Reprinted courtesy of FLEX magazine
The irony that Sergio Oliva was born on the fourth
of July, 1941, is lost on no one who knows the man or his reputation.
For throughout his six decades Sergio has shown nothing if not
a burning desire for his own independence, the very kind the forefathers
of America, his adoptive country, proclaimed their right to 165
years earlier. But when Fidel Castro’s opposition movement
overthrew Cuba’s Batista government in 1959 Sergio suddenly
found his homeland was no longer a place where personal freedoms
could be savored.
A prodigiously gifted athlete from childhood, Sergio realized
that his involvement in state sponsored sport could be his ticket
to, if not freedom itself, then the opportunity to escape the
stifling confines of the Cuban working class. Blessed with an
almost preternatural combination of strength, speed and flexibility,
Sergio wisely decided to channel his efforts into Olympic-style
Not surprisingly, he took to the sport immediately and, by the
age of twenty, had already become Cuba’s top lifter and
consequently its 198-pound class representative in the 1961 Pan
American Games held in Kingston, Jamaica.
For Cuba, his participation signified a lock on yet another weightlifting
gold medal. For Sergio Oliva, a man of fiercely independent spirit
trapped in a repressive system, it would mean saying goodbye,
possibly forever, to the only home he’d ever known.
Havannah talent can get
Twenty-year-old world class weightlifter Sergio Oliva knew that
the occasion of the 1961 Pan Am Games in Kingston, Jamaica might
be his last best chance to escape the confines of Castro-controlled
Cuba. With speed of foot nearly on par with his strength Sergio
sprinted for the nearby American consulate. He and the entire
Cuban weightlifting team, who immediately followed his lead, were
granted political asylum, and more significantly, their freedom.
From Jamaica Sergio emigrated to the United States; first to Miami,
where he performed odd jobs ranging from TV repair to unloading
trucks. Then, in 1963, he made his way north to Chicago.
It was at Chicago’s Duncan YMCA that the weightlifter was
introduced to the sport of bodybuilding by top local bodybuilder
(and future Mr. America) Bob Gajda. Gajda recognized the young
man’s incredible physical potential and took him under his
wing. As predicted, Sergio’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.
Within no time Sergio’s physique, and reputation, grew to
the point where he was being mentioned in the same breath with
names like Scott, Sipes and Pearl by those in the know.
Yet despite the overwhelming physical superiority he brought to
the stage in those early years, the uber-Cuban found actually
winning titles within the Amateur Athletic Union 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 greatest bodybuilder of all time.
In a League of His Own
By 1966 Sergio Oliva had had enough of the vicissitudes of the
AAU and decided to turn professional by joining the International
Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). In short order he won the 1966
Mr. World and 1967 Mr. Universe titles and finally, with little
resistance, the 1967 Mr. Olympia title. Only four years after
getting his start in competitive bodybuilding Sergio Oliva was
the undisputed king of the walk.
He would go on to defend his title unopposed the following year,
even more dominant than before. It wasn’t until 1969 that
a challenger to his throne would emerge, in the massive, if yet
unshaped, form of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While Sergio handled his teutonic threat to win his third consecutive
Olympia, the lessons learned in defeat served the young Schwarzenegger
well the following year as he came back to edge out Sergio in
one of the closest results in the sport’s history.
Sergio, disappointed but undaunted, redoubled his efforts and
returned to the Olympia stage in 1972 bigger than ever, and ready
to upset the applecart of the now two-time defending Mr. Olympia
But it was not to be. Whether it was due to politics, as some
assert, or Arnold’s uncanny ability to will himself to victory,
Sergio, now known as The Myth, would take the runner-up spot that
night in Essen, Germany, despite reaching his all-time best condition.
It was a huge blow to the man, one which would ultimately lead
him out of the IFBB and into relative bodybuilding obscurity for
the next 12 years.
the Conquering Hero
From 1973-1983 Sergio Oliva’s moniker became more trenchant
than ever. He seemed more myth than man to a large part of the
bodybuilding community. Out of the IFBB, he competed in Europe
within the WABBA and WBBG organizations.
But in 1984 a new wave of Sergio Oliva mania would spread through
the bodybuilding world as The Myth made his peace with the IFBB
and returned to his rightful place on the Olympia stage.
Now a Chicago police officer and new father, the 43-year-old Oliva
could only manage an 8th place finish competing against men who
grew up idolizing him. Despite the fact that the version of Sergio
Oliva seen that November evening on the Madison Square Garden
stage was not quite the mythical beast of yore, his presence alone
was enough to electrify the sport of bodybuilding in a way not
felt since his monumental confrontations with Arnold.
And truthfully, to us, his fans, it didn’t matter whether
he took first or last, whether he was in shape or out. What mattered
most was that Sergio Oliva, The Myth, had risen from the depths
of our collective memories to grace us with his awesome presence
one last time.
Even now, 18 years after Sergio’s final competition, that
electricity still surges, at shows, in gyms, on bodybuilding message
boards– anytime and anywhere his name is invoked by those
in the know.
I suspect it always will.