[Bodybuilding] is, in many ways, the purest sport of all. Long before you achieve the physical contest level… bodybuilding will have provided you with an exhilarating match with nature. It’s just you, your attitude, and your body, working together to improve all three.
– Franco Columbu, Winning Bodybuilding (1)
The 1981 Mr. Olympia roster had a lot to prove that October night in Columbus, Ohio. Hungry competitors like Tom Platz, Chris Dickerson, Danny Padilla, and a young Samir Bannout all lined the stage looking for their first win at the vaunted bodybuilding show. And standing among them was the late Franco Columbu, the only past winner in the lineup. At this point in his career, he just wanted to show the bodybuilding world that he still had some gas left in the tank.
Columbu was returning to the Olympia following a five-year absence — but this wasn’t some planned layoff. In 1977, one year after he won his first Mr. Olympia title, Columbu suffered a horrific accident at the inaugural World’s Strongest Man contest that many believed signaled the end of his athletic career.
When he showed up on stage at the Olympia half a decade later, his body told the story of age and injury. Sure, the physique was still lean and densely muscled, but the wow factor wasn’t there anymore. It was clear to the competitors and fans that Columbu wasn’t on his game.
Then something happened that took the whole building by surprise: He won.
The announcement nearly caused a mutiny in the crowd and, coming off an equally controversial Olympia the year before, was cited as yet another example of the sport’s corruption. What led to this result, and, more importantly, what brought Franco back to the stage in the first place? To answer these questions, you need to understand the mentality of Franco Columbu.
From Sardinia to the Stage
The 5’5″ Columbu grew up in Sardinia, an island off the west coast of Italy, where, according to Columbu, “processed food is unheard of, and everyone works and plays hard.” (2) Though short in stature, Columbu realized his knack for sports offered him the best way out of his rural upbringing.
He first dabbled in boxing, winning over 30 fights before switching to powerlifting after moving to Germany. (2) It was his prowess with the weights that eventually had him cross paths with Arnold Schwarzenegger at a powerlifting/bodybuilding event in Stuttgart, Germany.
With Arnold as a friend and training partner, Columbu soon made the jump to bodybuilding and came away with wins at the Mr. Europe, NABBA Mr. Universe, and Mr. Italy shows. (3)(4)(5) After Arnold moved to California to work with Joe Weider, Columbu planned to stay in Europe — that is, until a fateful encounter with two men outside the gym he worked at in Munich.
As retold by Columbu in his autobiography Coming on Strong, two drunk men were causing trouble at the gym‘s reception. The Sardinian powerhouse decided to dispatch them with a flurry of quick punches, resulting in “exotic jaw fractures” for the rowdy duo. Six weeks later, he received a hospital bill for the men, which totaled “five times” what he had or could raise. (2)
Deciding he needed to leave the country or else fall into debt, Columbu reached out to Arnold, who convinced Weider to offer him a bodybuilding contract. The money was meager — around $65 a week, according to Arnold (6) — but there was a bonus in there if Columbu could win the IFBB Mr. Universe contest.
Not only did he compete in the 1969 show — he came in first in the short category. The next year, he won the contest outright, beating everyone in the short, medium, and tall divisions to take the overall crown. Despite being initially overshadowed by the mountainous bodybuilders in the United States, Columbu became a star in his own right.
Columbu competed in his first Mr. Olympia in 1972, finishing fifth behind Arnold, Sergio Oliva, Serge Nubret, and Frank Zane. But Columbu was never one to be satisfied by just being on stage; he needed to excel.
That drive helped him climb up to the runner-up spot at the Olympia in 1973, and he won the new “Under 200 Pounds” division in ’74 and ’75. But like many greats of the day, he just couldn’t claw his way past Arnold, who was an immovable presence at the top of the overall podium throughout the early ’70s.
Then, a stroke of luck — Arnold stepped away from bodybuilding in 1976, leaving the Mr. Olympia crown wide open.
Though there was still stiff competition like Zane, Ed Corney, Ken Waller, and Mike Katz that year, none of them could match Columbu’s dense musculature and disciplined conditioning. “The Sardinian Strongman” finally walked away with his long-awaited win and established himself as a force in the sport.
…and the Lows
What could have potentially been the start of a long reign as Mr. Olympia ended the next year when Columbu competed in the first-ever World’s Strongest Man contest.
He and Lou Ferrigno represented the bodybuilders and squared off against powerlifters and a hodgepodge of other athletes. During a loaded carry race, in which contestants strapped a fridge to their backs, Columbu’s leg buckled, and he severely injured his knee. (Warning: The video below contains graphic content.)
Remarkably, Columbu came fifth despite not finishing the competition. But from the looks of it, his career was over.
The Oak Returns
In 1980, Arnold returned to the Mr. Olympia following a five-year absence. His physique appeared well below his previous standards that night, and many didn’t even believe he deserved a top-three finish at the show.
Despite that, Arnold again came out on top in a decision that remains one of the sport’s most controversial moments. With many believing the contest was rigged due to Arnold’s burgeoning movie career, several bodybuilders (including Frank Zane, Mike Mentzer, and Boyer Coe) decided to boycott the 1981 Olympia in protest.
