Sergio Oliva was born in Cuba as one of 22 children. As a weightlifter he was a member of the Cuban delegation to the 1962 Pan American Games in Jamaica. He used the opportunity to break away from the team to Chicago (at that time, Cuba’s citizens practically never received exit permits). He came to the United States and then started bodybuilding. He won the Mr. Olympia 1967-1969, three consecutive times! He was also a power horse: he benchpressed 525lb and was able to bench 400lb by 20 reps.
Weightlifting Career and Escape
He was never a big guy to start with but he was always real powerful. He competed in the 148lb, 165lb and 181lb classes.
He tried different sports in Cuba. He was poor and had no money and Weightlifting was the only way to get out of the country. He tried baseball, he tried boxing. He was real good and hit real hard. But they had some tough guys even tougher than Sergio. So he gave up. He tried running but he was too big for that. He was always really skinny but he always had a small waist with a V-shape even before he knew anything about weights.
One day he went to the beach and there was a weightlifting gym. At this time he didn’t weigh more than about 155lb at 5’11. He met the leader of the group, who had been one of castro’s top men in their revolution and this man already knew a lot of Sergio because of his military service. He came up to him and asked if he would like to train with weights.
Sergio said, “Weights? What is weights? The only weights I lift is in construction.”
Sergio had no idea what he was talking about so he declined: Next day he asked him again to come up to his gym.There was no bodybuilding in communist countries like cuba, but weightlifting was always popular. They talked and he made Sergio some great deals. Sergio did not have a job but this guy gave him one in his gym as an instructor, even though he knew nothing about lifting weights. So this guy was actually just paying Sergio to train. He gave him money for food. All he had to do was come to the gym every day. He teached him the three olympic lifts.
At this time he was 18 or 19. That’s when he started. He was always good in the Snatch and Clean and Jerk from the start but because of his small waist he was never good in the Press. He was able to Power Snatch 135lb the first time. In the next 3 months he snatched 190lb and was able to beat everyone even the heavyweights.
The coach predicted he would be able to beat any weightlifter in Cuba in three months which turned out to be true. He also predicted that by the next year he would make the Pan American Team and beat Louis Martin (Jamaican Weightlifter), who won several world championships for England. Sergio started training to make the cuban weightlifting team in his early 20’s. But escaped before competing.
About 8 months before the Pan American Games he was sent to Moscow to train with the best weightlifters in the soviet union. The preparation was tremendous. In Moscow he was overhead pressing 220lb and after 8 months of training with the russians he pressed 340lb. He trained with russians like Arkady Vorobyov, Yury Vlasov and Leonid Zhabotinsky. All of them were Olympic Gold Medalists. Vorobyov was in his lifting class and he pushed Sergio to the edge to train really hard.
Sergio went back to Cuba and he was part of the Cuban Weightlifting Team for the Pan American Games. His brother and father told him to escape if he had the opportunity. Sergio and his weightlifting team went to Jamaica. During the trip he was constantly reading communist books to fake out the security guards.
When the team made arrived in Jamaica, Sergio saw his opportunity for freedom and sought political asylum at the American embassy because he heard that the U.S. was welcoming refugees from communism.
He was transported to Florida and worked his way north to Chicago where he settled in a Spanish-speaking area which also housed the Division St. YMCA which contained a well-equipped weight room and had as its instructor, future Mr. America, Bob Gajda. This was the beginning of a very close and lasting friendship between these two giants of might and muscle.
At this time he worked as an apprentice butcher for fourteen hours each day, but still found time to train at the Duncan YMCA. He put in four more hours in the gym. He used to arise each morning at 5 A.M. and seldom gets to the bed before 10:30 or 11:00 at night. He also used to spend about 4 hours each week in English instrucional classes.
And this was the way he got out of his country of Cuba and came to the United States. He started bodybuilding there. Three months later he was in the Mr. Florida Contest. He was beating guys that had been training 5 to 10 years! So he started training real good and training for big contests. He started bodybuilding at late age. He was 22 years old at the time. He started late but he made it. He was working hard! He wanted to be the top one and he made it!
Sergio Oliva vs. Bertil Fox
There is a funny story about Bertil Fox. Well, they were supposed to compete in a contest and Bertil was in the bathroom in one of the toilets. Sergio knew he was in there. You know how there is often a little crack that you can see outside the booth? Well, Sergio took his shirt off and did some poses in the mirror to check his condition. He knew Bertil was watching. Sergio enterred that show and won. No one saw anything of Bertil! Apparently Bertil had second thoughts about competing after seeing Sergio.
Mr. Olympia 1967
In 1966 Sergio decided to intensify his training and go professional. He signed a contract with Weider and won the Mr. Olympia title in 1967, 1968 and 1969 and probably would still be winning if the Austrian Oak, Arnold Schwarzenegger, hadn’t made his appearance.
