The Summer of ’69. The moon landing, Manson murders, and Woodstock all within a momentous four weeks. Wonder and shock and joy. And this year, the 50th anniversary, there have been tributes and documentaries and a Tarantino movie, celebrating, mythologizing, memorializing. But there was another paramount event as that summer of ’69 came to a close, only four weeks after Woodstock and a mere 100 miles southeast, but seemingly a world away. On September 13, 1969, in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Arnold Schwarzenegger posed beside Sergio Oliva, and modern bodybuilding was born.
In the Weider version, the birth of the Mr. Olympia in 1965 is presented as light illuminating a dark wasteland. And Joe said, “Let there be an Olympia.” In retrospect, it can seem that way. At last, there was one ultimate contest. The truth, as usual, is more slippery. Well, the truth is Joe Weider was getting his ass kicked. Not when it came to magazines or supplements or training courses or all the various workout doodads he sold. No, the Canadian immigrant, then living in midtown Manhattan, was accumulating his first fortune in the ’60s.
But when it came to contests, his were perceived as second best. His and his brother Ben’s International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) had already failed once—brashly born in Montreal in the mid-’40s, it meekly vanished for virtually all of the ’50s (another truth excised from the mythology)—and, after its return in 1959, its Mr. America and Mr. Universe trailed in prestige the AAU and NABBA originals for at least a decade, Pepsi to their Coke. Even Joe Weider couldn’t break the stranglehold of the long-established organizations.
But he kept trying. Why not just invent a new name? With the Mr. Olympia, he took on the NABBA Pro Mr. Universe as bodybuilding’s ultimate title. Still, as great as the first Mr. O, Larry Scott, was, the more-legendary Reg Park won (again) the NABBA Pro Mr. U that same year. The NABBA contest had 11 competitors, while the inaugural Olympia could scrounge up only three. Many believed Bill Pearl was the world’s greatest bodybuilder in the mid-’60s, a time when steroids were transforming physique size, but he never once competed in the IFBB and instead won the NABBA Pro Mr. U four times over 15 years, including 1967.
This new Olympia thing in New York, it seemed like almost an afterthought, merely an exhibition by past champs, following the hotly contested IFBB Mr. America and Mr. Universe and/or Mr. World competitions which preceded it on the venue. The Olympia never had more than four competitors in the ’60s, and after Sergio Oliva took the title in 1967, he scared away any potential challengers and repeated unopposed the following year—great for him, horrible for the Olympia.
Oliva, a Cuban refugee living in Chicago, was bodybuilding’s first freak. Ham-like arms, wispy hips, capacious shoulders, an overall level of thickness never before witnessed: The 5’10,” 240-pound man known as “The Myth” looked cartoonish. So, Weider and the Olympia had the best bodybuilder in the world in 1968, but the contest had become, literally, no contest. Where could he find a man to challenge a myth?
An Austrian hick who turned 22 in 1968 was romping through contests in Europe. Of course, Weider knew. Superimposed over the purplish Pacific, Arnold Schwarzenegger adorned the July 1968 cover of Muscle Builder/Power, though he’d yet to shoot with a Weider photographer or set foot in America. Inside was a preview (written by Ben Weider) of the ’68 Olympia, which promised a surprise entrant: “He’s wearing dark glasses and an immense overcoat to cloak his enormous body. But the disguise does little good as his flaming blond hair gives him away. He’s halfway up the steps when someone screamed: ‘That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger!’”
The Weider brothers were so desperate for a competitive Olympia, they were daydreaming in print. The wishful article didn’t just get details wrong (flaming blond hair!). It got everything wrong. On the very day Oliva won the contest that was no contest, Arnold was in London, where—at nearly 6’2” and 254 pounds—he eked out a win in the NABBA Pro Mr. Universe, despite hiding his abs beneath a sheath of fat. Why diet? He was too big to fail.
Schwarzenegger accepted Weider’s offer to collect another, if inferior, Mr. Universe label, the IFBB’s, in Miami, just one week after taking the ultimate NABBA title. At last, Arnold was in America. He met Joe Weider. From the shadows backstage, he watched, in awe, as Sergio Oliva guest-posed. But he lost the Mr. U to the much smaller but lean and polished Frank Zane, effectively diminishing NABBA and elevating the IFBB.
