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Joe Weider’s Mr. Olympia

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After Larry Scott’s meteoric rise to the top, beginning with his Mr. California win in 1960 and continuing to his overall Mr. Universe crown in 1964, he had no place to go, competitively. Not long after becoming Mr. Universe, Larry was having lunch with Joe and Betty Weider in Los Angeles, and the lunchtime conversation turned to what was next for him. In a greater sense, though, they were talking about what was next for any bodybuilder who had won it all but wanted something more.

Joe wanted to elevate the sport to a professional level with a title that wouldn’t end with a single win—the chosen model being heavyweight professional boxing, in which the World Champion defends his title until he either relinquishes it by retiring undefeated or is beaten. The question was what to call it.

Joe saw the contest as the pinnacle of bodybuilding, the ultimate goal for a competitive physique athlete. There was much discussion about an appropriate name, but it was Betty’s suggestion of “Mr. Olympia”—inspired by a bottle of Olympia beer on the table—that had the ring of specialness they were looking for. The idea of reaching Olympian heights conjured up a vision: the ultimate male physique standing at the pinnacle of a mountain in a dramatically sunlit pose.

Joe was almost breathless as his mind and creative energy took hold of the idea and the possibilities unfolded. That was the birth of the Mr. Olympia—in a coffeeshop in L.A. I was not present at that seminal meeting, but I learned the details at another lunch that took place 45 years later with Betty, Larry and Joe.

As I said in my eulogy for Joe, who passed away in March, he was a “merchant of dreams,” and perhaps the most enduring of his dreams is the Mr. Olympia contest. The list of winners is the list of the greatest bodybuilders of the past 49 years.

All of this flooded through my mind and emotions as I sat backstage at the Olympia in September. Of the 49 Olympia contests, I have seen 45, but this was the first one without Joe. It felt different; it was different. The show opened with a beautiful retrospective video of his life, and then, well, the show must go on. Joe, who was the ultimate fan of bodybuilding and its ultimate cheerleader, would have wanted it that way.

“Elvis” has left the building, but the building he created still stands.  IM

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