In the first installment of our series of “The Greatest Contests of the Golden Era,” we’ll look at the epic 1972 Mr. Olympia.
The competitions of the much-revered Golden Era are considered by many fans and insiders to be the greatest contests of any bodybuilding era. The reasons for this are many. The legendary contests of the late 1960s to early ‘80s, set the foundation for today’s multi-billion-dollar bodybuilding industry. These events offer tremendous historical significance for even the most casual Iron Game observer.
When Is the “Golden Era”?
Much debate has surrounded exactly which historical period should define bodybuilding’s definitive Golden Era. Some believed the Golden Era began during bodybuilding’s earliest competitive beginnings of the late-1940s and would last until the late-‘70s. Others believe it exclusively comprised the ‘70s. Some contend there have been two Golden Eras of bodybuilding: the mid-‘60s through to the late ‘70s, and the ‘90s.
Most bodybuilding historians however tend to agree that the true Golden Era of bodybuilding began in 1969 (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Olympia debut, where the massive Austrian battled the great Sergio Oliva for the first time) and would last until 1982, the year Chris Dickerson defeated such bodybuilding luminaries as Frank Zane, Samir Bannout, Danny Padilla, Tom Platz, Boyer Coe and Dennis Tinerino to win bodybuilding’s biggest prize. As such, it’s from this period we’ll dissect each major bodybuilding showdown. We’ll begin with an event that polarized the bodybuilding world at the time of the 1972 Mr. Olympia. This event is considered to be the greatest and also one of the most controversial bodybuilding contests of all time.
Muscledom Invades Essen
Held outside of the U.S. for only the second time since its inception in 1965, the 1972 Mr. Olympia featured a much anticipated matchup between incumbent champion Arnold “The Austrian Oak” Schwarzenegger and multi-Olympia winner (1967-’69) Sergio “The Myth” Oliva. The showdown would take place in October at the Handelshof in Essen, Germany.
The contest between Arnold and Sergio would be intriguing for many reasons. Both competitors were unquestionably the two best bodybuilders in the world. At the time, Arnold had won the Olympia twice and Sergio had won the title three times.
Though Arnold was the current champ, the jury was still out as to who was the superior bodybuilder. When comparing Sergio and Arnold, no one could say for sure who would win in ‘72. Both sought out to be recognized as the greatest of all time. Sergio had the perfect opportunity to solidify his “best ever” status at the previous year’s Olympia. If he had not been disqualified for previously competing in an unsanctioned event, he could have entered the ’72 event with four Olympia titles to Arnold’s one, making the Essen showdown a must win for the Oak.
A Stacked Lineup
The clash of bodybuilding’s top-two goliaths would, according to many, be the pivotal matchup in ’72. However, it would have been foolish to rule out the rest of the field. One of the more impressive lineups in Golden Era history would stretch across the stage. No less than four current or future Mr. Olympia winners would be vying for contention (Arnold and Sergio along with eventual 1977-’79 winner Frank Zane and 1976 and 1981 winner Franco Columbu). Rounding out the classic lineup would be 1970 Mr. Europe winner Serge Nubret, an outstanding competitor who would go on to challenge for the Olympia title in ’73 and ’75, and placed third and second respectively. The sixth competitor was Edmund Karolewicz, who was invited by fellow Frenchman Nubret despite having never won a major contest.
The ’72 Olympia was the second to last time competitors of all weight classifications would compete in the same category. Over- and under-200 lb classes were introduced in ‘74.
The stage was set for an epic fight for the coveted Mr. Olympia title. With no divisions between the contenders, who would emerge victorious?
A Close Battle
When the ‘72 Olympia lineup walked into the small warm-up room, which doubled as the prejudging room, it became obvious the area would be too small for the six-man lineup. Also obvious was that the real battle would be between Oliva, Schwarzenegger, and Nubret, who, by comparison, made the other esteemed competitors look amateurish.
Before the judging could commence, a room large enough to contain the world’s best physique artists would be needed. Schwarzenegger had a plan and suggested a larger room that would be good for the competition but would also give him with a personal advantage.
The real surprise of the event was just how competitive Nubret was. Largely unknown and competing in his professional debut, the fabulous Frenchman showed tremendous balance between each of his massive and perfectly defined muscle groupings. Though upon closer inspection he could not match the Oak and the Myth on leg and back development as well as overall muscular bulk. Nubret more than held his own when it came to sweeping aesthetics and crisp definition.
Zane and Columbu, for their part, would battle it out for fourth and fifth place. Both presented the defining attributes that would secure them Olympia glory in the years to come. However, Columbu and Zane were no match for the top three.
Arnold Outmaneuvers the Competition—Again
Back in the Golden Era’s earliest beginnings, all Olympia judging was done during the prejudging. Posing routines and any additional comparisons would be exclusively for the benefit of the audience. As expected, Arnold and Sergio stood traps and shoulders above the rest. To the trained eye, Sergio appeared to have a decided edge in muscular size and genetically massive aesthetics.
Arnold being Arnold used his cerebral superiority to outgun Oliva. As Schwarzenegger later admitted, the room he had specifically requested earlier featured a black backdrop. A room with a darker backdrop would showcase his skin tone better and allow Oliva’s to blend into the background. Arnold also appeared to stand closer to the front of the “stage,” thus conveying an illusion of greater size.
The optical advantages Arnold had manipulated made a huge difference. Looking objectively at images of the event, though the two seem close, the ’72 Olympia was Oliva’s for the taking – but it was not meant to be.
The Myth placed second while Arnold took his third Olympia crown, much to the collective dismay of those in attendance. Nubret correctly placed third. The battle between Zane and Columbu for fourth and fifth was extremely close with Zane narrowly edging the Sardinian Strongman on conditioning and aesthetics. Columbu would be back the following year to claim second place with a much-improved and even more massive physique.
Gamesmanship and Greatness
Bodybuilding historians and seasoned Golden Era competitors almost unanimously agree that Sergio Oliva should have won in Essen. But they weren’t there. Arnold’s competitive edge was more than physical, he knew how to take the advantage with staging and presentation. It would be a strategic advantage he would bring to his many careers to follow.
After the ’72 Olympia, Arnold won three more consecutive Olympia titles and another in 1980 (his most controversial). His fellow competitors Zane, Columbu, and Nubret would continue to carve out successful bodybuilding careers of their own, except for Oliva who promptly retired after the event. Confident that he would win in ’72 and feeling dejected following the controversial outcome, the Myth quit the IFBB. It would be 11 years before he would make his much anticipated return. Meanwhile, Karolewicz faded further into obscurity.
Though this event had one of the most controversial outcomes in all of bodybuilding history, the ’72 Mr. Olympia is considered one of the greatest bodybuilding contest of all time. Besides the epic Arnold/Sergio showdown, this event is notable for introducing Columbu, Zane and Nubret to bodybuilding audiences. Whether one agrees with the decision or not, there is no disputing the fact that the 1972 Olympia will forever be regarded as a key turning point in the evolution of the sport we all know and love.
What do you think? Is this the greatest contest of the Golden Era ever, or do you have your own favorite? Let us know and we’ll include it in our series.