other ideas. In 1970, the Cuban Myth lost his title to the Austrian Oak, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though he tried on several occasions to reclaim the Olympia title, the three-time champ Sergio could not eclipse this new breed of competitor, leaving Arnold to win seven straight Olympias as he set about ruling the 70’s bodybuilding scene.

At 6’ 2” and 230lbs of contest-ready beef, Arnold, despite an increasingly high level of competition, would retire on his own terms, albeit controversially, after winning the 1980 Olympia where at least three of his fellow competitors were clearly better than he.

No Olympia champion before or since has had a bigger impact on the sport of bodybuilding than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold’s successor was the compact, heavily muscled, strongman Franco Columbu, a friend of Schwarzenegger’s who pushed the Austrian hard for the title in ’75. Unlike Arnold, Franco did not possess the flowing lines and near-perfect shape needed to continue his reign, a fact he may have been aware of as he did not defend his title in ’77; instead, in a line-up of nine competitors (the largest since it began) the proportionate and symmetrical Frank Zane stood victorious. Smaller than his competition but well-conditioned and with no apparent weaknesses, Zane would win two more Olympia titles, pushing his total to three.

With three Olympias, Zane, poised for a fourth, contested the 1980 version, confident he would win. Unfortunately for him, the unbeatable Arnold showed up to win his seventh, relegating Zane to third place, behind runner-up Chris Dickerson.

The 80’s and 90’s

In 1981, Franco again came to do battle, this time against a full field of 17 worthy challengers. Again, the decision was controversial (as in ’76 when the winner pulled ahead of several athletes who were clearly superior), and perennial runner-up Chris Dickerson finished second. Finally, in 1982, Chris Dickerson, with his phenomenal conditioning, perfect posing, and beautiful lines, won his first Olympia, which was also his last; he never recaptured the form he presented in London England, which hosted that year’s event.

Samir Bannout, who placed fourth in ’82, won the 1983 Olympia, successfully fending off the challenge of third-placed Lee Haney, a man who would claim a record eight Olympia titles (from 1984-1991). While Samir had the lines and the shape (including freaky lower back development that many feel has yet to be replicated) Haney was thought to be the most complete.

Haney had it all, including unprecedented mass. His blend of size and shape would inspire a generation of competitors to don the trunks.

In 1992, an Englishman, with little fanfare and publicity, further lifted the bodybuilding standard for freaky size and conditioning. Dorian Yates, with his grainy, hard muscle shape and over 250lbs of grade-A mass, would not and could not be surpassed until after his retirement from competition in 1997. His legendary battles with top ‘90s competitors Shawn Ray, Kevin Levrone, Flex Wheeler, and Nasser El Sonbaty are still reverently spoken of today.

Just when fans were, with the consistently high placements of shape-masters Flex Wheeler, Chris Cormier and Shawn Ray, expecting pro bodybuilders to return to the symmetrically and proportionately developed look displayed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, one man emerged to elevate the size criteria to another level entirely. At between 270 and 300lbs of shredded muscle, Ronnie Coleman broke the size barrier, and then some.

Ultimately tying Lee Haney for most Olympia wins (eight – from 1998-2005), Coleman today stands as the largest, and freakiest, Mr. Olympia competitor of all time.

Recent History

Pushing Coleman to bring his A-game year-after-year was current Olympia frontrunner Jay Cutler, who would himself claim four titles (06-07, 09-10). Displaying massive size on a more compact frame, Cutler simply out-massed and out-conditioned the competition (including, in 2006, Mr. Coleman himself at the former champ’s second to last Olympia). Although Cutler kept bringing the beef, such imposing size was not enough to keep the comparatively streamlined Dexter Jackson from pushing him into second place in 2008.

At 5’ 6” and 230lbs of perfect proportions, Jackson, in the opinion of many, signaled a much needed change for bodybuilding’s judging criteria.

Jackson’s shape and presentation skills harked back to a time when bodybuilding was more aesthetically-oriented rather than mass-dominated.

The dawning of another bodybuilding era was signaled in 2011 with young pro Phil Heath’s first Olympia win. In battling Cutler for first place, Heath, though out-massed by Jay, presented an edge in aesthetics and conditioning to take the win. In successfully defending his title in 2012 against a stacked field, including the much vaunted Kai Greene, Heath, with unsurpassed detail and freaky shape, proved he is here to stay. Who, if anyone, will challenge him in 2013?


Next installment in the ALLMAX Nutrition Olympia Series: Olympia rivalries: the Olympia’s biggest battles.

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: and at

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