When Sergio showed up at the Olympia in 1967 he caused a sensation. Former golden boy Larry could see he was not going to beat Sergio. One year no one showed up to compete against Sergio. The prize money in those days? $1,000.
1969 Mr. Olympia
Arnold himself duped Sergio in 1969 during a Chicago visit, telling him, ‘you’d look great, but you have to gain weight’. So Oliva packed on more poundage and ended up smooth as a jelly donut….but still beat Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sergio appeared extremely wide. Even he is just standing relaxed. In this picture you can see that Sergio was wider than Arnold!
1970 Mr. Olympia
Sergio Oliva lost his crown to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It is rumoured that Arnold won his first world title through a cunning ruse. At the height of the posedown, Arnold is purported to have thrown up his arms in a sign of finalitly. He walked over to Sergio, and put his arm over the champ’s shoulder in a comradely fashion, and turned Oliva’s bad ear to the roaring audience. “Congratulations, you won!” Arnold shouted into Oliva’s good ear, now turned away from the cheers. Then, pretending to walk off the stage, Arnold drifted back into the blackness of the back stage are. Oliva walked off the stage, believing himself the winner. Arnold strode into the limelight back and won.
1971 Mr. Universe
Competitiors: Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, Reg Park, Tony Emmott, Bill Pearl and approximately one hundred twenty other great physiques from around the world. But Arnold Schwarzenegger did not appear? The following weekend Arnold entered and won the Mr. Olympia 71 in Paris.
Sergio was loaded up, hungry and used to entertain the stage. He shouted like a lion:” I AM HUNGRY“. Furthermore Reg Park and Sergio used to keep up a “word battle”.
Arthur Jones promised him 5.000 dollars if he was able to win the Mr. Universe Contest. Arthur Jones invented some Gym Equipment in bodybuilding oldschool era and had some money and influences.
There was a father with his boy. This kid wanted Sergio to autograph his bodybuilding-book. He tried going into Sergio’s habit, but immediatly he shouted:
“Get the hell out of here! I don’t have time for autographs! See me after the show!”
Sergio was maybe arrogant and of course that irked a lot of people. But there was no screwing around when he trained and he hated interuptions!
During competitions he used to be focused and maybe did not want to spend the time with socializing. His workouts were always brutal. When he did squats it looked like he invented the movement. Perfect form all the way. Even when he was suffering from sever joint pain he still gave it his all.
Bill Pearl placed first and Sergio Oliva second in the Mr. Universe 1971.
Sergio Oliva and the Weiders
Sergio had a falling out with the Weider’s over many things but it started with Sergio’s early demands for $$$ from photos and the communication barrier due to Sergio’s poor English. Sergio didn’t trust anyone and especially since he was new to this country. Maybe he thought everyone was out to screw him.
Then Sergio did some unsanctioned competitions and the Weiders decided to ban him from the Mr. Olympia 1971 and other competitions during his peak. This was a bad decision for everyone involved but Weider went on to make his fortune while Sergio was pounding the beat as a cop and making very little off his name.
1971 Mr. Olympia: Serge Nubret and Sergio Oliva
Serge Nubret was a french bodybuilder, who organized the 1971 Mr. Olympia in France and made friend with Sergio.
The first time Serge met him was when he competed at Mr. Universe 1971.
After losing to Bill Pearl Sergio was extremly depressed. Thus Serge invited him to guest pose in Mr. Olympia 1971. Sergio was suspended from the IFBB to compete at the Mr. Olympia. But Serge managed that Sergio was allowed to guest pose at this contest.
Serge Nubret: “I wanted that the french people see both Arnold and Sergio but Ben Weider was not pleased with my idea. So Ben Weider asked me to refuse Sergio posing. Of course I refused Ben propsal but he tried and tried again and finally I told Weider if you refuse that Sergio pose, there will be no contest. I’ll pay back every ticket and NO MORE CONTEST. That’s why Sergio posed. I don’t keven know if Sergio knew about what I did for him.”
Arnold won the contest. There were two other bodybuilders: Ahemed Ayoub (2nd) and Jaime Gallostra (3rd).
In Iron Man Magazine (May 1972) Wayne Gallasch wrote, “The Olympia 1971 was something of an anti-climax, with Arnold winning in a ‘one horse race’ against two other men I had never heard of”.
Sergio’s relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger
In the oldschool-era Sergio liked Arnold and at this time he never said a bad word about him. You can’t blame Arnold for the the actions of Joe and Ben Weider. It was only business. In 1989 Arnold invited Sergio to be a VIP Guest the the first Arnold Classic in Ohio and Sergio went and had a great time.
