Jeff Preston, ‘The 1991 Mr. Olympia: The End of an Era’, Iron Age (c.2003)

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I sat poised watching the clock with my finger in the ready position. I knew to get the desired seat I would have to have my ticket ordered the second that it went on sale. I called with speedy precision and connected with the agent who took all the needed

information and we both waited for the event to come up on the computer screen. “Joe Weider’s 1991 Mr. Olympia” appeared as “now on sale” and the VIP ticket was sold. First row, center section! It could not be any better.

I knew I would be witnessing bodybuilding history and that was my goal. The chances of this happening again in my lifetime were slim. After all I wasn’t there to watch Larry Scott retire after his second Olympia win and I could only watch on worn out videotape Arnold’s retirement speech in South Africa. No matter what the cost I wasn’t about to miss this moment in time.

I had seen Haney win his third Olympia in 1986 and I along with one of my closest friends made the Men’s Pro World (Later to become the Arnold Classic) an annual pilgrimage. Pro Contest were nothing new to me so I wouldn’t be sporting the slack jawed amazement that I had upon first encountering a professional bodybuilding show. Waiting for that September when I would fly down to Orlando took six months and my anticipation grew with each passing day. As the old saying goes “Good things really do come to those who wait” and like a kid waiting for Christmas morning my departure date finally arrived.

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I boarded the plane and settled in my right side aisle seat and one row up on the left isle seat sat Bob Kennedy of “Musclemag International”. I had met Bob the year before at the Arnold Classic when we had a pre-arranged meeting to view my portfolio. A very cordial man and he even remembered our meeting. We exchanged general pleasantries and how much we both looked forward to the show.

Now it was warm leaving Nashville but when I stepped off the plane in Florida the humidity was so thick it was as if someone had stuffed a gym sock in my mouth and told me to breathe. If any competitor showed up with water retention it would be a mystery how in that oppressive humidity.

The shuttle took me to the hotel the brand new Dolphin Resort. Stunning and majestic, the new jewel in the Disney World Resort crown this was the site for the upcoming historical battlefield.

Quickly checking in, unpacking, changing clothes I set out to survey my surroundings and start soaking up the energy that was slowly building like an impending storm.

Riding the escalator down to the sprawling grounds I spotted the first competitor, Bob Paris, coming up. Unbelievably tanned he epitomized the Reeves look that he had been hailed for. I always considered his physique an ideal of symmetrical perfection from my artistic viewpoint and hoped he would make a good showing but I knew what lay ahead for him. In passing I wished him good luck regardless.

Navigating the various swimming pools and luscious manicured topiary it looked as if most of the competitors were holed up in their rooms. That was until I spied Francois Benfatto soaking up the Florida sunshine with a group of friends. Relaxed and seemingly without a care in the world. I was amazed at just how small of stature he was . To the casual observer no one would mistake him for a professional bodybuilder. Later that weekend alone on the stage as he went through his posing routine with the grace and polish of a world class athlete he was larger than life.

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I was now leaving a trail of sweat wherever I ventured so I thought I would head back to the room and change into some swim wear myself. On the way back I found Samir Bannout holding court among fans and graciously answering questions. I overheard him say that “right now I’m just holding a little water”. I wanted to butt in and say “just hang around a little longer and that won’t be a problem”. But noticing he wasn’t really perspiring and that I was the one in full excretory function overload I figured advice to a former Mr. Olympia from a dripping hillbilly would have been taken with a grain of salt.

Now let me say right now just how intimidating it is to venture out in a pool area of a resort that is hosting the best physiques in the world in a pair of swimming trunks. So needless to say I sought out the most isolated spot I could find. I was safe until I recognized a voice,raised my head and here comes Lee Labrada surrounded by fans making a bee line for my location and stopped right beside my lounge chair to answer some questions. All I could think was “Please God…make him move on!” The last thing I wanted was for a picture to show up in one of the magazines as a before and after scenario! He politely excused himself from the gaggle of fans and asked to have some privacy and continued on seeking his own remote destination. “Thank you!” I whispered as I gazed heavenward.

