Ranking the Olympians: The big 13 Assessed
This year’s Mr. Olympia showdown marks the 50th anniversary of what is by far the most celebrated and competitive bodybuilding event of them all.
Yet despite its long and storied history, only 13 men have claimed the Olympia title. Hard to win and even harder to qualify for (the vast majority of professional bodybuilding aspirants will never turn pro), to make it to the O means you have arrived as a legitimate pro prospect. To break into an Olympia top six means you have defeated the best to become a contender for the title.
To be held Las Vegas (as it has been for the past 16 years) the 2014 Olympia promises to be the biggest of them all. For the competitors, such an honor does not get any bigger. For the fans, many of whom make an annual pilgrimage to watch the best in action, seeing the best IFBB pros onstage at one time is an opportunity never to be missed. On the world bodybuilding scene, the Olympia tops all other events. As new pros are welcomed into the hallowed ranks of the world’s elite iron warriors, the contest continues to grow.
Ranking the Olympians is seldom done, given each has been proven a worthy victor (in some cases over an entire bodybuilding era), and
each have possessed certain legacy-building attributes and individual strengths
that will forever mark them as one of the very few to have claimed the big one. First among equals, each Olympia winner is deserved of their number one status.
I will now rank, in ascending order, the 13 men who have made history by beating worthy competition to become the greatest bodybuilders on the planet.
13: Chris Dickerson
After two controversial losses (in ‘80 and ‘81) where he was trumped by comeback competitors Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu respectively (both of whom were far from their best), the first black AAU Mr. America winner Chris Dickerson put it all together in 1982 to win his first, and only, Olympia (open class) title at age 43. Possessing a winning combination of great symmetry and proportion coupled with crisp definition and some of the best legs of his era, Dickerson, who retired from competitive bodybuilding after placing 11th at the 1984 Olympia, returned to the fray in 1994 to win the Masters Olympia over-50 class. Known for his artistic posing abilities, the sixth Olympia winner, a trained opera singer, routinely displayed his magnificent physique to full effect.
12: Samir Bannout
Like Dickerson, Samir Bannout, the Lion of Lebanon, claimed a single Olympia win after several years spent trying to wrest the coveted Sandow. Bannout’s big year came in 1983. In one of the most competitive lineups in Olympia history, Samir defeated several top names including future Olympia winner Lee Haney and three-time champion Frank Zane en route to immortalizing his name in the bodybuilding history books. With his superb all-round muscularity, standout back and legs, and supreme conditioning when perfectly on point (which was unfortunately seldom for the genetically superior Samir), Bannout, who competed off and on for 37 years, will forever be known as one of the very best to have thrown down on an Olympia stage.
11: Dexter Jackson
The third, and so far final, man to win a single Sandow, Dexter Jackson, also a four time Arnold Classic winner and one of the most successful pros of the past two decades, overcame a stacked lineup of such IFBB notables as Jay Cutler, Phil Heath and Dennis Wolf to win the world’s biggest bodybuilding title in 2007. Flawless from top to bottom and known for honoring his nickname ‘The Blade’ via a physique layered with shredded muscle and more cuts than a Jack the Ripper versus Freddy Krueger all in brawl, Jackson is famous for being consistently consistent in the look he brings to each of his competitive outings. A look that is, more often than not, rewarded with first place honors.
10: Franco Columbu
A long time training partner of bodybuilding great Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also pushed the Austrian Oak hard as a fellow athlete, Franco Columbu was notable in his 70s heyday as a dynamic competitor and firm fan favorite. In winning his first O title in 1976 (the year after his buddy Arnold officially hung up the trunks) Franco presented a thick, grainy look with astonishing shoulder, pec and back development never before seen on an IFBB pro stage. Choosing not to let momentum carry him to further Olympia victory, the Sardinian Sampson retired from the game after his first O win. However, the thickly muscled Columbu would mount a comeback in 1981 to take a second Sandow in what is now considered to be one of the most controversial outcomes bodybuilding history; beating as he did several on-form athletes such as Tom Platz, Danny Padilla, Roy Calender and former champ Chris Dickerson. Still, Franco will forever be remembered as true bodybuilding great and pro game pioneer.
9: Frank Zane
Three-time Olympia champ Frank Zane (1977-79) wowed audiences and judges alike with his breathtakingly symmetrical and proportionate physique. Not the largest competitor to have graced the Olympia stage (and, at under 200lbs, the smallest to have ever won the title), Zane toppled veritable giant Mentzer and uncrowned Olympia champ Robby Robinson to carve his name in Olympia history. In representing a shift from pure mass to aesthetical development, Zane’s reign at the top served notice to all future champions: namely, size, and shape, are to be the order of the day.
8: Sergio Oliva
Bodybuilding’s first mass monster Sergio Oliva was, in reality, deceptively large. Blessed with astounding size (he was the most muscular of his era), the Cuban native and former Olympic caliber weightlifting champion won his first Olympia title in 1967, a feat he repeated in ‘68 – unopposed. Come 1969, Oliva was running hot with no worthy successors appearing on the horizon. However, despite convincingly winning his third title, in ‘69, the Cuban Colossus faced a potential threat, a man going by the name of Arnold, whose last name many could not pronounce. What was clear however was the fight Sergio would face in retaining his crown, which he lost to his nemesis Schwarzenegger in 1970. Known for his phenomenal shape, Sergio’s muscles swelled off his smaller bone structure creating an illusion of even greater size; his quads measured 30 inches each and his waist clocked in at an itty bitty 28”. No Olympia winner before or since has replicated this feat. Sergio, who passed away in 2012 at age 71, will forever be known as bodybuilding’s myth.
