Memories Of The Myth: Greats Pay Tribute To Sergio Oliva

Sergio Oliva was a true champion. Fitness icons pay tribute to the revolutionary, bodybuilding pioneer, friend, father, and legend.

Sergio Oliva conjures images of unmatched physical supremacy. His revolutionary physique seemed tailor-made for the extreme environs of the pro bodybuilding stage.

Oliva, three-time Mr. Olympia, died November 12, 2012, at the age of 71. The legacy his classic physique left on Earth confirms him as immortal, a god of the Golden Age. His brilliance lingers even in the modern age of iron warriors.

In 1967, Oliva became the second bodybuilder to win the prestigious Mr. Olympia. He was the only man ever to conquer the seemingly invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Olympia (1969). Oliva also won the 1968 contest, because no one dared challenge him. He is one of 13 men to win the award, given annually since 1965.

Sergio may have owned the best bodybuilding genetics of all time. His contribution to the iron culture, training protocols and competitions is immeasurable. Oliva is the first Mr. Olympia we have lost.

Defection to Perfection

Oliva was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba, on the fourth of July, 1941. He joined Batista's army at age 16 to fight the forces of Fidel Castro. After Castro's victory in the war, Oliva went home to the Cuban beaches and was invited to a Cuban weightlifting club. His raw strength and genetic potential were undeniable.

In 1962, Oliva placed second at the Cuban National Weightlifting Championships, which put him in the Central American Games in Kingston, Jamaica. When Castro's guards left an opening, Oliva sprinted to the United States Consulate with the entire Cuban weightlifting team in his wake and all asked for asylum. Their freedom was granted. He would never return to Cuba.

Oliva made his way to Chicago, Illinois, which became his permanent home. He worked loading trucks and in steel mills before eventually taking a career in public service. He worked for 25 years as a Chicago Police Department officer.

Once in Chicago, he began lifting weights at Duncan YMCA, where he met Bob Gajda and resumed bodybuilding. He won his first American bodybuilding contest, the 1963 Mr. Chicagoland. The weightlifting champion wasted no time out-muscling his peers, both in the gym and on the posing platform. Within four years, he was Mr. Olympia.

Breaking Barriers

Sergio broke the race barrier that pervaded early bodybuilding. He was the first non-white bodybuilder to win the IFBB Mr. Olympia, AAU Mr. America, IFBB Mr. World, IFBB and AAU Mr. Internationals, and IFBB Mr. Universe.

During his 22-year bodybuilding career (1963-1985), he distinguished himself as a legitimate threat to win each contest he entered. He is the only man to beat Arnold, but Arnold also beat him at the 1972 Olympia in Essen, Germany. The loss disenfranchised Oliva, and led him out of the IFBB until his triumphant return in 1984 and 1985, in which he placed 8th, and reignited the division with his swan song. He competed in multiple federations all over the globe: IFBB, WBBG, WABBA, and AAU.

Sergio Oliva was a true champion, a revolutionary, a bodybuilding pioneer, a friend, father, and legend. He will be forever remembered for his phenomenal physique and joyful personality. He showed the world how courage and commitment can lead a man to be the greatest in the world. There will never be another like him.

Tribute to Mr. Olympia: Sergio Oliva

We asked bodybuilding champions and industry insiders to assess the impact made by this legendary athlete:

Albert Beckles ///
IFBB Pro Bodybuilding Legend

When I first met Sergio in England, I was competing as an amateur. It was the first time I met him, but he was kind and treated me like we were old friends. I have always respected and admired him. What a great guy and a phenomenal bodybuilder. I will miss him. May God bless his family. Rest in peace, old friend.

Samir Bannout ///
Mr. Olympia 1983

Sergio was absolutely amazing. In my opinion, he was the greatest ever! The most gifted bodybuilder who ever lived. Although I was always inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger because of his magnificent presence, Sergio Oliva is by far the most perfect bodybuilder to have ever competed on the Mr. Olympia stage. Nevermind past or present, I thought he should have won more Olympia titles than anybody else. It's important that Mr. Olympia winners have a near perfect physique. Sergio was almost perfect.

