“If you want to do something, you do it from the heart. If you do it from the heart, you will succeed. If you push yourself too hard with the feeling that you have to do it, it won’t work. You want to do it with joy.” Best known as “The Lion of Lebanon,” Samir Bannout is a former Mr. Olympia champion who made a huge name for himself in the early 1980s as a professional bodybuilder. Aside from winning numerous bodybuilding contests over the course of his 22-year career, he was a media favorite and often appeared on the covers of bodybuilding and fitness magazines like Muscular Development, Iron Man, Muscle and Fitness, Muscle Training Illustrated, Muscle Up, Muscle Digest, Muscle Mag International and Strength and Health, to name a few. And, while the 61-year-old is a bodybuilder that some have forgotten today, others will never forget the legendary Lion of Lebanon.
Bannout was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon in the late 1950s when his dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder filled his every thought, day and night. Knowing that he would have to move to the United States to see his dreams come true, he settled in Detroit, Michigan in the 1970s. Immediately setting out to train for his amateur bodybuilding debut, his first four bodybuilding events resulted in moderate success with a seventh-place finish in the 1974 Mr. Universe, a 12th place finish in the 1976 Mr. Universe, and second-place finishes at the 1977 and 1978 Mr. International competitions. In 1979, he secured his first amateur win when he took the title at the 1979 Best in the World competition.
The 1979 IFBB World Amateur Championships truly changed Bannout’s life and career forever when he won the event in the light-heavyweight class and earned his IFBB professional card. Finally eligible to compete in IFBB pro bodybuilding tournaments and to go after the highly coveted Mr. Olympia title, Bannout left his home in Detroit and moved to Santa Monica, California where he started training as a professional. Like so many others before him, his first few years as a professional left much to be desired as the competition was so fierce that he landed in 15th place at his 1980 Mr. Olympia debut, 10th place at the 1981 Night of Champions and in ninth place at the 1981 Mr. Olympia.
Bannout made a huge comeback in 1982 when he finished in fourth place at the Mr. Olympia, which was the closest he had ever come to winning the title. More determined than ever to finally take home the coveted Sandow trophy, he trained harder than ever and focused solely on preparing for the Mr. Olympia. The following year, his hard work finally paid off when he won the 1982 Mr. Olympia in Munich, Germany. Weighing only 196 pounds at the time of his victory, he was the last Mr. Olympia champion to weigh under 200 pounds.
Aside from Bannout winning the title as a lightweight, the 1983 Mr. Olympia was special for a variety of reasons that made his victory all the sweeter. Starting in 1977, bodybuilder Frank Zane popularized the aesthetics craze at the Mr. Olympia competitions; however, 1983 marked the last year when aesthetics was judged instead of muscle mass. Everything changed in 1984 when Lee Haney won the Mr. Olympia with judges basing their decision solely on size and muscle mass rather than looks alone.
Despite the change to the contest, Bannout’s muscular definition was exceptional especially in his lower back area. In fact, his back pose was nicknamed the “Lebanon Cedar” because of his extreme definition. Unfortunately, that definition wasn’t enough to continue his reign as Mr. Olympia since Lee Haney took the title in 1984 with Bannout coming in sixth place. Afterward, he was suspended by the IFBB in 1985 when the federation learned he competed in the rival WABBA World Championship contest. On the upside, he managed a first-place victory at both the 1985 and 1986 WABBA World Championship events, which made his suspension much more tolerable, to say the least.
Bannout returned to the IFBB two years later and competed over the next several years but never saw anything higher than a top sixth finish despite his efforts at numerous events like Grand Prix contests in Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Holland and Sweden in 1989. With his Mr. Olympia rankings rising and falling from ninth to 16th and 19th places, Bannout’s only other bodybuilding win came in 1990 at the Pittsburgh Pro Invitational. Hoping to use that momentum to secure another win, he managed a second-place finish at the 1990 NABBA World Championships. He continued to compete in everything from the 1993 San Jose Pro Invitational and the 1994 Grand Prix Germany to the 1994 Mr. Olympia and the 1996 Masters Mr. Olympia before finally announcing his retirement in 1997 after 17 years on the professional circuit.
In the years since his retirement, Bannout has given numerous interviews about his bodybuilding days and even shared some exciting news with www.Bodybuilding.com in 2009 when he announced his latest invention, the Body Blaster. “It is a small machine that you can train [your entire body] very intensely on,” Bannout told bodybuilder and feature writer David Robson. “It is the size of a laptop. I have been working on it for years and it is ready after six prototypes. We will manufacture it soon and do an infomercial to sell it all over the world.”
While the Body Blaster has yet to make its debut in the fitness industry, the 61-year-old Bannout has obviously embraced his retirement as he’s settled into life in Los Angeles, California with his wife, Randa, and their three children—Sergio, Jesse and Lea. In 2002, his contributions to the bodybuilding industry were honored when he was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame as the seventh Mr. Olympia winner with one of the most aesthetically pleasing physiques of all time.