The world’s greatest bodybuilder is dead!

From left: Sergo Oliva, Rick Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger photographed at World Gym shortly after Sergio’s final Mr. Olympia appearance in New York.

A recent communiqué from my friend from the UK who had successfully replaced me at Flex and Muscle & Fitness, now happily domiciled in the Sunshine State: “Hi Rick, hope you and family are well. Everything is tickety-boo here in Florida. Yes, age catches up with us all and as contemporaries pass the feeling of mortality becomes stronger. I come from a large Irish Catholic family with loads of cousins and our get-togethers in the ‘50s through the early ‘70s were for weddings. Then as the brood aged the get-togethers were for funerals. Seems that same process is taking place in the bodybuilding community.”
Sadly, there was ample no-longer-living proof of Peter McGough’s discombobulating observation: Serge Nubret, Steve Michalik, Artie Zeller, Ben Weider, Don Ross, Jeff Smullen, Robert Kennedy, in my earlier subconscious all immortal. They had all transferred to permanent addresses unknown. So much for my mindless arrogant belief that what iron had joined together could never be put asunder. Still I was unprepared for news of the latest transition.
For once my informant was not John Balik, renowned publisher of Iron Man and, if I say so, my cherished regular supplier of information to cry over. Indeed, it had come as a double-edged surprise that Bill Mortley, arguably Saint Lucia’s premier wedding photographer and my longtime friend, was sufficiently connected to what was in a far less perverse time affectionately referred to as “the iron game” to know before me that Sergio Oliva had assumed room temperature.
Then again, Bill goes to bed each night and rises before the sun with Facebook. I, on the other hand, continue to get my news the old fashioned way: I learn it from trusted newspapers, whether or not online. A much slower process, I agree, but by a long way normally more reliable than the over-heated outpourings of the journalists manqué known as the social media!
Peter’s e-mail reached me several hours after Bill’s bad news, as did confirmation from my regular Los Angeles source that 71-year-old Sergio had on Monday claimed his own little corner of God’s little acre. Before the day was done I had also perused several items by anonymous bloggers. And then there was Arnold’s posted final farewell, also featured in the UK Post: “Sergio was one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time and a true friend. A fierce competitor with a big personality, one of a kind.”
For several hours I mulled over the first line: Did Arnold write it himself? Did he dictate it to a secretary? Did he speak with his well-oiled politician’s tongue? Or was he sincere in his suggestion that he had lost “a true friend” and the bodybuilding world one of its greatest champions. Those who consider themselves sufficiently informed to attempt answers to my questions, informed by poorly researched magazine articles, that is, might well dismiss the words attributed to Arnold as just more puff and smoke. They would’ve long ago convinced themselves that Arnold never liked Sergio, let alone considered him “a true friend.”
I, on the other hand, have every reason to know Sergio’s biggest fan, even when they controversially contended for their sport’s premier award, was Arnold. Never forget that his greatest strength lay not in his prize-winning muscles but in his remarkable ability to focus. Kinda reminds me of Kipling’s famous poem IF, in particular, the last stanza:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch/If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you/If all men count with you, but none too much/If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run/Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!
Which returns me abruptly me to that back-in-the-day episode a couple hours before their first Mr. Olympia encounter in New York. Forget what had passed for a contest a short time earlier, after Jim Lorimer and persuasive others who shall here remain anonymous had seduced an always naïve Sergio to lock horns with a calculating Arnold in Columbus, Ohio—with predictable consequences for Sergio.
But let California’s former governor recall the event, reproduced in my book Muscle Wars: “I was with him in the pump-up room at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Sergio was covered, as usual, in his butcher’s overalls doing bench presses and curls. We hardly said a word to each other. Finally he removed the overalls and I just couldn’t believe what I saw. Then as he walked past me, he spread his lats, ever so casually, you understand. But that was enough to freeze my blood. Right there I knew it was all over for me. I was completely psyched out.
“I looked over at Franco Columbu, who had been helping me prepare, and the son of a bitch said: ‘Don’t worry, Arnold, it’s just the lighting in here that makes him look so big and cut.’ I mean, what the hell did Franco take me for? I’m not blind. There is no light on this earth that could create the impression of triceps, lats and deltoids such as I saw on Sergio that evening. He took away my determination to beat him. I went on to pose but merely went through the motions. I lost that contest even before I’d stepped onstage!”
Someone once asked me during a televised interview whom did I consider the greater champion. My response: “Arnold was always the greater champion, even though the greater body belonged to Sergio.” Arnold has himself confirmed my honest appraisal.
Did Arnold like Sergio? The short answer is yes. In my presence on more than one occasion he had offered Sergio assistance in one form or another, assistance always refused. After Sergio was talked into coming out of retirement from Weider-IFBB contests to compete in his make-or-break Olympia at Madison Square Garden, only to be wiped out by a far younger and hungry Lee Haney, he agreed to be photographed at World Gym in Santa Monica. Sergio and Arnold (by then he’d done Conan the Barbarian and acquired movie-star clout) had not talked in years. But that had not prevented Arnold from showing up at the gym with his wife Maria Shriver at his side and carrying on as if his world depended on a smile from Sergio. Typically, Sergio was less than friendly. Nevertheless they exchanged a few words.
Mainly what Sergio did was turn down several offers of promotional help from an almost fawning Arnold whose admiration for the still incredible Sergio remained undiminished after all the years of competition and post-contest bickering. Finally, when Sergio was out of earshot Arnold addressed me: “Poor Sergio, he’s been hurt a lot. But his pride won’t allow him to accept help. We should talk to Joe Weider.” And we did. Alas, too much dirty water in each other’s faces had already made a lasting, mutually rewarding relationship impossible. It wasn’t long before Joe and Sergio again gave up on each other.
Not much longer I returned home to Saint Lucia and lost touch. Pointless revisiting Sergio’s worst moments. Much of it has been chronicled in detail by those of us who were there. A poorly written book or two have been published in Sergio’s good name but this is not the time to challenge their content. Suffice it to say that, otherworldly as he was in his prime, Sergio never fully achieved his potential. His regular diet of beans and rice and anything else that titillated his taste buds remained largely unchanged, even when preparing for contests. His is training methods appeared relatively haphazard. That they worked well enough to make him near invincible proves only what Sergio might’ve achieved had he taken a serious interest in what went down his throat. As for drugs, in Sergio’s time all that was generally accessible was Dianabol and maybe an injection of unproven worth once a month. Compared with his successors, Sergio was a natural bodybuilder. As natural, at any rate, as today’s “naturals.”
He was nearly always fun. It’s anyone’s guess who made “sock it to me” more popular, the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In TV show or the man who escaped Cuba to the United States to become a legendary bodybuilder. We had our moments when he thought I was part of a Weider conspiracy to promote Arnold at his expense, simply because he was black as I am black. But mostly we had remained over the years extremely close. I had every good reason to nickname him “the Myth” shortly after our first meeting in Montreal, Canada: even when you were sitting next to him your mind still could not grasp the reality that Sergio Oliva was a living, breathing phenomenon—but still human.
“The Myth” will live on. If only he could’ve gone on breathing forever!

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