A Drug Free Mr. Olympia? The Strange Case of the 1990 Mr. Olympia

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Bodybuilding, at a professional level, is a sport fuelled by anabolic steroids. This is not to take anything away from the competitors themselves, but is rather an acknowledgment that those at the elite level often resort to chemical means in order to further push the limits of human strength and muscularity. Certainly the Mr. Olympia competition, the Super Bowl of the bodybuilding calendar, has always been an arena for the freakish and dedicated to flex their muscles in search of the big prize.

That Mr. Olympias have used anabolic steroids should come as a surprise to no one. Heck even Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to dabbling with steroids during his political career despite the negative reaction this risk. This preamble is my way of saying that the idea of a drug tested Mr. Olympia is strange. Yes, we have natural bodybuilding shows but elite, professional, non-tested shows have always proven the most popular form of competition.

With this in mind, today’s post looks at the one moment when the Mr. Olympia contest introduced an explicit drug testing protocol which, it was hoped, would stem the tide of drug abuse within the sport. Examining why this came to be, we’re going to look at the background to the Mr. Olympia, the event itself and the consequences of a drug free Mr. Olympia. In case you’re wondering, it went about as well as you could have imagined!

The Drug Scare in Bodybuilding

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Why would bodybuilding promoters, especially men as powerful as Joe and Ben Weider – the creators of the Mr. Olympia competition, bother with drug testing? After all, bodybuilding fans rarely care about an athlete’s health, they just care about their conditioning. If bodybuilding is the unabashed pursuit of muscle, removing anything that would enhance muscle growth seems misguided. True as this may be, the Weider’s decision to create a drug testing protocol for the 1990 Mr. Olympia had little to do with their own desires and everything to do with the broader sporting climate in the United States.

Spurred by an increasing availability of anabolic steroids in sport more generally, 1980s America was a decade intensely aware, and fearful of, performance enhancing drugs. At a time when the Reagan administration had an explicit ‘War on Drugs’, anabolic and performance enhancing drugs became a topic of great controversy.

At a global level, the disqualification of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson from the 1988 Summer Olympics got everyone talking about the role of drugs in sport. Johnson was not alone – three other athletes were disqualified in 1988, but that so high profile an athlete could be caught using drugs seemed to suggest the popularity of drugs among sportsmen and women.

Closer to home in the United States, a series of reports emerged during this decade which seemed to suggest that anabolic steroid use was not only prevalent in professional sport but also that teenagers were beginning to use steroids in a bid to build muscularity. This latter point, the suggestion that teenagers were using drugs, created something of a moral panic about the future of American men in particular. Drug abuse in sport and in schools was the catalyst for the eventual 1990 Anabolic Steroids Act, which gave American courts much greater power in prosecuting drug offenders.

Turning to bodybuilding, the continued push towards maximum leanness and muscularity naturally led itself to an abuse of steroids. Bodybuilding had not yet encountered the series of athlete deaths which caused panic during the 1990s, but pressure was being applied on the sport. Something needed to be done, hence the Weiders’ decision to drug test the Olympia.

A Drug Free Olympia

What exactly, did this entail? Peter McGough’s report from the contest detailed the intricate testing process envisioned for the contest. Test samples would be taken three days before

To avoid such a debacle it was decided that for the September’s Olympia the test samples would be taken three days before the contest on Wednesday, September 12th, with results being available on Friday, 24 hours prior to the battle for that year’s Olympia. Thus there would be no Arnold repeat of placings being revoked and checks being returned. Everyone who competed on Saturday would have passed the drug test.

The Arnold, which took place several months before the Mr. Olympia contest had also instituted a drug testing method which, by all accounts, led to quite a bit of controversy. Driven by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s outspoken criticism of steroid abuse in bodybuilding, his contest instituted harsh drug testing methods. How harsh were they? The initial winner Shawn Ray had his title rescinded after his failed drug test.

The Olympia arguably provided a little more leeway but the results were the same. The sport would not tolerate steroid abuse. This, as Bob Paris mentioned in his fantastic book Gorilla Suit, made that year’s competitors take notice and begin to moderate their approach.