To combat these claims, the IFBB announced a few changes to overhaul the Olympia process. First, they would pick the judges for the 1981 show rather than leaving it to the individual promoters. Second, a new scoring system was introduced wherein judges gave points to competitors across the three rounds (pre-judging, mandatory poses, posing routine) with a maximum of 20 points awarded to the best physique. (7) This was designed to add more layers to the judging and promote more visibility.
Back in the gym, Columbu had rebuilt his physique while training with Arnold before the 1980 comeback. (8) Pleased with how his body looked, Columbu decided to follow his friend’s lead and make his return to the stage the next year.
The Controversial Comeback
Yeah, Franco … was blocky. He had no leg size or cuts. He was bowlegged. He was everything a Mr. Olympia should not be. The guy trained maybe eight weeks for the contest — and it showed.
– Danny Padilla, 1981 Mr. Olympia contestant (9)
Coming back to the 1981 Mr. Olympia after a prolonged absence, never mind a career-threatening injury, was a big task. But in typical Franco form, he touted a massive upper body that looked like a throwback to his 1976 Olympia-winning physique. His lower body, however, was almost non-existent by the standards of an elite bodybuilding competition. Amplifying the weaknesses in Columbu’s body was the strength of the competition.
Even with the boycotts, the roster was still stacked: There was Tom Platz, who came in with his now-famous quad sweep. Then there was perennially underrated Danny Padilla at the leanest he had ever been. Rounding out the favorites were potential challengers like Chris Dickerson, Roy Callender, and Jusup Wilkosz. (7)
The crowd in Columbus went wild for Platz, Callender, and Padilla as the three men went through their poses that night. Columbu looked like an afterthought, a heartwarming comeback story but nothing more.
Then came the judging — and all hell broke loose.
“The Greatest Booing Contest in the History of the Sport.”
After the debacle of the previous year, there was palpable tension as the final judging began.
First came the announcement that Wilkosz was awarded sixth place. The crowd stayed mum — that was expected. But then fan-favorite Padilla was called for fifth, and the boos poured down from the stands, forcing the announcer to wait for calm to return to the auditorium. When Callender’s name bellowed through the building for fourth place, it dawned on everyone that Columbu had somehow reached the top three.
The hostility in the room reached a crescendo when Platz learned his fate as a third-place finisher; then, it completely boiled over when Columbu — already infamous in certain circles for being Arnold’s friend — was finally, painfully named the winner.
Hordes of fans stormed out; those who stayed threw coins and other objects at the stage. Amazingly, Columbu appeared utterly unaffected by the whole thing. He smiled with his wife, accepted his trophy, and simply walked away.
Columbu retired after the show, saying he “didn’t want to be greedy.” Still, he was unwavering about his belief in the final results.
“I won by 5.5 points,” Columbu later told Muscular Development. (8) “You can see that three other men got first-place votes, but I got four first-place votes. There was no question I won.”
In an interview with bodybuilding journalist and former competitor John Hansen, the head judge for the 1981 Olympia, Roger Schwab, later explained how the judge selection was one of the main problems with the show. (10)
Though he argued about the choices with Ben Weider beforehand, the final panel included names that Schwab said either didn’t have the proper experience or may have had their own allegiances. One name, in particular, was Franco Fassi, a judge from Italy who Schwab said had ties to both Columbu and Arnold.
Then there was the new scoring system. Of the seven judges, only two — including Fassi — had Columbu in first place (not four, as Columbu claimed above). But, because of the point distribution, his overall score was the highest among the competitors and five points ahead of eventual second-place Chris Dickerson.
It wasn’t necessarily that everyone picked Columbu to win — rather, they gave him more points as the second, third, or fourth place.
“[The] point system just simply did not work in this contest, and it was humiliating,” Schwab said. “I knew the results of the contest after the first three rounds, and I knew this was going to be the greatest booing contest in the history of the sport.”
Columbu is one of the greatest bodybuilders in the sport, but most conclude that he was not at his best in 1981. His legs were noticeably underdeveloped, and few people would argue his physique was better than Platz, Padilla, and company.
His victory caused anger and confusion within the sport as people sensed corruption was at play. What’s more likely is that poor judging and scoring practices had a bigger impact. Regardless, 1981 joins 1980 as one of the most controversial moments in bodybuilding.
Columbu, Franco. Winning Bodybuilding. Creators Publishing
Columbu, Franco. Coming on Strong. Creators Publishing, 2016.
Rafiq, Fiaz. Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Life of a Legend. Arena Sport, 2021
‘Franco Columbu.’ Muscle Memory.com, https://musclememory.com/show.php?a=Columbu,+Franco
Schwarzenegger, Arnold. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Simon & Schuster. 1985.
Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and Petre, Peter. Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story. Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Hansen, John. ‘1981 Mr. Olympia Report – Part 2,’ Iron Man, January 11, 2013. https://www.ironmanmagazine.com/1981-mr-olympia-report-part-2/
Columbu, Franco. ‘The Strongest Mr. Olympia Of All Time is Still Going Strong!’ Muscular Development. https://musculardevelopment.com/32-pro-bodybuilding-worldwide/17214-franco-columbu-the-strongest-mr-olympia-of-all-time-is-still-going-strong.html
Zulak, Greg. ‘Danny Padilla Interview.’ The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2011/12/danny-padilla-interview-greg-zulak.html?m=1
Hansen, John. ‘Roger Schwab Interview,’ Bodybuilding Legends Show. https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/bodybuilding-legends-show-john-hansen-xUE9Wm8Y6tQ/
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