Olympia 101: What You Need to Know (Weekend Primer)

By Ruth Silverman
Managing Editor

It’s called the Olympia, and many who reside outside of the fitness industry have only a vague idea, if any, of what goes on at the humongous bodybuilding and fitness weekend that takes place in Vegas each September. If you’re new to the bodybuilding scene, or just curious, here’s some crib notes on the event.

Fun Facts: The Origins

It all started with a bottle of beer. No, really. As the story goes, bodybuilding entrepreneur Joe Weider, his wife, Betty, and superstar Larry Scott were drinking “Olympia” beer when they hatched their plan to create a professional bodybuilding contest and a way for bodybuilders to earn money. They were inspired to call it the Mr. Olympia, after the beer, and also the suggestion of Mt. Olympus, although allusion to the world’s most famous athletic meet probably didn’t go unnoticed. Joe was a master marketer and showman, as well as a publisher and the founder, with his brother Ben, of the International Federation of Bodybuilders, a.k.a the IFBB.
Though he passed away in 2013, Joe saw his vision realized a thousand-fold, as his best-of-the-best contest grew into an extravaganza, currently featuring four different men’s divisions and four women’s divisions, plus a ginormous Olympia Expo with exhibitors from all corners of the fitness world.

The Olympia Weekend has made its home in Vegas since 1999, since 2005 at the Orleans Arena and the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The Basics

The men’s divisions that are contested at the Olympia are, in descending order of size, men’s bodybuilding, men’s 212-pounds-and-under bodybuilding, classic physique, and men’s physique. The women’s events are women’s physique, fitness, figure, and bikini. I won’t try to explain the names. It’s all bodybuilding, really, meaning the development of the body with weight training and other resistance exercise. The different divisions represent different levels of muscularity and conditioning, with the exception of fitness, which also features entertaining routines that combine aerobics, dance, gymnastics and other cool athletic moves.

In all divisions, the judges look at symmetry, proportional development, and what we call the “flow of the body parts,” in addition to muscle size. “Genetics”— a person’s natural potential for being good at bodybuilding—counts. Athletes with good bone structure, pleasing muscle shapes, small joints and a small waist, as well as a propensity for building muscle, have an advantage. Whether they will “come in shape,” meaning their best-looking size and condition for their division, is always the question. When they “do their homework” and are spot-on at the contest, they tend to win. When they don’t, there’s always someone waiting in the pump-up room whose genetic gifts are not quite as perfect but who has done the homework and brought his or her “best package.” That’s what makes it a contest. Also the fact that not everyone agrees on any of the above. It’s subjective, but so is competitive ice skating. Everyone has an opinion; the judges have the only word that counts.

The Details

The IFBB Pro season runs pretty much all year, and the Olympia is its Superbowl. Athletes qualify for the Olympia by finishing in the top five the previous year, winning one of the dozens of pro events held during the season in the various divisions, or through points earned by finishing high at the qualifiers. The top-five points earners in each division get the coveted finals “invitations” to compete at the big show.

The Men: Mr. Olympia

In the beginning there was men’s bodybuilding—the Mr. Olympia, the big guys. Larry Scott was the first Mr. Olympia, winning in 1965 and ’65 with a body that featured some wicked round biceps and shoulders. Twelve men have held the title since then, with Arnold (1970-’75, ’80) being the most famous and Lee Haney (1984-1991) and Big Ronnie Coleman (1998-2005) having won the most times. Styles of physiques have changed—most of today’s pros weigh in the 215-285 range—but it’s indisputable that the bodies are bigger, more muscular, and more conditioned by a mile or two since Larry won the first Sandow, the coveted Olympia trophy named after late-18th and 19th century physique legend Eugen Sandow.

The current Mr. Olympia is Phil Heath, a thickly muscled one-time basketball player whose genetics led him to be dubbed, “The Gift,” early in his career. He’s going for his sixth win.