In the lead up to the contest, Joe and Ben Weider continually advertised the fact that the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, would oversee the drug testing. The reasons for this were twofold. First the IOC had been drug testing since at least the 1970s, so they had the most experience in this regard. Second, Ben Weider was attempting to have bodybuilding included in the Olympic Games. IOC drug testing represented a means of associating bodybuilding with the Olympic movement.

This explains why Joe Weider’s comments stressed that the testing was being done to preserve the athlete’s health and the sport’s image. If the Weiders could get the IOC to recognise bodybuilding as a sport, then maybe they could get Olympic inclusion:

“The pros didn’t think we would (start drug testing),” Weider said. “But they’ll have to get off steroids if they want to continue. It’s not only the image of the sport we’re concerned with, it’s the health of the athletes. Bodybuilding is not body destruction.”

The Results

Out of the twenty tested competitors, five failed their tests. It’s at this point that I defer, one more, to Peter McGough’s article as he was the man on the ground at that time

Of the failures, four were found positive for Winstrol, the chemical athletes Achilles heel, and if it can catch the heel of Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympics, it can catch anybody’s. The other failure was due to elevated testosterone levels. That finding was attributed to Vince Comerford, which made him one unhappy 5’4”, 180-pound bodybuilder, but pleased his girlfriend tremendously.

If Friday, 14th September 1990, was a black day for bodybuilding, it was a blacker day for the disqualified athletes. When the dreaded news was broken to the five concerned, tears were a feature of some of their responses, anger and histrionics weren’t.

It says much for the character of the five eliminated Olympians that they were able to talk constructively at a time when 12 months training had just been – like the samples – flushed away. The only exception to this was J.J. Marsh, which is not an illustration of his reticence, more an admission that I couldn’t find him

The contest went ahead without the unfortunate five. I say unfortunate because it is clear that many of the other competitors were still taking drugs and had in fact found a way to circumvent the testing. Lee Labrada’s later interview with Bodybuilding.com on the 1990 Olympia subtly made clear that the five failed drug tests were not representative of who was, and was not, using.

Just for the record, I’m in favor of drug testing EVERY year just as long as it’s a level playing field. The problem arises that a lot of these substances are hard to detect. So, it’s very difficult to have true, drug-free bodybuilding competition, especially on the professional level. But, 1990 just required that I cut back on the total overall volume. I kept eating the same type of food and just allowed a little bit extra time for recuperation. You can see from the pictures that my body didn’t really change very much from 1989 to 1990 to 1991. That’s because I never was a heavy steroid user. To give you an idea, my contest weight was between 190-195 pounds and today, I weigh between 182-185 pounds. That’s where I maintain my bodyweight

Despite these difficulties the contest went ahead, producing a close call between existing champion Lee Haney and the rest of the pack led by Lee Labrada, Shawn Ray and Mike Christina. In the end Haney did enough to win, thereby securing his seventh Mr. Olympia title. The following year, Haney picked up his eighth and final Olympia.

Remarkably footage of the event is available online

The Aftermath

An obvious question when it comes to the 1990 Mr. Olympia is why didn’t drug testing last in elite level bodybuilding? Aside from the obvious answer that athletes didn’t like it and true fans didn’t care, economics played an important role.

As covered previously on this website, the 1990 Mr. Olympia also saw the birth of the World Bodybuilding Federation as run by wrestling mogul Vince McMahon. Announced by McMahon and Tom Platz at the Olympia’s convention centre, the WBF promised to offer bodybuilding ‘as it should be.’ This was a thinly veiled promise that the WBF would not be testing athletes.

In response to the WBF, and its poaching of top IFBB bodybuilders, the Weiders reverted to untested shows. Since the 1991 Olympia, men’s bodybuilding has continued to be untested, a point which undoubtedly contributed to a spate of deaths in the mid-1990s. That, however, is a different story for a different day.

As always… Happy Lifting!