The next morning I greeted the day with an all knowing smile realizing that in only a few short hours I would be entering an arena that in years to come would be forever engraved in my mind. After taking a quick ferry ride to Disney World to pick up additional film I entered the huge hall where the contest was being held. I must admit I felt like I had an inside track as I made my way all the way to the front, pass the press pit, to my seat settled about the 40 yard line…on the front row! This was better that my vivid imagination had even projected into my mind’s eye. I loaded my camera and patiently waited resisting the urge to turn around to all the professional reporters and photographers and making some smart ass comment like “What, you couldn’t get the good seats?” Gloating isn’t an attractive trait so I refrained.

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Prejudging began! 27 of the world’s best physiques took the stage and no one was out of place, they all belonged and deserved to be there. My eyes scanning left and right trying to take it all in as quick as I could. Ron Love, Rich Gaspari, Shawn Ray, Vince Taylor and the new kid on the block Mike Matarazzo. There was Albert Beckles, I was compelled to ask him if Moses really did look like Charlton Heston…. The man “is” amazing. There was the new threat to the title Dorian Yates. Bob Paris, Lee Labrada and Francois Benfatto together on stage. There was a collective sigh from the entire female contingency when those three took center stage in comparisons. Have you ever felt like a worn out pair of jeans and greasy T-shirt next to an Armani suit?

With those three and me so close to the stage to say I was humbled would be a vast understatement. And then there was Lee Haney. Lee’s work was easy that morning because the contest was clearly for second place. But he took nothing for granted. Poised and polished throughout the entire prejudging process his eighth Olympia was only hours away.

I retired to my room and reflected on the morning’s preliminaries. The one thing that stood out was that is was unfortunate that there “had” to be comparisons among the competitors. Each one had taken their physiques to near perfection. You hate to nitpick in terms of “well so and so needs little more rear delt” or “the third from the left needs a little more development in the upper center chest area.” After all the actual true sport of bodybuilding is in the gym, the stage is the final product and presentation. But of course this is a competition, not an exhibition and the top of the mountain at that. I just had such an admiration off what was presented on that morning stage, I knew the sacrifice, dedication and risk that it took to get to that pinnacle of achievement and supreme. It was hard not to admire all equally.

Time for the finals approached and I gleefully took my seat as I proceeded through the auditorium and sensed eyes watching as if to wonder “Who is that? He must be somebody important to be able to take a front row seat!” No one actually needed to know I was just fast on the telephone keypad with a yet to be maxed out credit card waiting.

I just enjoyed it while I could.

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After the opening remarks by Ben Weider the show began with Sonny Schmidt first to take the stage. Competitors were rotated onto center stage by way of a cleverly designed angular clam shell shaped center piece. Sonny was impressive. Very wide thick shoulder’s with a tremendous V-taper. Over all his body gave a very angular appearance. Angles and diagonals are one of the most dynamic design elements and Sonny’s physique seemed to personify visual impact. Alone he would seem unbeatable, as most of the competitors would.

Next up as the dais rotated “Lee Haney from the USA” was announced, there seemed to be a delay on the music cue as Lee stood majestically on the podium not yet fully under the stage lights. As he stepped out, the audience sounded as if their breath had been knocked out of them. Never had the bodybuilding world seen someone who brought all the elements together. Each era had it’s own astonishment, from Sergio in the late sixties, to Arnold in the seventies. But for this shinning moment, it was Lee Haney! As much “quality” mass that could be aesthetically put on a man with an unbelievably tiny waist and slim hips to flaring legs, this was the personification of every judging criteria. The presentation was flawless and dramatic and ended with Lee leaving the stage shouting “Number 1” while he pumped his hand into the air with his 1000 megawatt smile illuminating the auditorium. No one doubted the outcome of the contest. How do you follow such a presentation? It would be like following up Pavarotti with Karaoke.