The bottom line. With three-time second-placer Kai Greene passing on the Olympia again (arguably making himself irrelevant, whatever else he wins), and top-placer Dennis Wolf out as well, this contest was initially pegged as a ho-hum victory for Heath. That prediction has proved premature. There is plenty of drama in the air, starting with the endless Internet buzz that has occurred since 90’s legend Kevin Levrone announced that he’d be coming out of retirement for this year’s show.

Now, I’m not of the opinion that Kevin, 52, who last posed down at the O in 2003, is going to beat Phil or even crack the top six (top 10, maybe). Still, you can’t beat the fan interest it has generated, and he will undoubtedly look very good.

The real matchup—if it’s true that Heath is as vulnerable as some might suggest—is with another veteran warrior, Dexter Jackson, 46, who, unlike Levrone, has been competing steadily as a pro since 1999, consistently bringing his best in recent years.

Dexter, who was second in 2015, will never be the biggest guy onstage, but he has already knocked out one sitting Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler in 2008. Can he do it again? Heath is still the likely winner, but people would not be shocked.  (Bodybuilding insider Lonnie Teper predicts the 10)

212 Olympia

There’s a reason that amateur competitions are organized in weight and/or height classes. This contest is for pro bodybuilders who look huge at 212 pounds and under.

James “Flex” Lewis has dominated the division since 2012. Though there was talk of him moving up to the open division, it never materialized. The judges like the look of his very complete physique the best, and he’s a good bet to repeat here. Top challengers include Jose Raymond, second last year along with last year’s third-placer, Hidetada Yamagishi, a top bodybuilder in the open division who moved down to the 212 with great success.

Classic Physique Olympia

New to the pro circuit this year, classic physique bridges the gap between bodybuilding and men’s physique (see below) and emphasizes proportional development over monster size. Though it is one open contest, there are height and weight restrictions. For example, someone who is taller than 5’8”, up to and including 5’9”, cannot weigh more than 190 pounds.

As it’s a whole new ballgame, with the judges still figuring out what the ideal physique on paper looks like onstage, anything can happen. Sadik Hadzovik, Olympia runner-up last year in men’s physique, has famously moved up to classic and is a favorite, although we haven’t actually seen him onstage in the division. My advice is: keep your focus on the guys who beat Darrem Charles.

A popular veteran bodybuilder known for his “smaller,” aesthetic look and his style in the posing round, Darrem came out of retirement to compete in classic physique. He won seven shows, but he also came in second several times. It’s a sure bet you’ll find top placers, if not the winner, in this group: Danny Hester, Stan McQuay, Arash Rahbar, Breon Ansley, and Terrence Ruffin.

Classic physique competitors, like the bodybuilders, perform posing routines to music, incorporating muscle shots and whatever other entertaining moves they choose.

Men’s Physique Olympia

Men’s physique athletes have the least-developed bodies in the men’s divisions, but make no mistake, these guys are built. They have “beach bodies” and wear board shorts, with glutes and upper-legs covered, as opposed to the bodybuilders in Speedo-like trunks and the classic physique competitors in form-hugging briefs. (When in doubt about the division you’re watching, check the posing suits.)

Though there are no posing routines in men’s physique, there is no shortage of posing, and the contests are fun to watch. Jeremy Buendia is the two-time winner of this three-year-old competition, and he could easily make it three in a row—if he does his homework. Jason Poston, Brandon Hendrickson, George Brown, and Ryan Terry, are also bodies to watch. Some 41 men qualified for the 2016 Men’s Physique Olympia. Enjoy the show and pick your favorite.

The Women

Women’s bodybuilding came to the Olympia in 1980, and the first Ms. O, Rachel McLish, is still one of the most popular champions of all time. The women’s divisions in 2016 go from the most developed bodies in women’s physique to the least developed in bikini, with fitness and figure in the middle. To the untrained eye (or even a trained one), the distinctions between the styles of physiques can occasionally be hazy, so it’s helpful to know that women’s physique athletes compete barefoot while the other divisions wear heels, and that the bikini bikinis have scrunched-in-the-back bottoms.

