By the mid-’70s, the Mr. Olympia contest had firmly established itself as the premier showcase for bodybuilding, turning competitors like Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva, and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger into icons of the sport.
But something bigger was brewing at the 1975 show. Reigning champ Schwarzenegger was riding high on a winning streak that began five years earlier, but now challengers like Lou Ferrigno and the ever-dependable Serge Nubret had established themselves as true threats to his burgeoning dynasty. And as compelling as that storyline was, a camera crew was on hand at the show to document the entire thing for the soon-to-be-legendary film Pumping Iron.
The competition itself was big enough — but when the movie debuted two years later, it thrust the sport into the mainstream in a way no one could have predicted.
“Many people with no knowledge of bodybuilding, but curious as to what the buzz was about, got to witness it on movie screens as a new event [when Pumping Iron released in 1977],” Marc Martinez, director of the bodybuilding documentary Dream Big, tells BarBend. “Like finally seeing light reach earth from a dying star, millions of people finally learned about top-level competitive bodybuilding, the men who put themselves through grueling workouts, and the charismatic star of the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became a household name.”
Much of what we know about the competition comes from the movie, but it’s important to note that Pumping Iron is technically a “docudrama.” And in the years since its release, director George Butler and Schwarzenegger were open about the fact that they embellished — and outright staged — many of the “behind-the-scenes” events portrayed in it.
In truth, the story of the 1975 Olympia is, at times, more interesting and controversial than the film ever showed. Sure, Schwarzenegger was still the star both on the screen and in real life, but the movie also left out how much of the event revolved around two things: apartheid South Africa and adult entertainment.
Road to the Olympia
In 1972, writer Charles Gaines teamed up with photographer George Butler for a story on a bodybuilding show in Holyoke, Mass. for Sports Illustrated. The duo detailed the packed crowds, larger-than-life characters, and seemingly strange pursuit of muscle above all else. It was a deep dive into a niche spectacle, and it was so impactful that they eventually turned the concept into a book called Pumping Iron in 1974.
This was at a time when bodybuilders were beginning to break into the mainstream little by little. They began popping up in movies and TV shows, and would often be seen in magazine ads selling workout equipment and supplements. And Schwarzenegger was right at the center of the action.
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“The Austrian Oak” first broke into film with 1970’s notorious flop Hercules in New York, followed by a bit part in the more-acclaimed The Long Goodbye in 1973. He was also the focal point of the Pumping Iron book, so when word came that Gaines and Butler were now making a documentary based on their work, it was clear that the reigning Mr. Olympia needed to be the main attraction.
The problem was that rumors were creeping up that Schwarzenegger was seriously contemplating walking away from the sport following his 1974 Olympia victory. At the time, he was already viewing potential roles in television and film, and, indeed, he spent part of 1975 acting in the movie Stay Hungry, which came out the following year.
What pushed Schwarzenegger to remain within the sport was the opportunity to play the lead in the documentary and get even more exposure for his potential Hollywood takeover. And since the film would cover the 1975 Olympia, Schwarzenegger knew the spotlight would firmly be on him — the other competitors at the show just had to deal with second billing.
Choosing the Venue
The venue for the Mr. Olympia showdown was Pretoria, South Africa, another source of contention in the lead-up to the event. In 1948, the ruling class in South Africa legalized a form of racial segregation known as apartheid. This created a two-tiered society, wherein white citizens were afforded full freedoms, and non-white citizens were denied many legal rights and public services. Globally, South Africa became a pariah, and, at the time the Olympia was hosted in Pretoria, the country was excluded from most international sports, including the Olympics.
Why did the IFBB — the organization that hosts the Olympia — choose Pretoria as a competition venue? Part of the desire came from the need to expand internationally. In 1972, Baghdad hosted the Mr. Universe competition for a similar reason. Though South Africa’s racial politics made it a controversial choice, the man who supported the country’s entry into the IFBB in the first place was Guadeloupe-born bodybuilder Serge Nubret, a.k.a. “The Black Panther.”
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As retold by bodybuilding historian Randy Roach, Nubret supported South Africa’s IFBB membership under a series of conditions, the most notable being that the next president of the South African bodybuilding federation had to be Black. Nubret’s suggestions were downplayed by IFBB founders Ben and Joe Weider, who admitted the country without enforcing them.