Sergio cited he reached his potential in 1970 and then in Germany 1972 and then in Mexico again. But after all he was not going to make that kind of sacrifice again.
He missed out on the best years of his life and married a woman. History of the sport may have been different had he just went along for the ride. He always said Arnold was a lucky son-of-a-****. Sergio was offered a part by Arnold in Predator but made too many demands and wanted too much money so they told him to forget about it. They found another bald black actor for a lot less. Sergio did several Spanish Movies.
One was called: El Poder Negro..
Anecdote by Sergio’s friend
“Sergio began his posing routine with the lights out and in the kneeling position with head bowed. Then the lights gradually were turned on and he rose like the phoenix. You have to understand that the Sydney audience had the Olympia the previous year and Arnold was the biggest guy seen here. Well, the audience was almost silent. Sergio did his routine and left the stage to a big ovation. The audience kept clapping but Sergio refused to do an encore. That was that. He did a short duo routine with Bev Francis so there were the best male and female bodybuilders on the stage at the same time. I asked Sergio why he didn’t do an encore. He insisted the audience didn’t clap enough. Heck, it was because their mouths were still open and people were too shocked to even respond. I don’t think he ever accepted that.”
1984/85 Mr. Olympia
In the 70s Weider used to call Sergio at Chicago Health Club and Sergio would come to the front desk and when he found out it was Joe, he’d hang up on him. They finally agreed to get together in the mid 80s. Thus he competed at the 84 and 85 Mr. Olympia.
Bev Francis was a powerlifter, national shot put champion and bodybuilder.She possessed far more muscular size than the most muscular female bodybuilders at the time. Sergio thought she was a man at first time.
Bev Francis got 8th place when she competed in Las Vegas in 1983. And guess, Sergio got the same placing in the Mr. Olympia 1984/1985 as Bev Francis in 1983.
Joe and Ben Weiders had a weird sense of humour. Even Sergio’s friend suggested him not to compete because he wouldn’t get a fair deal.
In 1989 Weider came out with a new clothing line and some workout equipment. They asked Sergio to make an appearance at Fox Valley Mall in Illinois. For this appearance Sergio was only paid $500.
Segio was fallen in love with Ms. Illinois Arlene. She had a great body. She looked great for someone who had two kids or no kids. Sergio and Arlene met in the 80s when she was working for the Chicago Health Club. Her ex-boyfriend, Al Philips, was one of the owners. Sergio used to send her flowers at the club all the time. They even fought publicly before they married.
The following excerpt comes from one of Sergio’s training partner:
“Arlene was a white gal from Georgia. Hell, I wondered how he went over when she brought him to meet her parents. So I asked her that question and she avoided answering. Finally she said, “They liked him.” Can you imagine a white family having a big black dude show up in their home as guest of honour! The deep south and all. Anyway, Arlene always wore that funny cap.
She was an attractive lady and since I share Sergios interest in women it was obvious to me that they were not suited. She seemed pretty smart and though Sergio was no dope he was hardly educated. Well, I finally told her that I didn’t think it would last between them. From the look on her face I think she knew that, too. Maybe she thought Sergio was going to make a lot of money or something. When she shot him I wasn’t surprised but Sergio told the officials it was an accident. I thought he was shot twice. Anyway, he eventually got custody of the children so that is a sad story all round. If you met Sergio you couldn’t help but like him. My kids adored him and he posed for photos with them and knew how to treat kids. I can’t help feeling that maybe he was messing around with another woman and Arlene found out. She seemed like a woman you wouldn’t want to betray.”
The Myth was a name he was given since no one really believed that there was a guy this big. His arms measured larger in diameter than his head.
In 1972 Mr. Olympia in Essen, Germany it was determined during a survey that the circumference of his bicep was larger than his head.
He was also in Japan for posing exhibition. He was very famous. For the kids he appeared like a black alien. Sergio said he couldn’t go to the beach any more because kids would follow and hound him.
Sergio wore gold chains, rings, necklaces with medals as big as hubcaps. People asked, ‘was he ostentatious?’
No, he chose to wear gold to let everyone know that he was special, but in his own way…not theirs…as if to say, “Let no man write my epitaph” Every time Oliva left and entered his house he made the sign of the cross in front of a small grotto there to the Virgin Mary, a custom of his traditional Catholic faith.
One day a fan asked him:
“Are you worried about getting robbed waring that big gold medallion”?
Sergio: (A lot of laughter) “I got that medallion when gold was $7 an ounce. Now what’s it worth? Maybe $500 an ounce? Hey, there’s a lot of crazy dude out there. If one pulls a gun and puts it to my chest and says give me that chain, he can have it! I’m no Superman! I can’t fight bullets! However, once he puts the gun out of my view he’s dead! If he lets me talk he’s not going to shoot me! I’m not worried about it.”
