Athlete/Celebrity Workouts

Searching for Bodybuilding Legend Sergio Olivia

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



"No. I can't do an interview now," Sergio rasped.

Uh, waiter? Check, please. I quickly regrouped, redesigning my game plan midstream.

"Oh, well, it doesn't have to be right now. It could be anytime. You let me know and I'll call you, or even come to Chicago to meet with you. Undoubtedly, he could hear the rising tension in my voice. If straws had been handy, I would have grabbed at them.

There was a pause. "I'll tell you what," he replied in his thick Cuban accent, "I'll talk to my manager over the weekend. Call me Monday and I'll give you an answer then. Good-bye."

Dutifully, I called the Oliva household back that Monday. Not unexpectedly, I was greeted by an answering machine, just as I would be the following two days, with no response. Apparently, Oliva was no more interested in rehashing his bodybuilding glory days than he would be in going back to Cuba to live under Castro.


Twenty-one-year-old world-class weightlifter Sergio Oliva knew that the occasion of the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games in Kingston, Jamaica might be his last best chance to escape Castro-controlled Cuba. Oliva and other members of the Cuban weightlifting team walked offstage during the contest, they ran for safety. They were granted political asylum and, more significantly, their freedom.

Oliva emigrated from Jamaica to the United States; first to Miami, where he performed odd jobs ranging from TV repair to unloading trucks, and then he made his way north to Chicago in 1963.

It was at Chicago's Duncan YMCA that the weightlifter was introduced to the sport of bodybuilding by top local bodybuilder Bob Gajda (the man who would become 1966 Mr. Amen ). Gajda recognized the young man's incredible physical potential and took him under his wing. As predicted, Oliva's muscles ballooned immediately under the unique stresses of a bodybuilding regimen. He took to bodybuilding as an eagle to soaring, and by the end of the year had won his first title, Mr. Young Chicagoland.

In no time, Oliva's physique and reputation had grown such that those in the know were mentioning him in the same breath with names like Larry Scott, Chuck Sipes and Bill Pearl.

Despite the overwhelming physical superiority he brought to the stage in those early years, the uber-Cuban found winning titles within the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to be inexplicably difficult. Indeed, it was his inability to take the AAU's most coveted title, Mr. America, against very un-uber competition that drove him into the open arms of the IFBB, and on a quest to become the all-time greatest bodybuilder.


"Don't feel too bad," FLEX Editor-in-Chief Peter McGough reassured me when I reported that Oliva had been a no-show. "The same happened to me in '94. I never connected with him." My dashed spirits rose, if slightly.

"To find the essence of Sergio, why don't you try interviewing some of his contemporaries? Get their thoughts on the guy. Everyone has a Sergio moment; you'll probably learn more about his life and times by' talking to others anyway. 'Searching for Sergio' sounds like a good title."

Maybe McGough was on to something. By taking the path of least resistance, I could cover my assignment and talk to some other' prominent pros to boot! It was a great idea, and I knew just whom I'd call first: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Peter continued, "To get you started, I recently asked Arnold about Sergio. I'll send you the transcript."