Well, hats off to Vince Taylor. His routine was the highlight of the posing presentations. This was the first time for his “Terminator” routine and it brought the house down. But the one thing that really struck me was the respect he showed reigning champ Lee Haney. In a sport that is basically all about the individual, egos can sometimes get in the way of acknowledging greatness in others. I had the opportunity to talk with Vince the following day after he had knelt down to converse with Mike Matarazzo’s father who was wheelchair bound assuring the man of the bright future his son had in the sport. He seemed flattered when I told him my thoughts on the previous nights performance and said it was “an honor to be on the same stage with Lee Haney”. What a representative of sportsmanship and bodybuilding in general.

Next up was the legendary Robby Robinson, who inspired Haney growing up. Posing has never been Robby’s strong suit but to see this man still on the stage was awe inspiring. After all he was the first pro I ever saw in person in the summer of 1977 at Golds in Santa Monica and at the time thought he was someone who had come from outer space, it just wasn’t possible for a human being to look like that! Another story for another time.

Next was Lee Labrada. Again, alone unbeatable! Not near perfection he was perfection. Flawless, dramatic posing that was the blueprint that all others should learn from. Apples and oranges, he was just competing with athletes of a larger stature who gave him the “illusion” of being underdeveloped and small when compared side by side. You could not put anymore muscle on his frame without deterring from the perfection he had achieved. “Mass with Class” his motto, how apt.

Shawn Ray took the stage next and what I said about Labrada also applies here (except the nickname). Masterful posing! At such a young age I wondered what he would show the bodybuilding world in the future, it only looked bright.

Following Shawn Ray was Bob Paris. To me personally Bob personified what I’ve always considered the ideal physique,the build I would most want to emulate. My respect to him for not bowing to standards that were on the horizon of more mass for mass sake. He marched to the beat of his own artistic vision. He wasn’t as sharp as in years past and didn’t show the conditioning that is required at this level. Known for his dramatic posing he choose instead a dance orientated routine that just didn’t work. I’ve seen his past routines that were mesmerizing but this was not suited to his physique. I know he was trying something new but this was not the place to take that kind of a chance when placing is at stake.

Nimrod King, Francois Befatto ( flowing muscular grace), then the “Dragon Slayer” Rich Gaspari. Rich had set the standards of conditioning and done more with his physique than any other competitor, defying any genetic limitations that would discourage most. Sadly Rich’s time was passing and the bar that he had set was now achieved by others. Still a valiant effort and classic routine.

Next was the heir apparent Dorian Yates. I only knew of him from coverage of his “Night of the Champions” victory. He took the stage with a powerful countenance. His legs stood out as pillars of strength. To me reminiscent of Ken Waller who always personified the look of athleticism and surging power. His presentation was power shot after power shot which was fitting for him but a long posing lesson from Labrada or Ray would not have hurt by any means.

Acheim Albrecht, Thierry Pastel (abs carved out of granite with a very sharp chisel!), Renel Javier, and big cordial Ron Love rounded out the evening finals. Albert Beckles, Samir Bannout, Milos Sarcev, Joe Dawson, Frank Hillebrand, Pavol Jablonicky, Mike Matarazzo, Geir Borgan Paulsen and Tom Terwilliger did make the cut and did not pose in the evening show.

The ageless Albert Beckles and former Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout not making the cut? Just shows the depth of this competitive field. Which is a shame that those who had not had the privilege of seeing these two masters perform on stage would not get the opportunity.

All finalist were brought out on stage an the top 10 were announced. Tenth was Gaspari, ninth: Achim Albrecht, eighth:Thierry Pastel, and seventh:Benfatto. They took their checks and medallions and left the stage leaving the final six.

