Athlete/Celebrity Workouts

Searching for Bodybuilding Legend Sergio Olivia

Muscle & Fitness editor-in-chief Shawn Perine's quest to discover the elusive Sergio Olivia.


Sergio Oliva

"Can I please speak to Sergio?"

The strains of Latin-influenced music nearly drowned out my request.

"Which Sergio?" barked the voice on the other end.

Is this a quiz? I wondered. Surely it was obvious that I was asking for Sergio Oliva, considered by many to be history's greatest bodybuilder. Then I remembered that his son—who, as an infant, Sergio "The Myth" Oliva had held aloft onstage at the 1984 Mr. Olympia before a cheering New York audience—is also named Sergio.


"Senior," I replied confidently.

"Speaking," the senior Oliva responded.

I was now conversing with the man whose physique blew apart the previously bulletproof confidence of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the occasion of their first onstage meeting nearly 35 years ago.

"My name is Shawn Perine. I'm a writer with FLEX maga—"

"Wait a minute," the Myth interjected as he adjusted the volume on his stereo. "Now what do you want?" He sounded a little put off, which I reasoned was understandable, considering I just interrupted what had probably been a perfectly relaxing evening.

"I'd like to interview you for a feature article on your bodybuilding career." I planted my thumb squarely over the record button of my microcassette recorder and awaited the outpouring of tales, reflections and reveries.


The irony that Sergio Oliva was born on the fourth of July, 1941 is lost on no one who knows the man or his reputation. Throughout his six decades, Oliva has shown nothing if not a burning desire for his own independence. But when Fidel Castro's opposition movement overthrew the Fulgencio Batista Cuban government in 1959, Oliva found that his homeland was no longer a place where personal freedoms could be savored.

A prodigiously gifted athlete from childhood, Oliva realized that his involvement in state-sponsored sports could be his ticket to, if not freedom itself an escape from the stifling confines of the Cuban working class. Blessed with an almost preternatural combination of strength, speed and flexibility, Oliva wisely decided to channel his efforts into Olympic-style weightlifting. Not surprisingly, he took to the sport immediately and, by age 20, he was Cuba's top lifter. For Cuba, Oliva’s participation in international competition signified a lock on yet another weightlifting gold medal. For Sergio Oliva, a man of fiercely independent spirit trapped in a repressive system, weightlifting contests would mean being able to say good-bye—possibly forever—to the only home he'd ever known.