How Did Arnold Schwarzenegger Get Away With the Biggest Mr. Olympia Controversy?

The Mr. Olympia competition is the most prestigious annual bodybuilding event. Bodybuilders earn their spot at each year’s Mr. Olympia after winning qualifying bodybuilding shows. Hence, after turning pro, an athlete’s only goal becomes qualifying for and eventually striving to win the coveted Sandow trophy. However, bodybuilding, in its nature, is subjective. Especially at the elite level, to the untrained eye, every competitor might look equally impressive. Hence, the prestigious competition has had its fair share of controversies over the decades. However, none top the 1980 Mr. Olympia, which Arnold Schwarzenegger won. Arnie’s surprise participation in the event set off a chain of events that shook the bodybuilding world.

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Some veteran fans might claim Arnie’s best friend Franco Columbu defeating Tom Platz the following year, or Dorian Yates winning against Nasser El Sonbaty in 1997, were equally controversial. However, even today, no one in bodybuilding commands the popularity Schwarzenegger has. Arnie was already immensely popular in the 80s. He was a seven-time Mr. Olympia, a promoter, and a Hollywood action hero. Schwarzenegger’s efforts helped introduce the sport to the mainstream audience, and he would go on to found The Arnold Classic. Hence, the 1980 event involving Schwarzenegger had a more significant impact on bodybuilding. With the 2023 Mr. Olympia competition just around the corner, let’s look back at how Arnold Schwarzenegger got away with the controversy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger maintained secrecy


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1980 marked the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the bodybuilding stage. While pros need to qualify for each year’s Mr. Olmypia separately, those who have won the show have a lifetime ticket to compete. Since Arnie set the original record by winning the Mr. Olympia seven times, he kept his secret hidden until the last moment. However, rumors had started circulating shortly before the contest. Unverified reports stated Arnie had upped the intensity and training hours shortly before the 1980 contest. His rival turned friend, Frank Zane, had asked the bodybuilding icon“Are you going there to compete?”. However, Schwarzenegger told him he was going to Sidney, Australia, to film a “color documentary for ABC.”

After winning his sixth Olympia in 1975, Schwarzenegger helped Joe Weider promote the contest. So, from 1976 to 1979, the bodybuilding icon promoted the Mr. Olympia alongside Jim Lorimer. Hence, Schwarzenegger successfully hid his intentions. A day before the bodybuilding show, Arnie announced he would compete. The sudden announcement surprised the 15 original competitors. Instead of an over 200 lbs and an under 200 lbs class, the 1980 Mr. Olympia was slated to include a single open weight class. However, after his surprise return, the five-time Mr. Universe insisted on the old format. An argument broke out between Boyer Coe, Schwarzenegger, and Mike Mentzer. Mentzer even lost his temper but refrained from brawling. Ultimately, Joe Weider intervened. However, the tensions had just begun. 

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How the contest turned out

Frank Zane returned as the defending champion, having won the title consecutively from 1977 through 1979. However, Zane was returning from a gnarly injury, and his physique took a hit. Hence, the 1979 Mr. Olympia heavyweight category winner, Mike Mentzer, was the favorite. Boyer Coe also stepped on stage in the best shape of his life, especially when it came to conditioning. However, Arnie instantly took his place among the favorites as fans grew ecstatic to witness the six-time Mr. Olympia once again. On stage, the bodybuilding icon acted like the Hollywood star he was destined to become.

While others followed the judges’ commands, the champion bodybuilder did what he felt was right. Instead of striking the mandatory poses, Arnie introduced variations that accentuated his strengths. The Austrian Oak looked like the biggest bodybuilder on stage. However, he seemed like a shadow of his former self. Schwarzenegger probably realized he had to play to his strengths to win. So he did. The Austrian continued to defy judges’ commands in poses he thought other competitors would beat him. Arnie also worked the crowd. The bodybuilder gestured to the fans in attendance. Like he did when defeating Sergio Oliva for the first time, Arnie lingered on stage, hitting a few extra poses for the crowd while others started walking off the stage.

The Outrage

However, the crowd that cheered for him while posing booed when the results were announced. The fans had their favorites, and they made it known. Fans booed when favorite Mike Mentzer placed fifth. They also booed when the dark horse of the competition, Boyer Coe, placed fourth. Defending champion Frank Zane placing third similarly riled them up. Despite being ecstatic about Arnie’s surprise participation, the audience booed when he lifted his seventh Sandow.

However, it was not just the fans that were outraged. The competitors also found fault with what happened. Mike Mentzer walked off the stage and retired the following day. Frank Zane went backstage and “smashed his (third-place) trophy to smithereens.” Boyer Coe and others also spoke against Arnold Schwarzenegger and how he approached the stage. The outrage against the seven-time Mr. Olympia shook up the bodybuilding landscape. CBS filmed the contest but didn’t air it due to the controversy and outrage. It was the last time an American broadcast network filmed the Olympia.


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Arnold Schwarzenegger and his tried-and-tested method

It is clear that Schwarzenegger pulled out all his tricks during the 1980 Mr. Olympia. He did everything from using secrecy, bending the rules in his favor while posing, attempting to change the rules off stage, and utilizing his star power. Arnie also brought a then-unmatched record of six Olympia wins to the stage. Altering the poses made his physique look better than it was. His supreme crowd-pleasing skills might have also signaled judges to score Arnie higher.


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While these might have helped him get away with the biggest controversy in Mr. Olympia’s history, there was another factor. As mentioned before, Arnie worked as a promoter for the IFBB. During his bodybuilding career, Arnie had earned immense goodwill with Joe Weider. Being so close to the co-founder of the IFBB and promoting the contest might have also given Arnie an advantage none of the other competitors had. Two of the judges also knew Arnold Schwarzenegger personally. Hence, as a final piece of the puzzle, bodybuilding politics might’ve also played a part in Schwarzenegger’s victory in 1980.

Watch this story | From Young Age to Becoming a Beast, Bodybuilding Legend Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Insane Transformation

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