In the immediate aftermath, Arnold signed a contract with Weider and moved to Southern California. And Weider’s magazines began churning out article after ghostwritten article, ad after sensational ad, about how Weider techniques and Weider products were transforming this giant mound of clay into a finished sculpture, all to bust The Myth in the 1969 Mr. Olympia, the most anticipated bodybuilding contest of all-time.
THE HOURS BEFORE
September 13, 1969. Brooklyn Academy of Music, the venerable home to the first five Olympias (and a sixth in 1973). The Mr. America and Mr. Universe, plentiful with anxious competitors, were prejudged in the early afternoon. Their finals and all Mr. Olympia judging occurred in the evening. Having lost the contest a year prior, Arnold entered the IFBB Mr. U as a warmup to the main event.
As Rick Wayne (himself competing in the Mr. U) recounted in Muscle Builder/Power, 28-year-old Sergio Oliva was “his usual flamboyant self; immaculate to a fault,” dressed in a check suit and further adorned with a “mod hat” and oodles of gold jewelry—and even more massive than before. “You gonna see somethin’ tonight, babee. I tell you, you gonna see but you ain’t gonna believe it. Ain’t nobody gonna believe it,” the Myth promised. “Ain’t nobody gonna believe it!”
In the pump-up room before the Mr. Universe, the air thick with the beachy aroma of baby oil, Wayne “came face to face with Joe Weider’s ‘Frankenstein’ and reality. Even in his sweatsuit, it was painfully obvious this was not the Schwarzenegger I had warned against competing in the 1968 Mr. Universe pageant! Gone were the flabby, bloated appearance, the bulky, box-like midsection and pale skin…. I was forced, regrettably, to admit Joe Weider’s declaration that he would launch a new Schwarzenegger on the bodybuilder world was certainly no idle boast but a promise which he had kept!” The 240-pound, 23-year-old Austrian was better balanced, leaner, and California-tanned.
In the wake of the Mr. Universe prejudging, Wayne asked Oliva’s opinion of the Austrian phenom. “Very good,” the Myth replied. “Very good, but wait till tonight. Ain’t nobody gonna believe it.”
Competitors strolled, like an invading circus, in the cheery sunlight, up Flatbush Avenue the couple blocks to Junior’s Restaurant, a Brooklyn institution famous for its cheesecake. Seated at the same table, Oliva and Schwarzenegger ate high-protein-and-fat: steaks, eggs, cottage cheese, milk. The two Gulliver-like immigrants razzed each other in their thickly accented English—Spanglish and Germanic—each supremely confident the future was his.
As expected, Arnold, who struck merely three poses, dominated the Mr. Universe. Then he went backstage to prepare for his duel with the man he only half-jokingly called “The Monster.”
In his first autobiography, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger recounted: “I entered the dressing room the way I had been going in everyplace lately, like I was just taking over.” But then he saw Oliva pumping up. “It was as jarring as if I’d walked into a wall. He destroyed me. He was so huge, he was so fantastic, there was no way I could even think of beating him. I admitted my defeat and felt some of my pump go away. I tried. But I’d been so taken back by my first sight of Sergio Oliva that I think I settled for second place before we walked out on stage.”
The sold-out crowd of 2100 buzzed when emcee Bud Parker proclaimed, “Arnold Schwarzenegger will now pose for the title of Mr. Olympia 1969!” The Austrian Oak strode to the dais, stood motionless as the murmurs grew, and then locked in his front double biceps. Twisting and turning through pose after pose, he revealed the physique he only teased in the Mr. Universe.
Rick Wayne wrote: “Judging by their stunned reaction to Schwarzenegger’s display, it seemed like everyone in the theatre was an Oliva fan who had come to watch the hero wipe out yet another adversary. But suddenly, Schwarzenegger’s message had been received loud and clear: ‘I am Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva has met a MAN at last!’…A smile creased his handsome face as he hit the ‘most muscular’ pose that tore the house up. Then he bowed, and, ignoring the shouts for more, walked off into the near-darkness of the wings.”
