Why Did Flex Wheeler Withdraw from the 1997 Mr. Olympia?

Cards on the table, I was a huge Flex Wheeler fan growing up. Coming to bodybuilding at the tail end of the Dorian Yates era, I was convinced that Wheeler would be the next multi-time Olympia. In my defence, this is what we were being told repeatedly in Weider magazines from the time. Dorian was going to retire, Flex was the obvious replacement. At least to me.

One thing that I never paid too much attention to was why Wheeler missed out on the 1997 Mr. Olympia. This was the Olympia which saw Yates, controversially for some, beat Nasser El-Sonbatty for his final Olympia title. At the event, Yates was impressive but far from his previous best. Serious injuries during training meant that his arm and leg development was lacking. Matters were not helped by Nasser’s freakish conditioning which many believed should have been enough for Nasser to defeat Yates.

Because 1997 was so ingrained in the Yates v. Nasser debate, I largely ignored the absence of my childhood inspiration, Flex Wheeler. The previous year, in 1996, Flex placed fourth behind Yates, Shawn Ray, and Kevin Levrone. The following year, in 1998, Flex finished second behind Ronnie Coleman in an Olympia many expected Flex to win. Obviously we know that Ronnie went on to dominate the sport.

What, then, about 1997? Why was Flex absent and why do some people blame ninjas? Yes… ninjas.

The 1997 Olympia Build Up

Held in Long Beach, California, the 1997 Mr. Olympia hyped as the dying vestiges of the Dorian Yates’ reign. From 1992, Yates had won every single Olympia with a physique that seemed to defy belief. Nicknamed ‘The Shadow’ Yates maintained a low profile in England each year before emerging on stage in the United States looking bigger and leaner than ever before.

Although not everyone was a fan of Dorian’s physique based on the idea that Yates sacrified symmetry and beauty for sheer mass, there was no denying that Yates was unstoppable at his prime. He was big, lean, and clever in his posing. Thatwithstanding he was not, as all Mr. Olympias eventually discover, invicible. Although Dorian had won the previous year in 1996, some of his competitors clearly felt that he could be overtaken. Dorian himself even acknowledged this in a short conversation of bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough

I wanted to prove a point with condition especially with the testing as some say I can’t get that grainy look without diuretics. I felt it was in my favor, because I’m always ready two weeks out –I’m not one who has to lose ten pounds in the last week. I think I was the only guy in the line-up who was able to produce his best condition. Which just goes to show that those who say the Yates physique is all down to drugs are talking out the top of their head. I never felt threatened, but I thought it was close between Shawn and Nasser

Don’t however, think that Yates was humble. In the same weekend he claimed to have known he would win the 1996 Olympia the morning after he won the 1995 contest! His contemporaries, like Shawn Ray, likewise claimed that Yates was becoming beatable.

The conversation surrounding the 1997 Olympia was primarily centered on Yates, and whether or not he could win his sixth Olympia. It is worth remembering that the previous Mr. Olympia champion, Lee Haney, had won eight consecutive Olympias. Thus many wondered what Yates’ upper limit could possibly be.

Another talking point was whether or not Shawn Ray, Nasser el-Sonbatty or, the focus of this post, Flex Wheeler, could beat Yates on the grandest stage of them all. Prior to the Olympia, Wheeler was being touted by some as the prime contender to dethrone Yates thanks, in part, to a series of strong showings in other competitions. What others didn’t know, which favored Wheeler, was that Yates had seriously injured himself during the training for the Olympia.

Telling no one of his injuries, which included a severely torn tricep. How bad was it? A Peter McGough article on the subject is pretty blunt

Within 36 hours his whole upper arm swelled up, the triceps was totally distorted and his arm was bruised right down to the wrist. Weeks later he told me, “It was the only time in my life I’ve thought, I can’t fight this! Every time something had happened to me, I think, why me? I feel like somebody’s testing me to see whether I’m worthy or not.”

Would Wheeler overtake Yates…?

Enter the Ninjas?!

In the days leading up to the Olympia, Wheeler shocked bodybuilding fans by announcing his withdrawal from that year’s competition. The reason given was a supposed car jacking incident in which Wheeler had fought off several individuals attempting to steal his car, one of whom he said had martial arts training. Bodybuilding being what it was, Wheeler’s story was often mockingly referred to as him fighting off ninjas.

The above video describes a rather harrowing experience for Flex. The outcome, as he notes, was that he sustained injuries which kept him from competing. Annoyingly, Flex’s 2004 book, Flex Ability, doesn’t mention the incident in any great detail. Some rather, unfavourable fans, have said that Flex was scared of facing Dorian that year. It seems more likely that Flex, who won the 1997 Arnold Classic, the Iron Man Pro and the San Jose Pro, was legitimately injured.


As is well known, Dorian retired after the 1997 Olympia with six titles to his name. Flex, in many people’s eyes was the natural successor (including this little fans). Few expected that 1998 would be the year of Ronnie Coleman and not Flex. Coleman made a huge improvement (one of the best in the sport’s history) as he shot from ninth in the 1997 Olympia to winner in 1998. Sadly for Flex Coleman’s reign lasted until 2005!

So who knows? Maybe Flex was the victim of a martial arts inspired attack. Or more, likely, he was just very unlucky in where he parked his car. Regardless of the motives (or skill level) of his attackers, the fact remains that injury kept him out of a potentially historic showdown with Yates. As always … Happy Lifting!


Here is Yates in his last ever Olympia. Terrifyingly this was Yates when he was injury prone and, in his own words, far from his best.

4 thoughts on “Why Did Flex Wheeler Withdraw from the 1997 Mr. Olympia?

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  1. Although a 66-year-old who began bodybuilding at age 15 in 1971 during the Gold’s Gym/Arnold era, and prone to that typical “well-the-era-I-grew-up-in-was-the-greatest!” bias we humans succumb to when we’re old, I’ve long had Wheeler third on my list of “Five Favorite Physiques of Forever”, in which Oliva ranks first and Zane second, for aesthetics and proportions.

    To me, Wheeler at his peak was Zane at his peak if Zane had possessed more mass; and Oliva at his peak if Oliva had focused more on definition.

    Wheeler’s 1997 Olympia absence is another of those events which I long ago resigned to the pile of probably-never-to-be-solved mysteries o’ history. Only Wheeler could
    know the why, and, maybe by this point twenty-five years later, with our human susceptibility to unintentionally (and/or intentionally!) modify our memories and re-narrate, perhaps not even he really knows why.

    1. I think you’re right about Flex’s reasons. We’ll never know exactly the reasons but it does make for one of those funny stories.

      Agree with you about Wheeler at his Peak. He was a wonderful combination of previous eras. I also liked his contrast with Yates but sadly for Wheeler… not to be!

  2. Pumping Irony. Dorian literally tears his tricep and wins the Olympia. Flex, who was rumoured to be out of shape, probably faked an arm injury to escape his contractual obligation to compete.

    The only “ninja” act was flex’s subterfuge; “now you see me, now you don’t” smoke and mirrors story-time.

    Great article Connor

    1. something I should have amplified here actually was Yates’ literally gladiatorial effort that year. I can’t fathom how much pain he must have been in. One of those what ifs w/Flex!

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