“The vegetarian muscle man.” Truly an inspiration to future generations of bodybuilders, Albert Beckles must have discovered the fountain of youth as a former IFBB professional bodybuilder who entered his first competition at 35 years old. How’s that for getting a late start in the business? Branding himself as an “old school” bodybuilder, Beckles made his debut in 1962 and spent nearly three decades building his reputation as a three-time New York City Night of Champions winner with his greatest victory coming in 1985 when he took second place at the Mr. Olympia contest. Believe it or not, he was 55 years old at the time.
Living an entirely different life before making his professional bodybuilding debut, Beckles was born in Barbados in 1930 but emigrated to London, England when he was 23 years old to avoid the threat of Nazi Germany that plagued many European countries during the World War II era. At the time, bodybuilding was widely unheard of with only localized events occurring throughout the 1940s and early 1950s until the first Mr. Universe was held in 1959 and the first Mr. Olympia followed six years later in 1965. However, Beckles was already enamored by the sport.
“First, I had an older brother who was into bodybuilding and weightlifting,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “And I wanted to be like him. And second, I just wanted to be bigger. Like most people, I wasn’t happy with my size.”
Standing at 5’7” and weighing 140 pounds before reaching the peak of his training, Beckles was already in his 30s when bodybuilding truly took off in the 1960s, but he was mature (and stubborn) enough that nothing could stop him from fulfilling his dream. He took a job in London as a chef and continued to train as he entered his first bodybuilding competition in 1965, the Mr. Britain, where he finished in fifth place. He took third place in the 1965 Mr. Universe, second in the 1968 Mr. Britain, and second at the 1969 Mr. World just as people finally began to take notice of his incredible 218-pound muscled physique.
After five years, Beckles enjoyed his first taste of success in 1970 when he took home three huge wins at the Mr. Britain, Mr. Europe and the Mr. Europe-medium division. In 1971, he officially joined the IFBB and earned his professional ranking only to see his success skyrocket with a first-place finish at the Mr. World AAU (twice), the Mr. Universe IFBB and the Mr. Universe NABBA. Two years later, he secured additional victories at the Mr. Europe and the Mr. Universe before he was finally ready to compete in the legendary Mr. Olympia competition for the most coveted title in bodybuilding.
Debuting as a lightweight at the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, Beckles finished in third place and impressed everyone with his incredible physique especially with a 48.5-inch chest, a 31-inch waist and a 16.5-inch neck. However, his next series of attempts at the title were far less successful with a fourth-place finish in 1977 followed by eighth and seventh-place finishes in 1978 and 1979. During this time, he continued to compete in other events and saw top three finishes in the 1979 Grand Prix Pennsylvania (third), the 1979 Best in the World IFBB Professional (third) and the 1979 World Pro Championships (second).
By the 1980s, things started to turn around for the aging bodybuilder as he secured first place finishes at competitions like the 1981 Grand Prix England, the 1982 and 1985 Night of Champions, the 1982 and 1984 World Pro Championships, the 1984 Canada Pro Cup and the 1984 World Grand Prix. Obviously on a roll, he had every intention of cashing in on his blossoming success as he rode his wave of fame straight to the 1985 Mr. Olympia contest where he finished in second place behind the legendary Lee Haney. With Beckles 55 years old at the time, his near-victory was an incredible feat opposite the 26-year-old Haney and dozens of other bodybuilders in their 20s and 30s. To Beckles, it had nothing to do with age.
Two years after the competition, Beckles was still shocked that his age and success in bodybuilding continued to surprise so many of his fans and competitors. In 1988, he told the Chicago Tribune, “Actually, it’s a little surprising to me when people are surprised to find out I’m 58,” he said. “I can’t see why people don’t look younger. Your appearance is something you create for yourself… For me, age is just a number. It’s not the main thing I think about. When I walk on stage, I don’t see myself as an old man competing against young kids. I feel young. I feel the way I look.”
Determined to prove that age was indeed only a number, Beckles continued to compete over the next few years and won his last competition in 1992 at the Niagara Falls Pro Invitational. At 62 years old, he became the oldest bodybuilder to ever win an IFBB professional bodybuilding title. Of course, the victory was only one more to add to his 27-year career as a two-time Mr. Universe, a two-time world professional champion, Mr. World and Mr. Britain.
Today, the 86-year-old Beckles is still as feisty as ever and attributes his good health and fortune to his “pollo vegetarian” lifestyle and his positive attitude. Having spent most of his adult life on the bodybuilding stage after retiring in 1982 from his desk job as a CPA with the United States government, Beckles continues to share his passion for the sport through interviews and guest appearances. As for his advice to young bodybuilders, he says, “Bodybuilding is for everybody… Bodybuilding helps you take care of yourself. You eat better; you cut out the partying, cut out the booze. And once you do it, you feel better.”