Sergio Oliva made the hyped crowd wait, teasing, seducing, before he appeared, a myth come to life, notably larger than the year prior. Wayne wrote: “He jigged around the posing platform as if to some hot tune that only he could hear, blew a kiss to his loyal subjects and threw up those arms in that oh-so-typically Sergio fashion. Too much! Forget it! Lay it on me, babe! Sergio Oliva was actually enjoying the contest. In his own wordless, inimitable style, he was reassuring his audience that ‘I ain’t gonna let you down, babe.’ Fantastic pose followed mind-blowing pose.”
That would usually be it. Both men having posed, the judges would choose the victor. The end. It seems peculiar now when side-by-side poses are imperative to judging decisions, but there were no comparisons. Still, even as the New York crowd chanted “Sergio!” the judges couldn’t decide, so Schwarzenegger and Oliva were called back onstage, together.
THE FIRST POSEDOWN
“Give ’em a couple of minutes,” Parker announced, “I think they’re pumping up.” But shortly thereafter Schwarzenegger and then Oliva sauntered to the dais. When the audience shouted for poses, Oliva stepped down and motioned to Arnold. Challenger first, champ last. But the New York crowd had taken control. “Both together!” someone bellowed, and then others joined the chorus.
Arnold struck his favored front double biceps and then turned to Sergio. Oliva brought his columnar arms overhead and locked in his trademark, V-shaped, victory pose. A side chest by Arnold, and the same at the same time by Sergio, and pandemonium broke out.
Robert Kennedy, the future publisher of MuscleMag, then covering the contest for Weider’s Mr. America magazine, wrote: “Here were the two greats of bodybuilding, side by side, squeezing every last drop of sweat from their bodies, each to outdo the other for the honor of winning the coveted Mr. Olympia trophy of 1969, together with the $1,000 first prize. Never was more energy spent by two athletes over a three-minute time space, in any sport. Oliva and Schwarzenegger twisting, flexing, tensing. This was perhaps the very first truly competitive bodybuilding show ever staged because they were actually posing together. Simultaneous double-biceps poses, lat spreads, most musculars and back shots. All to the sound of a roaring crowd of enthusiasts doing their best to make the name of their particular favorite heard above the shattering applause. Somehow the roof stayed on….Here on one stage, posing a yard apart were the two widest shoulders in the world; the two biggest chests and the two largest pairs of muscular upper arms. This was competitive bodybuilding personified. No sedate posing to soft music now—this was it—muscles under real tension; gritting teeth; tortured tendons, swelling veins, grimacing jowls and white knuckled fists. Each man draining the last drop of energy from his body, flexing, wrenching, blasting the pain barrier to show more than his adversary.”
“I just kept smiling and hitting poses,” Arnold remembered in his 2012 autobiography, Total Recall. “I’d already done what I came to do, and I was much better off than the year before. I’d run over everybody except him. I could say to myself, ‘You did great, Arnold, and Sergio’s days are numbered.’”
When Bud Parker announced “Mr. Olympia 1969, Sergio Oliva!” Arnold immediately embraced the king. Joe Weider handed the three-time Mr. Olympia the silver plate and $1000 cash. Then, captured by lensman Jimmy Caruso in one of muscledom’s most iconic photos, Oliva thrust his rewards overhead in the ultimate victory pose and Arnold, the heir apparent, gave smiling Weider, who, at last, had the best contest in the world, the wry side-eye, as if plotting while thinking, “This will be mine.”
Sergio never beat Arnold again. He lost the Mr. Olympia title to him the following September. Arnold, who went on to win seven Olympias, never lost again. The Mr. Olympia was, from that evening to the present day, the ultimate bodybuilding event. Judging comparisons became mandatory, and the posedown became a contest staple. Joe Weider built an empire over the next decade as pumping iron and, especially, his protégé Arnold Schwarzenegger rose in prominence. Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1969, in an auditorium in Brooklyn, the modern era of bodybuilding was born.
Bonus content: Did Franco Columbu compete in the 1969 Mr. Olympia?