According to Roach, bodybuilder and journalist Rick Wayne claimed that the South African government paid a handsome fee to attract the IFBB to the tune of “several hundred thousand dollars,” though it was never proven. Ben Weider subsequently spent months in Muscle Builder magazine defending his choice on idealistic grounds. Weider even secured a written assurance from the South African government that apartheid would not be enforced for competitors.
“Ben Weider made it known that the IFBB would not bring their most prestigious contest to the country, unless all of their competitors, regardless of their race, would be given fair and equal treatment,” Martinez says. “South Africa agreed.”
Though these parameters seem to have largely been upheld, there are anecdotes to the contrary. Golden-era bodybuilder trainer Bill Grant recalled Schwarzenegger having to intervene to ensure Black bodybuilders were allowed on the same bus as white competitors, for instance.
While Pumping Iron stayed entirely away from the political decision to host the contest in South Africa, it was a major talking point within the bodybuilding world. It also led to some tension between Serge Nubret and the Weider brothers over the future expansion of the IFBB.
The Nubret Decision
At a surface level, Nubret is fondly remembered for his incredible bodybuilding physique and a high-protein diet that didn’t skimp on the horse meat. He was also a shrewd organizer who served as Vice-President of the IFBB and was keen to follow Ben Weider as the President. But despite his standing in the sport, Nubret received some shocking news when he arrived in South Africa in the days before the contest: He was told he wasn’t allowed to compete.
In Weider’s retelling, he became aware of rumors before the Olympia that Nubret had appeared in pornographic films in France. Concerned about how this would impact bodybuilding’s image, Weider brought the matter to the IFBB executive council, where it was decided that Nubret had to be removed from the competition. Nubret later denied the accusations, saying, “I have done 25 films in my acting career — none of which are porn films.”
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Furious, Nubret gathered all Black and non-white competitors and attempted to instigate a mass boycott of the competition. In time, the council decided to let Nubret compete, but the damage had been done. Nubret “stopped training and eating for 12 days and lost 12 pounds” and, in his own words, “was not in my best condition the day of the contest.”
To Pumping Iron viewers, though, it was as if none of this happened — Butler portrayed Nubret simply as a last-minute entry into the contest. One of the sport’s most important figures at the time became just another competitor, seemingly to serve as cannon fodder for the unstoppable Schwarzenegger.
At the contest itself, Schwarzenegger was at his very best: Confident, conditioned, and flawless with his posing. It always seemed a fait accompli that he’d collect his sixth Mr. Olympia trophy that day in South Africa, and he did so by defeating his friend Franco Columbu by a single point in the Overall round. Of the seven judges, four voted for Schwarzenegger and three for Columbu.
In the Heavyweight category, Nubret finished second, 13 points behind Schwarzenegger, while Ferrigno finished 18 points behind. Nubret has always maintained that his conditioning was enough to beat Schwarzenegger had the temporary ban not happened. To this day, it remains one of the great what-ifs in Olympia history.
Ferrigno, by contrast, has long admitted that he was not in good enough shape to compete against Schwarzenegger. Pumping Iron may have depicted them as neck and neck, but Ferrigno later said he knew going into the competition that he was there just for the experience:
“I was working as a sheet metal worker with no thoughts of competing, but it seemed like an opportunity for the sport to go mainstream. I was not in my best shape at the time because I was training for a television show called ABC’s Superstars, but I welcomed the opportunity to go to South Africa for the show and documentary, and be part of something I felt might be bigger.”
Much like Schwarzenegger, he wanted to use the competition as a platform into the mainstream, which Ferrigno did in 1977 when he portrayed The Incredible Hulk on television. He wouldn’t step foot onto a bodybuilding stage again until 1992.
After he accepted his title, Schwarzenegger officially announced his retirement from the sport. (For a few years, anyway.) Two years later, Pumping Iron was released to rave reviews and box office success. Bodybuilding — and, more specifically, Schwarzenegger — were firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist. While the documentary avoided some of the thornier issues behind the 1975 Olympia, the producers’ decision to show bodybuilding as a mixture of sport and art paid dividends.
Featured image: Body Pro GR on YouTube
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