Mr. Olympia: A Brief History

Mr. Olympia: A Brief History

What happens when you fill a room with the most shredded of human beings? A pretty damn spectacular contest. For over 50 years, the Mr. Olympia contest has pitted bodybuilders from around the world against each other to win the title of Mr. Olympia, its prize money, and the glory that comes along with being notoriously ripped. In fact, the Mr. Olympia contest helped catapult Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno into the limelight of illustrious television (and political) careers. Where did the idea of Mr. Olympia come from, and what has it's chronicled history done for bodybuilders across the globe?

In 1963, two years before the initial Mr. Olympia contest launched, Joe Weider, bodybuilder and entrepreneur extraordinaire, felt there were no relevant tournaments for bodybuilders that truly captured the essence of the sport and the direction it would inevitably go. After consideration and planning, Weider came to a fruitful conclusion: He would devise a tournament, the Mr. Olympia contest, where the best of bodybuilders could compete for the ultimate title of Mr. Olympia, a sizable prize, and the fame and notoriety that would follow tournament winners for life.

Not just any bodybuilder can enter into the Mr. Olympia competition, however. Each bodybuilder can qualify for the contest through a few means:

  • The bodybuilder previously won the title of Mr. Olympia (with the approval of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness {IFBB} if more than 5 years removed from winning).
  • The top five finalists in each division from the Mr. Olympia tournament from the prior year.
  • The top three finalists in each division from the Arnold Classic of the same tournament year.
  • The top two finalists in each division from the New York Men’s Professional.
  • The 1st place winner from any IFBB certified tournaments of the same tournament year.
  • A bodybuilder can receive a special invitation from the Mr. Olympia organizer.

As you can see, the Mr. Olympia contest is reserved for the best of the best, and its present day payouts double down on that thought (Phil Heath took home $400,000 after winning the 2016 Mr. Olympia title and contest).

The winnings didn’t always cover six figures, however. In 1965, during the debut of the Mr. Olympia contest, the winnings were minimal. Weider’s idea was to find a method to compensate bodybuilders for competing in a sport, much like other professional athletes (though, as we know, many athletes 50+ years ago didn’t make much money). Still, Weider believed in bodybuilding as a sport, and pushed his contest into the spotlight. For the first two years of the show, Larry Scott, one of the most popular bodybuilders of his time, took home the title and prize from the contest (a meager $1,000). Without Scott’s popularity and presence, the contest might have faltered. In becoming the world’s first Mr. Olympia, Scott breathed new and exciting life into the sport of bodybuilding, and, after his second consecutive title, announced his retirement to pave the way for future contestants.

After Scott’s retirement, the biggest rivalry in bodybuilding history formed. For the next two years after Scott left the world of bodybuilding, Sergio Oliva took the competition by storm. In 1969, the now famous Arnold Schwarzenegger arose to challenge the two time winner, only to fall to Oliva in the end. Without hesitation, however, Schwarzenegger and Oliva worked fervently the next year for the sixth Mr. Olympia contest, and Schwarzenegger succeeded in edging out Oliva. For the next six consecutive years, Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the Mr. Olympia contest (though in 1974-5 the tournament added a lightweight competition; Arnold won the heavyweight), earning six straight titles. He would be dethroned in 1976 but take home one more championship in 1980.

If you find Schwarzenegger’s run to be impressive, you’ll be tickled to know that two other Mr. Olympias hold more championships than the Terminator. Lee Haney, champion from 1984-1991, and Ronnie Coleman, champion from 1998-2005, each hold eight consecutive victories - the most in the history of the Mr. Olympia contest. No one contender has reached that plateau to date, though Phil Heath is certainly making an attempt (he currently sits at six victories from 2011-2016) while enjoying the largest payouts the tournament has ever yielded. Watching Heath continue his dominance is a treat, indeed, and his 2017 showing will be one highly anticipated.

With the 2017 Mr. Olympia competition set to rock September 14-17 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the event will feature eight main events, with the Mr. Olympia contest headlining the show. Currently, 20 bodybuilders have qualified for the contest from all over the world - ranging from the USA, France, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the U.K., Egypt, Australia, Curacao, and the Dominican Republic. Plenty more contenders are for the Men’s Open are battling for qualifying spots in the 2017 Mr. Olympia (they gain points as they rank higher at IFBB events). At the writing of this article, Juan Morel from the USA owns the top ranking with 22 points.

The Mr. Olympia competition is a storied tournament brought to life by the visionary Joe Weider. His faith in bodybuilding as a sport - and his thought that bodybuilders should be paid as professional athletes - helped kickstart the juggernaut bodybuilding and its competitions have become today. Without question, the significant amount of prize money alongside its soon to be 52nd showing has proven the legitimacy of the sport. Likewise, Weider’s Olympia competition helped shape the sport as it is presently, allowing it to evolve and mature in the process. Join the multitude of viewers September 14-17 as we usher in another great year of bodybuilding at the Mr. Olympia competition.


Evan Schwab
Evan Schwab

Author

Evan is a lifelong writer and teacher from Cleveland, Ohio. Like the average individual, Evan tries to live life healthily and naturally, looking to educate others and help them live the same way. He is always learning something new and is ever eager to put his research into writing and actual practice.



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