Mr. Olympia Part 5: The Growth & Evolution of the Biggest Show in Town

Through the eras that have marked its evolution, the Mr. Olympia contest has showcased a variety of trends, both physical and in the way the event has been run. From its first three-man race in 1965 to today’s 30-plus line-up, the biggest professional bodybuilding competition of them all has grown to where inclusion is limited to the very best of the best. With recent changes to how its competitors are selected, and the overall improvement in quality competition, one can be assured of seeing only the best athletes come Olympia time.

The Olympia has in the past featured many monumental battles between top competitors, however, it has up until recently been easy to predict who would comprise the top placements. The rest of the field would fight hard, but ultimately be fighting for second place. Occasionally a surprise entrant would come from out of nowhere to claim a top spot. However, the improved quality of each Olympia line-up has now made it extremely difficult to determine who will place where.

As the 2013 Olympia approaches, the many changes that have shaped the Big Dance will culminate in what is expected to be the biggest Mr. Olympia ever. The following retrospective traces five key events that have helped make the Olympia what it is today.

#1: Establishing Weight Classes

The massive size discrepancy between the 1972-73 Olympia competitors led to the implementation of weight classes at the 1974 event. No longer would the likes of Franco Columbu and Frank Zane be forced to go head to head with Arnold, Sergio and the other over-200 lb heavyweights. With the addition of the under-200 pound weight classes, lighter men such as Columbu could lay claim to winning their respective division, although they would ultimately meet the victorious heavyweight in the finals.

Interestingly, though set up to give the lighter competitors a fair chance, only two of these ‘weight class’ Olympia’s would host heavyweight winners (Arnold, in ‘74 and ‘75). When the classes were disbanded in 1980 in favor of one open weight class, under-200 pound competitors’ Frank Zane had won three Olympia’s and Franco Columbu had won one. Though they were ultimately discarded, this early weight class system encouraged a greater number of lighter competitors to contest the Olympia, which contributed to the event’s growth and popularity.

#2: Aesthetics Rule

While Olympia contests of the 60’s highlighted the best physiques of that era, most competitors were heavy on muscle, less so on aesthetics (muscle balance, proportion and symmetry). As the 70’s unfolded, the pro bodybuilding landscape began to change. With increased competition, and genetically superior athletes taking to the stage, complete physical development and presentation skills became mandatory. Athletes were expected to come prepared with a high degree of definition, balance between individual muscle groups, and the stage presence needed to perfectly display it all.

If any Olympia competitor of the 70’s felt they could overlook the importance of aesthetics and win on size alone the game for them changed in 1977, the year in which 180-pound, small-framed Frank Zane beat the largest Olympia field ever to win his first Olympia title. Perfectly proportioned, and a master poser, Zane revolutionized the sport with his attention to detail, great conditioning, and enviable symmetry. The competitors to contest futures Olympia’s, regardless of how large they were, would all follow his lead.

#3: Mass Becomes King

From Zane’s reign to Chris Dickerson’s ‘82 win and Samir Bannout’s ‘83 victory, aesthetics continued to hold sway over pure size. However, as the 80’s continued one man would add a generous dose of mass to the recipe. Combining serious mass and God-given shape, Lee Haney became the torchbearer for a new breed of bodybuilding champion.

From his first win in 1984, to his last in 1991, Haney, at 240 lbs of shredded beef, could not be denied – his massive physique would forever (save for Dexter Jackson’s win in 2008) ensure that each Olympia competitor bring at least 250-pounds of mass to the table. That is, if they wanted to win the title.

Following on from Haney was another giant, Dorian Yates, who, with 260 lbs of grainy muscle, made size the number one prerequisite for all potential Olympia winners, best exemplified by eight-time champion Ronnie Coleman who buckled the stage with his 300+ lbs of ripped mass in 2003.

#4 New Divisions Added

Though the under 200 lb weight class of the 1970’s was short lived, the switch to a separate (lighter) men’s category in 2008 is still going strong (changed from 202 lbs  in 2008, to 212 lbs in 2012). Rather than competing against the heavier athletes and giving away in some cases up to 80-pounds of muscle, the 212 class allows lighter pros to be judged on their individual merits against similarly-sized peers. In the final showdown the best of these contenders is awarded the title of Mr. Olympia, rivalries are born for future events, and the fans have another top pro spectacle to look forward to. Since its advent, the 212 Olympia has increased pro bodybuilding’s fan base and the number of active pro competitors.

New to the 2013 Olympia is the Men’s Physique division. Slowly working it’s way into amateur and pro competitions alike, the Men’s Physique division displays more ‘attainable’ physiques, with competitors coming in around the 170 lb mark. The NPC describes it this way:

“Judges will be looking for fit contestants who display proper shape and symmetry combined with muscularity and overall condition. This is not a bodybuilding contest so extreme muscularity should be marked down.”

This year will mark the first time Men’s Physique competitors have been invited to the Olympia. ALLMAX’s very own Mark Anthony is a front runner to take this year’s title.

#5: Olympia Qualification Series

Ensuring only the best athletes contest the annual Olympia, while promoting increased competition among the IFBB’s top pro contenders, the Olympia Qualification Series was introduced in 2012. This new points system demonstrates a savvy move by the IFBB to increase the level of competition throughout the year, and to provide bodybuilding fans with a stacked line-ups at the major events.

Traditionally, athletes qualify for the Olympia by winning an event on the pro circuit throughout the year, or by finishing top 5 in the previous year’s Olympia. The Olympia Qualification Series awards points to competitors at each IFBB event, wherein a specific number of points are awarded to athletes placing 2-5 in pro competition.

The new series has proven its worth as the quality, and diversity, of the 2012 and 2013 Olympia fields has shown.

Progressive Evolution

From changes to its judging criteria, its physical standards, the contest structure, and the qualification system, the Mr. Olympia contest has continued to evolve. Today, with the resurgence of aesthetic appeal over sheer mass, competitors such as Cedric Macmillan, Shawn Rhoden, Phil Heath, and Kai Greene (though big men to be sure) are, with their ideal balance of mass, proportion and  symmetry, positioned as the men to beat in years to come.

As the 2013 Olympia approaches, all of the important milestones that have molded this contest of contests will again be reflected in the quality of physique on display. Indeed, with the most hotly contested line-up ever, the 2013 Olympia will, in itself, play a major role in the continued evolution of pro bodybuilding’s greatest show.

Also see:

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

Mr. Olympia Part 2: Top 5 Olympia Rivalries

Mr. Olympia Part 3: The 6 Greatest Olympians of All Time

Mr. Olympia Part 4: The 5 Most Controversial Olympia Moments

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