Schmidt, Ray, Labrada, Taylor, Yates and Haney stood in the clearing dust of competition. Taken through the mandatories that we saw in the prejudging the anticipation built. The warriors stood, sweat dripping, thickly muscled chests longing for air from the exhaustion that comes from posing with every fiber you have. Then the announcer’s voice boomed through the sound system “Pose down!”

Jockeying for position and stage dominance the battle ensued. Pose after pose each showing their best. Haney would turn and hit a lat spread that seemed to take up the stage. Never had such a back been seen before. The battle was for the remaining places.

“Sixth place…Sonny Schmidt”, a generous round of boos but no argument from my viewpoint. I thought a great showing. “In fifth place…. (dramatic pause, I hate when they do that) Shawn Ray”. “In fourth Place…(even longer pause) Lee Labrada”. Clearly he was disappointed and it was written all over his face.

Being the sportsman that he is he managed a smile and acknowledgment to the audience. One can only imagine the disappointment that must go through a competitor’s mind at this level when so much is sacrificed just to be able to compete.

“In third place… Vince Taylor” was greeted by a chorus of the boo birds but Vince waved them off saying “it’s Ok, it’s Ok”. Even prior to the announcement he had held up three fingers knowing where he would place.

“In second place…..Dorian Yates”, Lee Haney threw both arms skyward as his family who was seated immediately to my left joined the thunderous applause and that the entire auditorium exploded into. 8 times the title of Mr. Olympia went to this man, and how fitting that this was the best he had ever looked.

The Sandow trophy was presented by Joe Weider as Lee’s wife and son joined him on the stage. The small area between my seat and the stage was being filled by the press and fans alike so I stood and positioned my camera directly on the stage. Everyone left the stage except Haney so that he could bask in the glory that was his.

We have seen many times athletes in the excitement of a victory thanking God and how many times we have probably questioned the sincerity. But here was this man, now proven to be the best bodybuilder in history, without a word kneel down on a bended knee and bowed head to give thanks in his own way. While thousands cheered the man, he humbled himself before his creator. Chills ran down my spine at the magnitude of the moment. At that point I knew any contest I would see the rest of my days would pale in comparison to the events that I had just witnessed.

The next day I relaxed at one of the cabanas, my return flight wasn’t scheduled until later that day. I was still in a daze from the sensory overload of the previous nights event and just wanted to soak in everything while it was still fresh on my mind. Dorian Yates was seated with Gary Bartlett of Musclemag International at a small table directly behind me. It was hard to read whether Dorian was pleased, sad, or angry, his expression seemed to never change.

The Bartender asked who he was and I told her , “His name is Dorian Yates, he was second place last night…and should do well in the future” Somewhat an understatement in hindsight don’t you think? She asked if I would take a picture if she asked him which I gladly obliged. As she waved the Polaroid in her hands, as most do thinking it will speed the development process, I filled her in on the show as she had not a clue to what had actually went on that weekend. None the less she was giddy with excitement on having had her picture taken with one of the “stars”.

I returned to Nashville later that evening and to air that wasn’t so thick with moisture that I could actually breathe again. Only now it wasn’t the Florida humidity that had left me breathless.

Looking back now on that weekend I realize that given the current state of competition today, Haney’s eighth Sandow was only part of the history that was made. It also marked the end of and era and the birth of a new one. The aesthetic mass, flowing lines, crisp definition so perfectly coming together would not be seen again. The “look” that Arnold had, that Sergio possessed and Lee Haney personified came from more than just training.

It is rather an undeniable destiny that was given to these men at birth. It just was their relentless assault on perfecting what they already had. As a footnote, 5 years after my trip to Florida I picked up a copy of Musclemag International April 1996 #166. On page 8 there was a picture of Dorian Yates and …

me

I recognized the shirt that he had on was the same one I saw him wearing that day at the cabana. My attention was then drawn to the background. Between Dorian’s flexed arm and head there I sat! On the other side the bartender with polaroid in hand! My final day of the Olympia had been immortalized.

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