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A Sport Grows in Brooklyn: The Auspicious Beginnings of Bodybuilding’s Best Contest

Back in 1965, bodybuilding was in need of a ‘real’ title to crown its champion. Before then, Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe all reigned supreme next to one another. It was more confusing than finding the one unanimous overall king of college football every year.

Joe and Ben Weider changed all of that by sending out invitations and placing ads in their own magazine, “Muscle Builder,” which was the pre-cursor of “Muscle & Fitness.” With Mr. Universe being the highest-acknowledged contest at the time, all winners of that illustrious title were invited to take it up a notch. Take it up another level. Take it to the heights of Mr. Olympia.

Where as the contest is now a full weekend of activities celebrated in sunny Las Vegas, it was handled much more subtlety 43 years ago. On September 18, 1965, the Brooklyn Academy of Music had the honors of hosting the contest, and shortly after the doors opened at 8:00 pm, scuffles broke out amongst the backers of two of the favorites to win, Larry Scott and Harold Poole.

150 bodybuilders lined the stage for the opening ceremonies before the competitions began. The IFBB-sanctioned Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia all drew part of the sell-out crowd. Dave Draper was 22 at the time, and the youngster edged out Chet Yorton – who won three sub division awards - for the overall Mr. America title.

Up next were the Mr. Universe competitors, who put on a great show with three of them taking home hardware. Earl Maynard won the overall, with Rick Wayne besting the short class and Frank Zane the medium height. Wayne also won for best arms, best back and best poser.

Interestingly, Maynard at first only signed up to compete for the Mr. Olympia title, but later decided to join his good friend and countryman Wayne in going for the Universe, as well.

Two hours into the event, it was time for the headline act to make its way onto the stage. As emcee Bud Parker took the microphone, the first disappointment of the evening awaited the audience. Only three men had accepted the Weider’s invitation to the contest, apparently not sold on it being the ‘end all’ of bodybuilding titles at this early juncture.

The first up was Maynard, who did not excite the crowd as much as expected performing the same routine that they just saw. Harold Poole more than made up for that with a raucous ovation that Joe Weider described as a reaction with “renewed fervor.”

“I was surprised at the outburst of cheers and applause that greeted Harold Poole,” Weider stated in his book, “Mr. Olympia – The History of Bodybuilding’s Greatest Contest” (St. Martin’s Press, 1983). “I hadn’t thought I’d hear such uninhibited fan enthusiasm.”

Strutting onto the stage with his 5’10” and over 200 pound frame, the New Yorker concluded his posing routine with what was being called “The Poole Pose,” otherwise known in the bodybuilding circuit as the crab. The ovation continued even after he “disappeared into the stage wings,” was how Weider chronicled it.

Just as the cheers for Poole began to dissipate, a chant of “We want Scott” began, so loud that when Larry Scott was introduced, it was inaudible. Stepping out and beginning his posing routine with showmanship, Scott going last may have seemed like a stroke of Weider genius, but the three men striving for the Olympia drew numbers out of a hat backstage to decide the order.

Although the Mr. America and Universe winners were mostly pre-determined by the judges in advance, the Olympia competitors were scored on their routines right then and there. This made for charisma and personality having a lot to do with their final scores, and Scott no doubtedly made it official with his stage presence.

Being named the inaugural Mr. Olympia will be a moment in time for Scott, although he did not walk away any richer that evening. The Weiders had planned to give the winner a cash prize, but expenses in running the show and putting up international IFBB representatives in hotels made that impossible. Scott did leave wearing a jeweled crown, but he and Joe Weider had to wait until after 2:00 am to sneak out a back door. What probably seemed like a scene out of “A Hard Day’s Night” when the Beatles had to dodge adoring fans, The Master Blaster and Scott were pushed back in the theater during an earlier attempt to leave by “three burly Brooklyn cops” to avoid the rush.

By the time the two of them arrived at the hotel for the after party, Scott made a quick exit to go to sleep so that he would be ready to go for the next day’s early photo shoot. A true champion is always prepared!

After a successful initial run, Joe Weider needed to build on what he started. He issued a challenge to the bodybuilders who passed up Mr. Olympia the first time around to compete in 1966. This was imperative to have the contest officially recognized as the zenith of professional bodybuilding shows.

He even sent out personally written invitations to a number of men he had hoped would have competed in 1965, including Bill Pearl, Reg Park, Jack Delinger and Leo Robert. None of them accepted, and in the second Mr. Olympia, there were four competitors.

Held once again at the BAM, the 1966 Mr. O featured Chuck Sipes, who opened the show. Scott and Poole were back, and a newcomer named Sergio Oliva rounded out the quartet.

A much-improved Poole appeared to be the out front, and although Scott once again garnered the most applause, the judges called for a posedown and took another 20 minutes during the ensuing intermission to reach their decision.

Once Scott was named the winner for the second consecutive year, the crowd showed their approval and he belatedly received the $1,000 purse – along with a commemorative silver plate - that Weider had intended on giving him a year earlier. Weider looked back on that moment with satisfaction and encouragement. “Now we’d really pulled bodybuilding into the ranks of professional sports,” he wrote. “There was a future for all those athletes whom two years earlier I’d worried about losing.”

Poole finished in second place once again, with Sipes and Oliva tying one another for third. The man who would later be known as ‘The Myth’ was only getting a taste of the limelight.

Surprising everyone including Weider, Scott announced his retirement from competitive bodybuilding right on the stage after accepting victory, citing that he wanted to spend more time with his family. While many would look at losing your repeat champion as a detriment, Weider, ever the optimist, saw this as an opportunity to promote the show even heavier with a wide open field of competitors vying to become the new world champion.

Oliva began 1967 by winning the Mr. Universe contest in front of an audience of 10,000 people at the Montreal World’s Fair. That merely prepared him even better for the Mr. Olympia four months later in Brooklyn. Also in the field were the returning Poole and Sipes, along with Dave Draper, the 1966 Mr. Universe.

Poole was determined to take the top spot now that his nemesis Scott was out of the way. He drew the fourth and last number and had to deal with a pro-Oliva crowd, who were awed by the massive Cuban just moments prior. At 5’11” and 225 pounds with a 26-inch waist, Oliva was an incredible specimen and did quite well for himself in his second attempt at glory.

Admitting that the closeness of this contest made the need for pre-judging apparent, Weider told his readers that he couldn’t help himself to eavesdrop on the judges huddling backstage. “They were clearly not having an easy time of it,” he said. “Someone told me the winner was Harold Poole, and the head judge was in fact on his way to deliver that word to the emcee when his colleagues called him back.”

A private posedown was called, and after comparisons were made, the announcement was made that Oliva was the winner. To this day, some consider the 1967 contest the best Olympia ever.

Looking at how far the Mr. Olympia has come since those first three years in the ‘borough of churches’ makes those early shows even more special. The sport of bodybuilding was striving to be recognized and needed it’s own ‘Super Bowl,’ if you will, to bring it to the forefront. The Weider brothers envisioned how it should be and although it may have took some time, the results were worth the wait.

Each September, the best professional bodybuilders in the world gather on one stage to fight it out for supremacy. In 2007, there were 24 men vying for the Sandow Trophy at The Orleans and 19 this past year. That would never have happened without three men taking the stage in a theater in Brooklyn, New York a generation ago.

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