Sergio Oliva combined extraordinary genetics, astonishing proportions, and a commanding presence to become an enduring Golden Era legend. Nicknamed “The Myth,” the Cuban immigrant went on to win three Mr. Olympia titles, and created a legacy that has many fans still calling him the greatest bodybuilder of all time.
The first time you see a photo of Sergio Oliva (1941-2012), you may immediately think, “That’s a morph. Definitely a morph.”
No, it’s not a morph, but it’s easy to make that mistake. In his bodybuilding prime, Oliva’s amazing physique challenged the limits of what people thought was possible in developing a muscular body. In a bodybuilding culture that often exaggerated body sizes and feats of strength, Oliva lived up to the hype.
On his way to winning three Mr. Olympia titles, Oliva earned the nickname “The Myth,” because of his legendary proportions and muscle mass. Never before and, arguably, never since has a bodybuilder combined such incredible muscle size with jaw-dropping proportions and shape.
Admired by the Best
Even his peers were in awe of him. Even one of Oliva’s most celebrated onstage foes is one of his greatest admirers. Arnold Schwarzenegger engaged in epic battles against Oliva on the Mr. Olympia stage—they were the bodybuilding version of Ali-Frazier. Both men had great respect for the other. When Arnold is asked about Oliva in any interview, he will talk about the amazing strength, muscle mass, and overall structure of one of the best bodybuilding physiques ever. In some ways, having to battle Oliva helped make Schwarzenegger a much better competitor.
Schwarzenegger’s not alone in his admiration for Oliva. Some of the most acclaimed and famous bodybuilders run out of accolades when it comes to describing the incredible physique of Sergio Oliva. But none of it would have ever happened if it wasn’t for a courageous sprint for freedom as a 21-year-old.
Cuban Strongman Defects
Oliva was born in Cuba in 1941 on the fourth of July. At the age of 12, he worked with his father in the sugar cane fields of Guambaco, Cuba. His father decided that Sergio should enlist in dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army when he was only 16. Needing men for the battle against the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro, Batista welcomed the young, strapping Oliva into the Cuban army.
After Castro emerged victorious, Oliva found himself adrift in the radically changed country. He accepted an invitation by a friend to join the local weightlifting club. This small gesture turned out to spark the beginning of an all-consuming passion. Oliva’s incredible genetic structure and natural strength took to weightlifting like a fish takes to water. Within six months, he was able to clean and jerk over 400 pounds, an astounding total for a 20-year-old. The Cuban weightlifting team immediately added him to the team to represent the country at the 1961 Pan American Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
When Oliva traveled to Jamaica, he knew it would be his opportunity to escape his life in Cuba. Oliva made his move, telling one of the guards who was assigned by Castro to watch over the athletes that he needed to take a walk in order to psych up for the upcoming event. As soon as the guard was distracted, Oliva ran like an Olympic sprinter for the American Embassy. After reaching the gates without being shot, the young weightlifter requested, and received, political asylum.
Initially landing in Miami, Florida, Oliva worked as a TV repairman. In 1963, he moved to Chicago, because he liked the name of the city (“Chee-ca-go” he would say in his thick accent). Though he worked long hours in a steel mill, he still found time to continue his weight training at the Duncan YMCA. The Duncan was famous for its hardcore atmosphere, and hosted a colorful gallery of renowned weightlifters and bodybuilders who regularly worked out there.
An older bodybuilder named Bob Gajda, who would go on to win the 1966 Mr. America and Mr. Universe contests, took the young Cuban under his wing and showed him how to train for bodybuilding. Oliva had incredible genetics as well as a hardcore work ethic, a common attribute of Golden Era legends. He would work 10-hour factory shifts and then head over to the gym for a workout that typically lasted three hours.
Just as incredible as his strength and genetics was Oliva’s metabolism. Many bodybuilders in those days would starve themselves on low-carb diets in order to develop the definition needed to show their muscles. Sergio never had to diet at all. He would typically eat hamburgers and hot dogs and drink soda pop, even when preparing for a contest.
When Oliva was working in a factory, one of his supervisors was amazed by his incredible physique. In order to discover the bodybuilder’s secrets, his boss snuck into the lunch room during a break to see what magical foods Oliva ate to develop such size. Imagine his surprise when he saw the young factory worker eating two packs of Hostess Twinkies that he washed down with two bottles of Mountain Dew for lunch!
Early Struggles, then Dominance
When Oliva began competing 1963 in the AAU, he found obstacles to success that had nothing to do with his physique. The AAU ran amateur bodybuilding in those days, and black-skinned competitors were often bypassed for white, good looking athletes, who were considered more appropriate spokesmen for the title of Mr. America. When Oliva lost the Mr. Chicago title in 1963, he lost it in part because he couldn’t speak proper English.
He didn’t give up. Oliva won the Mr. Chicago title in 1964, but was continually denied the coveted Mr. America title, often losing to bodybuilders who were not even close to the awesome Oliva physique. Still, the young immigrant persisted. While he won the 1966 AAU Jr. Mr. America title, and was allowed to win the Most Muscular award at that year’s Mr. America, he was again denied the overall award despite being the clear winner.
Moving to the IFBB
Finally, Oliva decided to switch over to the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) and try his luck there. It turned out to be a good move. The IFBB finally granted him a fair fight. Oliva won the 1966 Mr. World title and then took third place in the brand new Mr. Olympia contest, won for the second year by Larry Scott.
Oliva immediately stunned the IFBB with his potential. His genetics were so off the charts that he would add pounds of solid muscle to his frame in only months while keeping his tiny waist the same size. After another year of ball-busting training, Oliva easily won the 1967 IFBB Mr. Universe title, held in conjunction with the Montreal World’s Fair.
Oliva was earning a reputation as one of those rare bodybuilders who had it all. His shape and symmetry burst with magnificent size in every muscle group. Even the best bodybuilders usually struggle with bringing up one or two bodyparts. Not The Myth! He even had huge, developed forearms and long, diamond shaped calves to match the rest of his incredible physique.
An Icon without Equal
Oliva earned the nickname The Myth because of his mythical proportions. His arms looked larger than his head when he hit a front double-biceps pose. Oliva’s deltoids looked like cantaloupes, and his chest had slabs of beef for pectorals. His extremely wide lats would taper down to a tiny 29-inch waist, the same size as each of his tree-trunk thighs. Oliva is probably the only bodybuilder in history to have his thighs and waist share the same measurement.
When he entered the 1967 Mr. Olympia contest in New York, his physique stunned the crowd. Harold Poole, second to Larry Scott the previous two years, finished runner-up spot once again when the big Cuban showed up. Even the rugged Chuck Sipes had no chance against Oliva. The title belonged to The Myth.
The world of bodybuilding had found its new King!
In Part Two, we’ll look at Oliva’s epic battles with Arnold, his other triumphs on international bodybuilding stages, and why the name Sergio Oliva is still earning IFBB trophies in 2017!
Do you think Sergio Oliva is the greatest bodybuilder of all time? Let us know in the comments below.