Clarence Bass ///
Ripped Enterprises: book author and bodybuilding champion

I was never formally introduced to Sergio, but I was within shouting distance on a number of occasions and saw him compete a few times. With his little hat, Cuban-heeled shoes, and form-fitting clothes, he was a sight to behold—one that sticks in your mind forever. He was also a commanding presence in his policeman's uniform. He may have been the most genetically gifted bodybuilder of all time, with long, thick muscle bellies everywhere. He came to this country from Cuba and made his way to the top of the bodybuilding world. Nevertheless, he seemed to feel he was never given his due. Like Arnold, there will never be another Sergio.

Francis Benfatto ///
IFBB pro bodybuilding legend

Sergio possessed the ideal bodybuilding physique, categorized by broad shoulders, narrow hips and huge arms. Being of medium height, his well-balanced and proportioned physique served to create for him a larger-than-life illusion onstage when he was then competing among the best Olympians from the 1960s. His exceptional physical attributes made him a very impressive bodybuilder, and also an aesthetic bodybuilder despite his incredible muscle size and density. As a professional bodybuilder from the 1990s, who is today striving to live a very long life, I would have liked to have seen Sergio "The Myth" live a very long life himself.

Eryk Bui ///
IFBB pro bodybuilder

My deepest condolences go out for the loss of one of bodybuilding's legendary icons. I remember how ridiculous his arms and overall muscular thickness was, and I wish I could be as tremendous. Sergio's ability to defy natural physical aptitude and strength is what I admire most about him. He was willing to push beyond great limits with sheer determination and heart, without the use of dangerous prescription drugs, or senseless propaganda. Sergio gave me hope that I could do my absolute best onstage and still walk away intact to fulfill the rest of my life. Sergio Oliva, you are great because you are so loved and revered by us all.

Boyer Coe ///
IFBB pro bodybuilding legend

I was always in awe of Sergio Oliva, from the first time I met him back in 1966. It was at the AAU Jr. Mr. America Contest held in San Jose, California. The event was being held at a junior college, and directly across the street was a Howard Johnson. I recall walking over with my buddy, Red Lerille, to have a quick lunch before the pre-judging started. As soon as I entered, I spotted Sergio. He was hard to miss, dressed in a gold suit with a white silk shirt and a purple tie. I will always remember that he was eating a big plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I did my best not to stare. His shoulders were so wide and his back was so broad, tapering down to a very narrow waist and hips. I was just a kid then, and it was my first national contest, but Sergio was friendly. He came over and we talked a bit.

As the years went by, Sergio continued to improve; I believe that his all-time best condition was attained at the 1972 Mr. Olympia contest held in Essen, Germany. There were two photos of Sergio taken onstage that day by Albert Busek, which I think are the best photos ever taken in the history of the sport. One is a photo of Sergio in his victory pose. The other is one of him in a front lat spread. Those photos never failed to inspire me. I always wondered, if he had had the same advantage of proper nutrition, better education, better promotion what he might have been able to accomplish.

Another thing that always stood out about Sergio was that he was the first bodybuilder who had "style" in the way he dressed. All his clothes were tailor-made to highlight his physique. He not only had the best physique, but he also dressed a lot better than anyone else. I was saddened to hear of Sergio's passing. He will certainly go down in history as exceptional in bodybuilding. He will be missed. I was proud to call him my friend.

Anthony Catanzaro ///
The Superman of Fitness

What can I say about Sergio that hasn't already been said? He was one of the greatest bodybuilders who ever lived. From his massive, well-proportioned physique to his humble, healthy lifestyle, Sergio was a gift to the bodybuilding world. Sergio was one of the few guys in this business who had it all. He was the bodybuilder everyone wanted to be; even Arnold had to bow down to Sergio back in the day. Sergio will be missed, but his sprit in the bodybuilding world motivates us to accomplish what we all aspire to. It teaches us that not only can we be awesome on the outside, but we can be even more awesome on the inside. God bless you, Sergio; rest in peace.

John DeFendis ///
Mr. USA, 1988

Sergio Oliva was one of my early bodybuilding inspirations. He will be greatly missed. His mass and shape were amazing, and we were all awestruck by him. I had the pleasure of being inducted, with Sergio, into the WBBG Bodybuilding Hall of Fame in 2007 and it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. We will truly miss him, but I am sure that he is training with the greats in heaven—men like Steve Michalik, Steve Reeves, Joe Meeko, Tony Pandolfo, and many more of the great champions of yesteryear.

