Remembering Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Most Controversial Bodybuilding Competition

Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to do something to separate himself from the pack, and, more specifically, to get away from his abusive father who favored his brother. For Arnold, who turns 68 today, lifting weights was the answer. The Austrian-born oak held Reg Park in high-esteem, going to the movie theaters at a young age to watch Park act in strongman films like Hercules. He wanted to be just like Park… big, strong, and famous.

Arnold began bodybuilding at the age of 15. In 1965 — at just 18 years old — he won the Mr. Junior Europe bodybuilding competition. His progress was extraordinary, and his body seemed built to pack on pounds of rocky musculature. Just two years after his win in 1965, Arnold became the youngest man ever to win the Mr. Universe contest; he would win that contest four more times.

Eleven year old Schwarzenegger, left, poses for a photo in 1958 in Thal, Austria.
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Schwarzenegger, 11 at the time, left, poses for a photo in 1958 in Thal, Austria.

After moving to America, Schwarzenegger focused entirely on bodybuilding. In that sport where physique matters most, winning the Mr. Olympia contest is the ultimate prize. He first gave the contest a shot in 1969, but he lost the crown to Sergio Oliva. Arnold retuned the next year sporting enhanced definition and size, and, at just 23 years old, he won the Mr. Olympia crown, becoming the youngest man to ever win the title. It was just the start for Schwarzenegger, though, as he would go on to win Mr. Olympia five more times, effectively owning the competition from 1970 to 1975. Following the 1975 competition, Arnold retired from the sport of bodybuilding having felt that he accomplished all his goals in the sport.

Around the time that he began stepping away from the bodybuilding stage, Arnold stepped into another kind of spotlight… cinema. In 1976, he starred in Stay Hungry along with Jeff Bridges and Sally Field; his performance won him a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut. It was 1977’s Pumping Iron, though, that would catapult Schwarzenegger into the limelight. The film followed Arnold during his preparation for his final Mr. Olympia contest in 1975, and the warm reception to the movie made Arnold a household name along with bodybuilding exploding in popularity going into the ’80s.

His bodybuilding career seemingly behind him, Arnold shifted his gaze to Hollywood. He starred in several B-movies and TV shows, always playing up his size and strength as his leading characteristic on film. In 1980, he was propositioned to star as the lead in Conan the Barbarian. Although he was off the bodybuilding stage for a few years, Arnold was still in great shape, albeit not in “competition” shape. The training for Conan changed that. With a combination of weight training, horseback riding, and sword fighting, the Austrian Oak’s muscle memory kicked in, and he found himself coming back to form.

The 1980 Mr. Olympia contest in Australia was just around the corner, and Arnold was asked to host the event, but he had other plans. One day before the contest — and to the dismay of the other competitors — Arnold announced himself as a part of the competitive field. Other bodybuilders like Mike Mentzer and Boyer Coe took offense to the 11th hour placement of Schwarzenegger, citing that he should have had to register months in advance like the rest of them. Ben Weider took the competitors into a private room at the Sydney Opera House to hear their complaints, but it was made official at the end of the meeting: Arnold would compete.

Robert Nailon, a former bodybuilder and photographer, remembers the outrage among the other competitors:

Nobody knew that Arnold was competing in 1980 until the last minute. He was supposed to be MC at the show and then at the last minute said he was going to compete which caused an outrage with all of the other contestants. I was backstage while all of the contestants were pumping up at the pre judging – it was obvious Arnold wasn’t in top shape but still looked great anyway.

Circumstances would play in Arnold’s favor: The three-time reigning champ of the Olympia, and widely considered the most technically and symmetrically built bodybuilder perhaps in history, Frank Zane, suffered a serious injury to his urethra in a poolside accident weeks before the contest. Due to a hospital stay, Zane had lost several pounds of hard-earned muscle. At the 1980 Olympia, he was coming in much smaller than he had in previous competitions. With only eight weeks of preparation for the contest, Arnold was also coming in smaller than he had when he was the reigning champion.

Arnold Schwarzenegger 1
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In Pumping Iron, Arnold extols the significance psychological warfare has in demeaning his bodybuilding opponents, and the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest was no different. In one of the meetings before the contest, Schwarzenegger told Mike Mentzer that his gut was too big to win. In the lead up to Mr. Olympia, he told Frank Zane — his friend and training partner — that he was surely not even entering the competition, leaving his entrance as a surprise for he and all the other competitors. During an early round of the competition, Arnold broke the rules by leaving the line to throw up poses that were not required. It was all part of a plan.

At the awards ceremony, Zane was announced as a third-place finisher. He later went backstage and threw his trophy against a wall, shattering it. When Chris Dickerson was announced as the runner-up, everyone knew what the outcome was: Arnold was once again the champ, this time for the seventh and last time. At 33 years old, Schwarzenegger had defied the odds by competing with only eight weeks of training. In a show of exuberance, Arnold rushed the stage to accept his award and pose with Joe Weider.

Perhaps destiny was on the side of Schwarzenegger. Maybe it was just a concoction of talent, luck and wits; had he not been on the verge of celebrity, had Frank Zane not have gotten injured, and had he not employed mind games to psychologically hinder his opponents, 1980 might have been someone else’s year. Still, the Austrian Oak had completed his comeback in the face of controversy. Like it or not, he was the champ once again.