Mr. Olympia 1980: What Actually Happened?

The 1980 Mr. Olympia competition is shrouded in controversy. The competition is the most debated event in bodybuilding history. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger had dominated bodybuilding for a long time. Between 1970 and 1975 Arnold secured six Mr. Olympia wins. Arnold retired after his sixth win and turned his attention to the bright lights of Hollywood. This opened the way for the likes of Franco Columbu and Frank Zane to take the limelight. Columbu took the win in 1976 followed by three consecutive wins for Zane. The 1980 competition was Zane’s comeback from injury and an opportunity for rising stars Mike Mentzer and Boyer Coe to take the crown. 

The day before the Mr. Olympia competition, Arnold announced that he would be coming out of retirement to compete. 

The Controversy

Arnold’s return didn’t sit well amongst the competitors of the 1980 Mr. Olympia, especially as he tried to change the format of the competition. Between 1974 & 1979 the Mr. Olympia contest had been split into two weight classes; over 200lbs and under 200lbs. The winners from each weight class would pose off against each other for an overall winner. After the 1979 Mr. Olympia it was agreed that the competition would return to one open class in 1980. 

Arnold announced that he wanted the competition to be judged as before, using two weight classes. The fifteen original entrants to the 1980 Mr. Olympia had all signed a petition to have the show judged in an open class, abolishing the two weight classes. At the meeting of contestants prior to the competition, arguments ensued between Arnold and the other bodybuilders. Boyer Coe, Samir Bannout, and Mike Mentzer were amongst those infuriated by Arnold’s insistence.

Mike Mentzer was the favorite to win the 1980 Mr. Olympia competition. Just two years prior, Mentzer became the first bodybuilder to achieve a perfect score of 300 as he won the Mr. Universe title. Mike then won his first pro competition as he beat the perennial favorite, Robby Robinson. Mentzer had missed out on the Mr. Olympia title before after beating Frank Zane in judging, but missing out by one point in the posedown. This was his year. 

Mentzer made a move on Arnold as the argument ensued, but nothing came of it. Arnold eventually ended the meeting by retracting his statement and agreeing to go on as planned. Joe Weider advised Arnold to do so. 

The night before the show, Arnold was posing for life-long friend Franco Columbu. Records show Columbu was surprised at Arnold’s physique, saying he looked soft and like he was carrying water. When questioned on his substance use, Arnold mentioned using a cortisone injection to treat a shoulder injury. This caused him to hold water. Arnold cranked up the heat and spent the night posing and posing until he eventually passed out in his bed. This managed to shed a large amount of water.

The situation worsened the next day when the competitors took to the stage. Confirmation that Arnold was competing had reached the wider public, and the audience was ecstatic. Seeing Arnold Schwarzengger’s comeback was a moment in history for bodybuilding fans. This added to the fire and made it hard for the judges to remain impartial. Fuel was added to the fire when Arnold ignored calls from the judges to switch poses. When called for a tricep pose, Arnold flexed a side bicep pose, pretending he didn’t hear the call. Arnold hit a most muscular pose as he left the stage to which the crowd roared. 

As the athletes moved to side-by-side comparisons, it was clear that Arnold’s physique was lacking. Boyer Coe, five-time Mr. Universe, had an incredible physique on the day. Dickerson and Mentzer also looked carved from marble on the day. Frank Zane brought an incredibly tanned and lean physique, but he had lost a notable amount of size from the previous year. 

Arnold took first place in the competition. This outraged the other competitors and sent boo’s echoing through the crowd. Dickerson received 2nd place and left the stage in anger. Mentzer was very outspoken about his fifth-place finish and criticized the judges for their corrupt scoring. Mentzer believed politics and conspiracy cost him the title of Mr. Olympia. Frank Zane reportedly walked off stage and threw his trophy at the wall. Both Bill Pearl and Samir Bannout said they would have placed Arnold Schwarzenegger in fifth place at best. 

In the aftermath of Arnold’s controversial win, many of the competitors vowed to boycott the 1981 Mr. Olympia competition. This included the likes of Frank Zane, Boyer Coe, and Mike Mentzer. Roger Walker said Arnold acted like “an asshole” on stage and Boyer Coe stated Arnold “had legs that looked like they belonged in a chicken nest”. The show was filmed by CBS but in light of the controversy, they never aired it. The Mr. Olympia show was never filmed by an American broadcast network again. 

This was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seventh Mr. Olympia title. Both Arnold and Mentzer retired after the 1980 competition.

Judge Corruption

Mentzer was very outspoken about the quality of judging at the 1980 Mr. Olympia competition. Arnold was excused for repeatedly ignoring calls from the judges on stage to change poses and stepping forward from the other competitors when in formation. It was also made apparent that of the seven judges on the panel, Arnold had a close relationship with three of them. Reg Park was Arnold’s close friend and bodybuilding idol. Busek was close to Arnold when he lived in Germany and Kawashima was a friend from Hawaii who often brought Arnold to the island to guest pose. All three of these judges gave Arnold the highest score possible in the first round. 

Frank Zane’s Frustration

Frank Zane was a three-time defending champion at the 1980 Mr. Olympia but wasn’t sure if he was going to compete. In the off-season, Zane cut his urethra tanning by the pool when the chair he was sitting on collapsed. This caused internal bleeding and a great deal of time in hospital. Zane lost a lot of muscle mass and was unsure as to whether or not he would compete. 

Zane had won the previous three years and had continually improved. Every year his physique got better. Frank was worried about bringing a physique to the stage which wasn’t his best, so he consulted his good friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Zane did this before every other Mr. Olympia competition as he trusted and valued Arnold’s opinion. Zane posed for Arnold and his response was that he should go to Sydney and compete. Arnold was sure Zane could still win. When questioned about his involvement, Arnold said he was training for Conan the Barbarian and had no desire to compete in the Olympia contest. It’s highly possible that Arnold saw the condition of the reigning champ, Frank Zane, and began to believe he could come out of retirement and take the win at the Mr. Olympia contest that year. 

Did Arnold Schwarzenegger Deserve to Win?

This is the problem with bodybuilding. It’s subjective. There are no metrics behind it and no objective way to differentiate between winners and losers. This is why many refer to bodybuilding as an art, not a sport. Some prefer the mass and size of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whereas others find more aesthetic pleasure from the lean frame of Frank Zane. 

Looking back at the competition provides no answers. Arnold didn’t dominate the stage as he did in previous years, but he doesn’t look that out of place. Arnold wasn’t a clear winner, but he was in good enough shape to win. Dickerson arguably brought the best physique on the day, but Arnold’s height gives him a physical edge that’s hard to overlook. Franco Columbu and Joe Gold both stated that whilst Arnold has looked better before, he was in good enough shape to win the competition. 

The difficult aspect to overlook is Arnold’s character. Arnold was larger than life. He loved to play up to the crowd and he had an arrogance about him which was made public in Pumping Iron. Arnold was known for playing games with other competitors and in this case, perhaps he crossed the line. The 1980 Mr. Olympia has been debated amongst bodybuilders for over four decades. It seems there is no clear winner and the story is clouded by Arnold’s poor sportsmanship on the day. 

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