George Farah ///
Bodybuilding guru and IFBB pro

A gentleman, a legend, and a myth—Sergio will be missed forever. I got to talk to Sergio Oliva on a few different occasions and he was a nice, humble man. He is going to be greatly missed by the bodybuilding industry.

Kris Gethin and Neil Hill ///
Gethin: Writer, book author, physical transformation specialist
Hill: contest prep specialist/trainer and nutritionist extraordinaire

Men are born equal, but in Sergio's case a myth was born. It was a mystery of science that a man could appear without equal and without peer in his ability to stand bold in stature against the other mountains of muscle that walked the stage. Sergio appeared inhuman because he was ahead of his time due to his sheer mass, beauty, perfectly-placed muscle attachments, and the aura that surrounded him when he walked with gracefulness or posed with power. His tiny waist and monstrous arms produced his famous "Myth" pose that is as recognizable in bodybuilding as the coveted Sandow trophy. That silhouette is a masterpiece that will stand through the ages and its influence will extend further than our lifetimes. Sergio will be missed, but his myth will live forever.

Robert 'Dr. Bob' Goldman MD, DO, Ph.D. ///
World Chairman-IFBB International Medical Commission
Founder & Chairman-International Sports Hall of Fame
President Emeritus-National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

Sergio Olivia was probably one of the most physically-gifted bodybuilders ever born. His joint to large muscle belly ratio was almost cartoon-like. As a Chicago Police officer, you can imagine what would happen to criminals crossing his path! They had to custom cut his blue officer shirtsleeves to fit his massive biceps. He would commonly cut them off or split them down the side to carry those arms. He was always a friendly, jovial, and kind person with a great sense of humor, strong laugh and lots of huge gold chains and jewelry to match the massive proportions of his body. He was also a legend in the local medical community. Once, when he was shot (with his own revolver due to a dispute with his ex-wife), his torso core muscle mass was so thick, it actually stopped the passage of the bullet. He was a real-life superman bodybuilder from Chicago. We will all miss him.

Marcus Haley ///
IFBB pro bodybuilder

Sergio was ahead of his time. In many respects he paved the way for the thick, dense look. His hands-over-head pose was epic. I feel he pushed Arnold more than any other athlete. He was a true genetic freak with what I feel were some of the biggest arms of his time. Crazy to think what he would be like in my era—almost scary to think! With a no-bullshit approach to his training, he will go down as one of the best ever.

Michael Kefalianos ///
IFBB pro bodybuilder

Sergio was truly an inspiration, and one of the most massive and symmetrical bodybuilders from the golden era of our sport and of all time. He will be missed by us all, but his signature poses and smile will always remain in our hearts to remind us of what he did for our sport. My heartfelt condolences go to his family and friends.

Lee Labrada ///
IFBB pro bodybuilding legend

My fellow countryman Sergio Oliva was, and will always be, "The Myth." Sergio was an athlete who was so far ahead of his time in terms of physique development that the only way in which he could be described by his contemporaries was in awestruck whispers. He existed outside the physical realm of what most deemed possible to achieve for a human body. Dare I call him the Babe Ruth of bodybuilding? His legend grows to this day, and bodybuilding fans will always argue that Sergio's were the greatest God-given genetics to have ever graced the Mr. Olympia stage. Thank you, Sergio, for inspiring generations of champions. Que Dios te bendiga.

Gordon LaVelle ///
Author: Bodybuilding: Tracing the Evolution of the Ultimate Physique

Sergio Oliva was not just the dominant competitor of his era; he was arguably the most dominant of any era. This is no hyperbole. In 1967, Oliva had so thoroughly intimidated the rest of the IFBB that by the next year he won the Mr. Olympia contest unopposed. That fact stands as unique in Mr. Olympia lore (when Schwarzenegger won unopposed in 1971, it was because the IFBB disqualified his competition, not because there were no willing opponents). One only need look at Oliva's famous black-and-white hands-over-head shot to understand why, at his peak, he had no equal.

