“Follow your dreams, transform your life.” Often better recognized as “The Myth” after his debut at the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair where his unbelievable physique wowed audiences, Sergio Oliva was a Cuban bodybuilder who made his professional debut in 1966 at the Mr. World competition. Rising to fame in the golden age of bodybuilding, the 5’8” Oliva won the IFBB Mr. Olympia title three times in a row between 1967 and 1969, which was an unbelievable feat since the competition was still in its early infancy. But, his greatness didn’t start or end there!
Born on July 4, 1941 in Cuba, Oliva’s childhood was marked by extreme poverty with his father working in the sugar cane fields just to put food on the table. With few opportunities on the horizon, Oliva joined his father in the fields of Guanabacoa when he was 12 years old. Four years later and with his father’s constant urging, he enlisted in the Fulgencio Batista army with the hopes of fighting the war against communism in Cuba. Although Fidel Castro won the war and kept communism alive, Oliva stuck around Cuba and spent most of his time on the beach where he eventually met a few weightlifters with the local weightlifting club. Accepting their invitation to join the club, the seemingly small decision marked a huge change in Oliva’s life.
After only six months of training with the club, Oliva could already lift more than 300 pounds over his head with clean and jerks, which wasn’t bad for someone who only weighed 195 pounds himself. Motivated by his growing muscles and incredible strength, he competed in the 1962 National Weightlifting Championship in Cuba and finished in second place. The first-place winner, Albert Rey Games Hernandez, was scheduled to represent the country at the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games in Kingston, Jamaica; however, an injury prevented him from going. In a true twist of fate, Oliva was selected to go in his place and represented Cuba at his first international event.
While in Jamaica, Oliva had another plan in mind and managed to sneak out of his quarters one night when the guards weren’t looking. Running as fast as he could to the nearby American consulate, he breathlessly demanded that he be given political asylum in the United States. Not only was his request granted, he sent word to 65 other weightlifters and security guards from the Cuban weightlifting team who made their way to the consulate as well. Shortly afterward, Oliva moved to Miami, Florida where he found a job as a television repairman.
Relocating to Chicago, Illinois the following year, Oliva worked at a local steel mill for 12 hour shifts before heading to the Duncan YMCA where he worked out for three hours. With other bodybuilders in the gym noticing how much stronger he was than their local Olympic champions, Oliva knew his hard work was paying off as he entered his first bodybuilding event, the 1963 Mr. Chicagoland. Winning the title, he entered a handful of other contests and enjoyed growing success with wins at the 1964 Mr. Illinois and the 1966 AAU Jr. Mr. America where he was awarded the “Most Muscular” trophy.
Oliva joined the IFBB in 1966 and won his first two professional competitions at the 1966 Mr. Universe and the 1966 Mr. World before making his Mr. Olympia debut in 1967 where he won the title. Going on to win the coveted Sandow trophy in 1968 and 1969, Oliva shocked the media, his fans and fellow competitors when he beat Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1969 event. Why was his victory such an upset? No other bodybuilder had or ever would defeat Schwarzenegger in a Mr. Olympia competition.
“Then for the first time, I saw Sergio Oliva in person,” Schwarzenegger later said about his successor. “I understood why they called him the Myth. It was as jarring as if I’d walked into a wall. He destroyed me. He was so huge, he was so fantastic, there was no way I could even think of beating him. I admitted my defeat and felt some of my pump go away. I tried. But I’d been so taken back by my first sight of Oliva that I think I settled for second place before we walked out on the stage… I never like to admit defeat, but I thought Sergio was better. There were no two ways about it.”
Schwarzenegger made a huge comeback in 1970 and defeated Oliva in the Mr. Olympia, which started a pattern of Oliva’s second place finishes against the legendary Austrian Oak. This ignited a slew of rumors that IFBB co-founder Joe Weider had somehow fixed the tournament so Schwarzenegger would win. After a series of setbacks and questionable disqualifications at events like the 1973 IFBB Mr. International, Oliva started to agree and broke all ties with both the IFBB and Weider. He went on to find success in other world bodybuilding federations with victories at the 1972 and 1973 WBBG Mr. Galaxy, the 1975, 1976 and 1978 WBBG Mr. Olympus and the 1977 and 1980 WABBA Professional World Championships.
Oliva returned to the Mr. Olympia stage at 49 years old in 1984 and again in 1985 where two eighth-place finishes marked his official retirement after 20 first place bodybuilding titles and the honor of being the second Mr. Olympia winner in bodybuilding history. Afterward, he went on to become a Chicago police officer and proudly served the Windy City for over 25 years. On November 12, 2012 at 71 years old, he died of kidney failure and became the first Mr. Olympia to pass away. Today, his bodybuilding legacy is carried on with his son, Sergio Oliva, Jr., who is following in his father’s footsteps with the hopes of building his own legacy as a competitive bodybuilder hailing from Chicago, Illinois with “The Myth” in his genes.