Women’s Physique Olympia

Women’s physique, which has been at the Olympia for three years, is a lot like classic physique in the men’s lineup except there are no formal height and weight limits. Juliana Malacarne, a 5’2” curvy Brazilian whose propensity for building muscle made her “too big for figure”, is the defending two-time champ, and, not to sound like a broken record, the odds are good for a three-peat if she comes in excellent shape. Juliana has the added advantage of being the actual competitor many in the federation had in mind when they added women’s physique. Despite a disappointing first Olympia, she hit her stride the second year and has been unstoppable since, winning the International (at the Arnold) in 2015 as well.

That said, quite a few promising athletes will be coming to the stage, and there’s room at the top now that Tycie Coppett, who never placed lower than third, has retired. Likely challengers for a top-three space include Kira Newman, second last year, as well as International winner Autumn Swansen, Danielle Reardon, and a woman you can never count out, former fitness star Mindi O’Brien. I would add one name to this list: symmetrical Susan Marie Smith.

Fitness Olympia

Fitness was the first women’s sport to branch out from women’s bodybuilding. It’s been around since the mid-’90s, and, as mentioned, the athletes perform entertaining fitness routines. The bodies in fitness are secondary to the routines, as the routines count for two-thirds of the score. They are not as well developed as the women’s physique competitors but would definitely be seen as bodybuilders in your average supermarket.

The reigning Olympia—and Arnold fitness champ is Oksana Grishina, a Russian-born former gymnast who is such a wonder onstage, it’s not a question of whether she will win but what she will come up with to top her previous routines, which are marked by dramatic storytelling and amazing moves. Grishina tops a lineup of terrific performers, including veterans Tanji Johnson, Regina DaSilva, and Bethany Wagner, all of whom are capable of finishing second.

Figure Olympia

Figure, which came to the Olympia in 2003, is, basically, fitness without the routines. Last year a new winner was crowned—Latorya Watts, whose body takes the concept of a wide-shouldered V-taper beyond imagination. Latorya beat the woman who has dominated the sport of figure since 2009, Nicole Wilkins, a bodybuilder-Barbie blonde with a very different style of physique from hers. Wilkins twice lost the title (to the more athletic-looking Erin Stern) only to gain it back. Can she go for three comebacks—and her fourth Olympia title? Possibly, but both ladies should be looking over their shoulders. Even without top-six regulars Candice Keene and Ann Titone in the lineup, more than a few are ready to take their place, should anyone not do her homework. Candice Lewis-Carter, Sidney Gillon, and Gennifer Strobo are all at the top of that list.

Bikini Olympia

Bikini is to men’s physique as women’s physique is to classic, and if you understood that, you’ve been paying attention. In other words, they’re just your average Muscle Beach bikini bodies. The striking Ashley Kaltwasser has controlled the conversation at the past two Olympias, and she intends to be the first woman to win three titles since the show’s inception in 2010. At 5’5” (but looking taller onstage), the long-haired brunette beauty is the epitome of what the judges seem to be looking for in a championship bikini physique, and the long Olympia lineup (42 have qualified) includes more than a few who share that look. She’s not a sure bet to repeat, but if you can have the original, why would you go for anything else? The usual caveat about bringing her best package applies.

If you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, here are some physiques to look for—India Paulino, winner at the International; Janet Layug, second on numerous occasions; and Justine Munro, who stands out in rear poses and also because she’s a blonde. Note that these competitors all have different looks from the one Ashley presents. In addition, Courtney King, third last year, should never be counted out, and Bianca Berry has had a very good year.

All That Said

In any of these matchups, anything can happen on any given day. That’s what makes it a contest…..and now you’re ready for Olympia Weekend!

Related:  Dan Solomon’s Surprising Olympia Winner Prediction Video!

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