That is by no means the end of the story. Oliva was also a lightning rod for controversy. His heyday came in an age when white competitors were often blatantly awarded titles over more deserving men. Despite his incredible physique, Oliva was not immune to this. He claimed to have been shafted by both Bob Hoffman's AAU and Joe Weider's IFBB and although a legion of fans agreed, federations didn't mind replacing images of Oliva with those of men whom they felt could sell more magazines. Such are the powers that influence bodybuilding contest results, and the competitive downfall of Oliva will forever be a poignant reminder of this. As long as bodybuilding exists, Oliva will remain a titan.

Anibal Lopez ///
Pro bodybuilding legend

My personal experience with Sergio goes back to my early bodybuilding days and being inspired by his physique and strength. He brought a sense of pride to every Hispanic bodybuilder. Later, I had the opportunity to get to know the man personally. The times we met were always joyful, due in large part to his great sense of humor. He got a kick out of calling me Pancho Villa, because of my mustache.

I will never forget the time I shared the stage with him at a 1978 WBBG championships and, since I won the Pro Mr. America and Pro Mr. World that night, I was supposed to pose against him for the Mr. Olympia title. To be honest, I did not have the guts, or the nerves, to even try to pose against this giant of a man. Besides, he was my bodybuilding hero, so I just walked out and handed him the trophy.

The last time we met, I could see his health was deteriorating and he was not well, but we still managed to share laughter, as always. I am honored to say that Sergio Oliva was my friend, and was an inspiration to me and multitudes of bodybuilders. There is no doubt he will always be remembered in this controversial sport of bodybuilding. Thank you for allowing me to share my feelings about this great man and bodybuilder.

Berry de Mey ///
IFBB pro bodybuilding legend

Sergio was one of the best bodybuilders of all time. I am proud I shared the stage with this great person on my Olympia debut in 1985. He was and always will be the Myth. Myths never die. Thanks, Sergio, for all you have given us.

Layne Norton ///
Ph.D. Nutritional Sciences
Natural bodybuilding champion

Not only was Sergio Oliva a bodybuilding legend, but he also played a role in one of my bodybuilding experiences. He sat next to me on a flight to my first Olympia in 2004. When our plane was delayed by two hours at take off, Sergio passed the time by cracking jokes, telling stories, and giving the flight attendants a hard time (in a friendly way). It made the two-hour wait fly by. Later, at the expo, he remembered me and was nice enough to again take the time to crack jokes, take pictures, and tell stories. Every year after that whenever I would see him, he always remembered who I was. That was such a cool experience and I know he must have done it for many people over the years. He was a genuine and fun guy. The world will certainly miss him and bodybuilding is going to mourn the loss of one of the sport's great men. RIP Sergio, I'm sure you are cracking them up in heaven as we speak.

Lonnie Teper ///
Bodybuilding MC and writer

Sergio Oliva looked photo-shopped before Photoshop existed! I was stunned to see photos of this amazingly gifted man with the classic overhead pose. I couldn't imagine anyone carrying that amount of muscle with such a small waist. And those insane calves! His battles with Arnold were classic, of course. Some people still consider Oliva to have had the most gifted physique ever to grace a bodybuilding stage. Working as a police officer in Chicago was the perfect job—he legally carried 22-inch guns year round. His son, Sergio Oliva Jr, competed at the NPC Nationals in Atlanta over the weekend (November 10-11, 2012), which I emceed. The Myth may be gone, at 71, but will never be forgotten. Thanks for the wonderful memories.

Dave Palumbo ///

Sergio Oliva was the Ronnie Coleman of the 1960s and 70s. If he knew half as much as we know today about nutrition, supplements, and diet, I suspect he would have won the Mr. Olympia 15 times, at least. He should be regarded as the first true "freak" of the bodybuilding world. He will be sorely missed.

Ronny Rockel ///
IFBB pro bodybuilder

Sergio was a great role model in sports. He has significantly shaped the development of bodybuilding and will forever be known as a great sportsman. We will all miss him. Our thoughts are with his family!

Randy Roach ///
Author of Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors

On November 12, 2012, the world of bodybuilding yielded yet another of its legends with the untimely passing of Sergio Oliva, the Myth. As it was with Arnold, simply hearing the name "Sergio" was enough for distinct recognition of arguably the most feared physique competitor of his time. Many felt Sergio's only true competition was ... Sergio! That classic, iconic shot of him posing, arms stretched overhead, in 1972, says it all.