Sergio Oliva Junior
The marriage was divorced in 1987 and Oliva was granted custody of the children. Oliva has been a Chicago patrolman since 1984. With the exception of his shoes, his uniform is tailor-made. His son, Sergio Oliva Jr, is following in his father’s footsteps into competitive bodybuilding.
Sergio opened with his buddy a gym but still worked as a police officer.. Here are some stories by his buddy:
“We had a desk top private pay phone in the gym and someone knocked it on the floor and it wasn’t working so Sergio called for service on it. The service guy shows up and fixes the phone and then walks to the back of the gym to tell Sergio that there was a charge for the repair. Sergio refused to pay and the guy said he’d have to take the phone so he walked to the front to get the phone. Sergio ran up to the front with his bad knees and chased the guy down the stairs, out the door and the guy ran down the street screaming like a little bitch. He didn’t take the phone and he never came back. Smart move on his part. He probably crapped his pants. I know I would have.
Sergio ate for free or half price at most of the restaurants in his Police District so there was no need for him to eat junk. I had many meal with him and he ate a lot of chicken but he ate like everyone else. I do remember a photo of him in a magazine in the early 80s and his stomach was bloated and they referred to him as a butterball but I never saw him in that condition. He was lazy as everyone about doing abs or cardio but I never knew him to be a fat pig. This is a guy that had total control of his physique.
To see him on the street in his Chicago Police uniform was really impressive. He looked like The Thing from the Fantastic Four, only darker and he had all his fingers and toes.
Sometimes you would see him in his squad car parked in front of his condo asleep with the air conditioning on or right after roll call he’d come back to the gym and take a nap at the front desk in his chair with the speaker from the police radio against his ear.
The only guys that trained at the gym were locals, a wrestler and a few other Cops. Surprisingly, we had a lot of local drug dealers training there and I don’t mean the guys that dealt steroids. We also had a few other strange charactors like most gyms do. Don’t forget, this was a small neighborhood gym with about 200 members. Sergio used to say he didn’t really care about how many members he had, it was just a gym for him to train at. After his divorce he lived in the upstairs office. The day he moved in to the office, he and one of the other guys from the gym pushed Sergio’s big screen TV down the middle of the street for about 6 blocks. That was quite a sight. One of the cops called to investigate said it looked like a gorilla pushing a TV.
I do believe Sergio is now limited to what he can do in the gym. If he were to train anywhere near the way he trained in the past he would destroy the shoulders and other joint replacements in no time and need it done again. The replacement is meant to last for the rest of the life of the recipient and to relieve the chronic pain.”
After Golden Era of Bodybuilding
His son, Sergio Oliva Jr, tried following in his father’s footsteps into competitive bodybuilding.
But Sergio didn’t want his son to be a bodybuilder, wanted him to learn something “reasonable” and supported him zero. Sergio Jr. didn’t care about that at all and so he trained on his own and made a lot of mistakes because he did not have something like a mentor. Then he stayed with Labrada and was even jealous of the relationship between Lee and Hunter Labrada but learned a lot there, too.
The last time he probably saw his dad or talked to him when all Mr. Olympia were together on stage. Sergio Oliva didn’t want to take part because he was still mad at the IFBB. At the active time there were some racists who made his life difficult for him. Arnold also treated him one or two times quite a bit. Anyway Sergio Jr. wanted his father to go there and of course he also wanted more attention to Sergio JR. because he was still quite unknown.
Sergio Oliva must have behaved very badly, “insulted” IFBB officials and treated them badly and then lost his temper at night in the hotel room and dismantled the room, Sergio Jr. had to leave in the middle of the night and after that they probably had no contact until death.
“Sergio was more of a Puerto Rican in temperament rather than a Cuban in his dress and mannerisms and personality. You expected Ricardo Montalban and got Ozzie Guillen.” – Bob Gajda
Everything he ever did in bodybuilding wasn’t a science, it was from pure instinct and what his body told him to do. He was gentle, except when he shouldn’t have been. Later on as a cop the story is told of how he came upon a guy beating a woman, picked the guy up over his head and threw him through a store window. Back in those days you could tune up a creep without being fired and then sued.
Sergio Oliva died on November 12, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois from apparent kidney failure. He was 71. He was the first Mr. Olympia to have died.
Power and fitness Sept 81
August 1966 S&H
Sergio Tribute; Bob Gajda as told to Terry Strand
August 1970 Muscle Builder/Power
Beyong the Universe – The Bill Pearl Story
Memories by Sergio’s training partner
Memories by Vince Basile