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He entered his first Mr. Olympia contest, at 22 years old, on Sept. 13, 1969, fully confident he could defeat defending champion Sergio Oliva, Sr. — but as he prepared at The Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, that confidence quickly went away.
It’s now bodybuilding folklore that Arnold was preparing backstage and keeping an eye on Sergio as he pumped up in his trademark butcher’s overalls. Then, when the champ finally doffed the overalls, he, just coincidentally, threw a lat spread in Arnold’s direction. In that instant Europe’s best bodybuilder realized he was not going to upset “The Myth” that night — the champ was clearly better than the Olympia debutante.
Arnold’s training partner and lifelong friend, Franco Columbu, saw his pal’s crestfallen expression and urged, “Come on Arnold, you can beat him — he looked good because it was just a trick of the light.” Arnold shook his head, beaten before he even got on stage.
Fast-forward to Oct. 3, 1970 at the venue and Sergio strides onstage, determined to take his fourth Olympia title. But Arnold, who two weeks prior had caused a bodybuilding frenzy by defeating Sergio at the Pro Mr. World, had, as always, a strategy.
Here’s how he recalls the climax of that night:
“The judges called Sergio Oliva and me together at the end of the evening for the last time. It was clear the scores were close, and I was wondering, ‘What can I do to convince the judges that it’s not close, and that I’m ahead of him?’ I was not that convinced myself, but I had to psych myself up because he looked awesome.
“They called for us to free pose [posedown] together. This was my last chance: It was now or never. We posed and posed. He’d hit a back shot; I’d hit a front lat spread. He’d come back with a thigh shot; I’d hit an arm shot. Sweat was pouring out of us as he threw in a side chest, and I’d come back with a double biceps, before we both hit a most muscular — all this stuff was flying around like crazy. Finally, Sergio leans over to me and says, ‘I’m wiped out. Let’s walk off.’
“I said, ‘You’re right, this is too much.’”
“Sergio waved goodbye to the crowd,” Arnold continues. “I made one step to the right [as if to leave the stage] and he walked offstage to the left. I stayed onstage and gestured in his direction [in the manner of asking], ‘Why is he leaving? Why is he surrendering? Is he maybe too old? Is he burned out?’ I hit some more shots, and the crowd was chanting, ‘Arnold! Arnold! Arnold!’ Then I bowed and walked off.
“If that got me the win, I never knew because the judges never commented on it. But I think that, besides being in great shape, that was the additional thing that swayed them. I became aware at that point in my career how quick improvisational tactics are crucial to winning a contest when it is so close.”
In a two-week span, the then-23 year old had defeated the seemingly invincible Sergio Oliva twice. He would never lose another bodybuilding contest. He won the Olympia from 1970 through to 1975 before announcing his retirement, before returning to take the 1980 Olympia under controversial circumstances.
His path to immortality traversed three arenas: bodybuilding, wherein many consider him the bodybuilder; Hollywood, where he became Tinseltown’s biggest box office draw; and politics as he was elected Governor of California in 2003.
It’s been a unique 50-year career and journey, one that has made Arnold Schwarzenegger bodybuilding’s No. 1 icon and inspiration — and it all started on a humid New York evening in October 1970.