7: Jay Cutler
What makes massive Jay Cutler’s four Olympia victories even more remarkable is: firstly, the time he took to finally win title number one in 2006 (after placing second to Ronnie Coleman for five years straight – 2000-2005); secondly, being the only man in Olympia history to reclaim the title (in 2009) after losing it (in 2008); and, thirdly, his inauspicious pro bodybuilding beginnings (blocky and incomplete, he placed 11th at his pro debut at the now defunct Night of Champions in 1998). A proven battler who overcame genetic disadvantages and the threat of ever more impressive competition to win four Sandows (2006-07, 2009-10), Cutler, one of the biggest competitors of all time with his 280lbs-plus of imposing mass, both outworked and outmuscled his fellow competitors. Cutler’s Olympia comeback in 2013 (where he finishing a disappointing sixth) has done nothing to diminish his legacy.
6: Phil Heath
Unlike Cutler, three-time Olympia winner and current champion Phil Heath (2011-13) was tagged a future victor from the moment he won his pro debut at the Colorado Championships in 2006. Barring a few prep misjudgments, Heath’s pro resume is highlighted with firsts. Called “The Gift”, Heath is indeed the most genetically gifted bodybuilder in today’s pro ranks. With a three-dimensional look and near cartoonish proportions, the titleholder, whose full and dry muscle cannot be touched by any of his fellow competitors has a firm grasp on his crown and will not easily be unseated. Given the level of bodybuilding competition has vastly improved since he began his reign, Heath must continue to bring such an appearance as he seeks to retain his title come September 19.
5: Larry Scott
Legendary ‘Golden Boy” Larry Scott secured his place in the pantheon of Olympia greats by winning the first two Olympias (1965-66) with a look that had never before been witnessed on any bodybuilding stage. With the best shoulder and arm development of his day and an aura that conveyed success, if a perfect first winner of bodybuilding’s biggest prize had been designed Scott would have provided the perfect mold. Fortunately for bodybuilding, in the charismatic 1960 Mr. California winner, who passed away in March of this year, at age 75, the pro stage had its flag bearer to inspire a generation of future champions. Without Larry Scott’s influence, the Olympia would undoubtedly have been deprived of many future contenders.
4: Dorian Yates
If eight-time Olympia champion Lee Haney made mass with class mandatory, six-time winner Dorian Yates (1992-97) took the mass stipulation one step further while adding grainy conditioning to the list of Olympia requirements. The only Englishman ever to win an Olympia, Yates, who regularly displayed over 260lbs of shredded beef to leave the rest of the field fighting for second, changed the pro bodybuilding game in 1993 when, having already won his first O in impressive fashion, he presented a physique bursting to capacity with more quality muscle than had ever been seen on an Olympia stage before. With an all-round size advantage, good symmetry and proportions, and the best conditioning onstage, Yates simply out-massed the competition. Aside from being the fourth most successful Olympian of all time, as suggested here and based on his competition record, Dorian will forever be known as the man who ushered in the mass era. And bodybuilding would never be the same.
3: Lee Haney
The first athlete to make pro bodybuilding history by winning eight consecutive Olympia titles (1984-91), was Lee Haney, a competitor known for combining more quality mass combined with great aesthetics and winning conditioning than had ever been witnessed in the Olympia winners circle. Built like no other bodybuilder of his era, Haney was untouchable during his reign (the closest any competitor came to claiming his title was when future Olympia winner Dorian Yates, with mass to rival the champ, burst into contention at the 1991 O). With attributes including unrivaled back width and thickness, a tiny waist and immense size overall, Haney’s run marked the necessity for mass combined with aesthetics.
2: Ronnie Coleman
Based purely on his physical giftedness and unsurpassed pro record, eight-time Mr. Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman, the largest and most impressive pro bodybuilder ever to have claimed a Sandow, is, without question, the greatest bodybuilder of all time. Having achieved the most pro wins ever (26) against the IFBB’s best over a 25 year period (1990-2005), Coleman more than paid his dues both in the gym and onstage. With the official retirement of Dorian Yates in 1997, a new Olympia champion would be crowned in 1998, and odds-on favorite Flex Wheeler was ready to take his rightful place. The Sultan of Symmetry did not however count on the emergence of a completely revamped Coleman stealing the show with the freakiest combination of mass, shape and conditioning ever seen on an IFBB pro stage. From then on it was all Coleman as he again and again trounced his fellow pros to win eight O’s before succumbing to his nemesis Jay Cutler in 2006 (and again in 07, the year of his retirement). Coleman was renowned for overwhelming the opposition with his 280-plus pounds of shredded muscle, replete with the widest and thickest lats the sport has ever seen and monolithic thighs built with 600lb squats. His easy going nature, fan appeal and hardcore training mentality made Ronnie, in the minds of many, the greatest Olympian of all time.
1: Arnold Schwarzenegger
If both were to compete together in their respective primes, Ronnie Coleman would school Arnold Schwarzenegger but, then, we are comparing different eras and in the 1970s Arnold was king. On physique alone, Arnold would and could not be considered the best Olympian of all time. However, because of his sheer onstage dominance (at his best from 1969-75) and his physical development, which was light years ahead of the competition despite comparatively antiquated training approaches and ‘supplement’ regimes, Schwarzenegger’s reign at the top marked a turning point in bodybuilding history: in fact, Arnold, more than any other person (living or dead), has inspired more legit pros to pick up the iron. His charisma, unique ability to communicate the importance of strength training, crossover appeal, name recognition, and, phenomenal physique all conspired to spread bodybuilding to the masses. His name will forever be synonymous with the title he owned for much of his bodybuilder career.
However, while all Olympia winners are considered among the best in their own right and based on their individual merits, there have been those who have ushered in new trends, competitors who have in unique ways separated themselves from the pack.