Chris Dickerson died on December 23 at 82, reportedly from pneumonia. This is his story.
Henri Christophe Dickerson was born one of three boy triplets, August 25, 1939, in Montgomery, Alabama. His parents divorced early, so he was raised by his mother, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, a trailblazing civil rights attorney. When he was 14, his mother remarried and moved the family to Indianapolis, and Chris was placed in a Quaker boarding school in Ohio. There, he replaced his Southern accent with an erudite timbre, and he developed a taste for the arts (he also pursued gymnastics). In 1959, he entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, studying acting, singing, and ballet. A teacher recommended he strengthen his chest to strengthen his voice.
Dickerson took up weight-training for this purpose, but when he saw a photo of Bill Pearl in a muscle magazine, bodybuilding fascinated him. “It was an individual effort, and it was up to me to do what was necessary. So it had that appeal and I changed my dream [from acting to bodybuilding],” he remembered. At 24, he began training at Pearl’s new gym in Los Angeles, where Mr. Universe Pearl coached him. He later said Pearl “has been everything to me: father, confidant, brother.”
When he finished third in his initial contest, the 1965 Mr. Long Beach, Dickerson was hooked. “To this day, this trophy remains my sentimental favorite,” he said decades later. “I was never to be the same again after winning my first trophy.” Though he started training late, he quickly made up for lost time. The next year, competing back on the East Coast, he won 11 titles, including Mr. New York State, Mr. Atlantic Coast, and Jr. Mr. USA. In 1968, he won the Mr. USA. And in 1970, he became the first black man to win the AAU Mr. America.
Then for the first half of the ’70s, as Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the Mr. Olympia, Chris Dickerson competed mostly in Europe, winning titles in non-IFBB organizations, including the 1974 NABBA Pro Mr. Universe. He also pursued a career in opera. Finally, in 1979, the year he turned 40, when most bodybuilders were retired or retiring, Dickerson made his IFBB debut. He quickly found success, winning a pro title against such greats as Mike Mentzer and Robby Robinson. He was sixth in the 1979 Mr. Olympia.
By modern standards, the 5’6”, 190-pound Dickerson appears slight. But this was the Olympia’s Lightweight Era—eight years from 1976-1983 when the only person over 200 to win the Mr. Olympia was a downsized Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, his upper arms were undersized, but Dickerson sported a crisply conditioned, densely muscled, and aesthetically pleasing physique. He was always on. And his dance and gymnastics backgrounds helped him display his muscles to best advantage. He looks much better flowing through poses in contest videos than alone in studio shots. And in comparisons on stage, he always had that certain something—back detailing, quad separation, colossal calves—to draw eyes to him.
And, so much to the surprise of many, he dominated pro bodybuilding contests. For the first three years of the ’80s, he entered 15 pro shows, and went 10-5, and in the five losses he was second every time. Two of those seconds were the 1980 and 1981 Mr. Olympias, to first Arnold Schwarzenegger (a surprise last-minute entry) and then Franco Columbu (like Arnold making a comeback after five years away), two of the most controversial decisions of all-time. After the latter, he considered retiring but was convinced by a judge to return to the Olympia after coming so close twice.
The 1982 Mr. Olympia was in London. “I felt confident. It was kind of a do-or-die thing. Bill Pearl travelled with me and he was there in the audience in the front row, and I remember lifting up the trophy and making the victory sign and looking down and there he was, all smiles. He was just as delighted as I was, so that was a wonderful moment….I think people were very, very happy and kind of relieved in 1982 when I brought it back to a thing that was legitimate, not because it was Chris Dickerson, but because I was the best man onstage that day in London. And they were waiting for that to happen.”
Consider how close he came to being a three-time champ and how we might then think differently of his legacy. As it was, he won the 1982 Mr. Olympia at 43, making him the oldest victor—a record that was only barely beaten (by two months) by Shawn Rhoden in 2018. He was also the only openly gay Mr. Olympia, though this was never noted in the press of the time. In 1980, he was, with a black woman, the first African-American on a Muscle & Fitness cover; and in 1983 he adorned the first cover of FLEX magazine, with the giant Mr. Olympia trophy in hand (he received his Sandow trophy later).
Dickerson competed three more times: the 1984 Olympia (11th), 1990 Arnold Classic at 50 (8th out of 9), and, at 55, the 1994 Master’s Olympia (4th). “I believe competition becomes even more important, not less, as you grow older. There’s something about holding and keeping my physique that reaffirms me,” he said. Living in Florida, Dickerson did corporate security for years. He sometimes sang the national anthem before bodybuilding events, including the Mr. Olympia, wowing the audience with his operatic voice. Over the last two years, his health faltered, including a heart attack.
In 2007, he said, “As I go about my life, I sometimes think that being Mr. this-or-that does not define Chris Dickerson, but this has been the area of success. I look at my trophies—I have a wall of trophies here in my house—as a reminder. In moments when there is a little self-doubt or I am not feeling particularly good, all I have to do is look at that wall. We all need reminding. So, I really think my bodybuilding career has influenced me more than any other thing. I was very fortunate. There are those who train as hard, as long, but they somehow don’t put it all together or get the recognition. I have been very lucky.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Olympia. Our condolences to his family, friends, and fans.