The manner and flair surrounding his larger-than-life physique made him a walking caricature of himself. As Boyer Coe pointed out, Sergio was the first to have a style. Only foolish politics kept this colorful personality from the Butler/Gaines Pumping Iron projects of the 1970s. His outlandish attire and cocky demeanor would have made him a natural nemesis for Arnold, which would have added greatly to the film. It was in fact the name Schwarzenegger that rose to prominence out of that era, but Sergio Oliva was truly "Arnold's Cuban Muscle Crisis!"

Dick Tyler ///
Iron game writer
Book author: West Coast Bodybuilding Scene - The Golden Era

Before I ever met Sergio I made the mistake, as many of us do, of prejudging someone without any perception other than a visual one. Here indeed was a man who displayed muscles never seen before. To me he had to be conceited and arrogant. He had to be. Then Weider asked me to pick him up at the airport and help him get settled in California. Reluctantly I went and found one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met—with or without muscles. He was thoughtful, fun loving, generous, and humble. We have lost more than a great bodybuilder—we have lost a wonderful human being. May God bless him with the grace he so richly deserves.

Casey Viator ///
AAU Mr. America -1971
IFBB professional bodybuilder

I first met Sergio at the age of 18, and he was huge. He inspired me for many years after that first visit. Always uplifting and positive in life, Sergio believed in people. He set the bar really high in the 70s for bodybuilding, and his standard is still on top today. We will all miss the Myth, and people will continue to talk about his physique for years to come.

Dorian Yates ///
Six-time Mr. Olympia 1992-97
Director: Dorian Yates Sports Nutrition Ltd.

I would like express my condolences to the family of Sergio Oliva at this most difficult time. Sergio was known as the Myth, and rightly so. He was probably the most gifted athlete ever to grace a bodybuilding stage. Even the great Arnold was both intimidated and impressed with the muscle mass Sergio carried; no weak areas, great shape and a tiny waist, even at 240 pounds. Incredibly, this was more than 40 years ago. Had Sergio been around in today's era, with all the advances in the sport, I am sure he would have dominated. Sergio Olivia will live on in the hearts and minds of bodybuilders worldwide and be remembered always as the Myth!

Frank Zane ///
Three-time Mr. Olympia 1977-79

Christine and I are saddened by the passing of Sergio Oliva. My fondest memory of the Myth is the 1967 IFBB Mr. Universe in Montreal. I flew up from Florida to compete and, along with other competitors, was dropped off at the Paul Sauve Arena (a wresting auditorium, if I remember right). The contest was being held there and all the competitors were accommodated in a large gym upstairs, where we all slept on cots. As the competitors arrived and claimed their cot, the place began filling up. Rick Wayne was there. "He'll probably win," I thought, but then I heard that Sergio was on his way.

Sergio arrived late in the evening, clad in a bright red blazer, to find no available cot. But as soon as everyone realized Sergio had arrived, one contestant gave Sergio his cot and slept on the floor. Sergio won, and after the contest I went out to eat with him (all the guys ate at a little restaurant across the street). We each had a whole chicken and during the meal Sergio confided in me, "You will win in the future, because you know how to do it." He meant posing, and I took his advice seriously, trained hard, and won the title the following year. Sergio was there, too, in Miami in 1968. He gave a posing exhibition and looked fantastic. Rest in Peace, Great Champion.

Wayne S.DeMilia ///
Bodybuilding promoter

There will never be another Sergio ... the genetics, the flair, the charisma. Sergio was a personality, a writer's dream, an idol to the fans, a champion who helped propel the sport to its best and most popular times. Bodybuilding today needs a Sergio, but unfortunately we just lost the original.

Rest in peace Sergio, my good friend.

Frank Marchante ///
Author, "Sergio Oliva The Myth"

Sergio Oliva was my teenage bodybuilding hero. Later in life, I got to talk and record Sergio Oliva in person and over the phone for hours. He was funny and knowledgeable, with an incredible force, sometimes controversial, always nice, a gentleman, a legend, but more importantly, honest. I will always be forever humbled and proud that he chose me to write his book.

I grew up respecting and admiring him. He brought pride to every bodybuilder, especially Hispanics and minorities. I will miss the champion, but I will miss even more the warm, wonderful, human being he was. I am proud and honored to say that Sergio Oliva was my friend. He will live on in my heart and mind forever!

Rest in Peace, my friend.