The Ms.Olympia was one of the most prestigious female bodybuilding competitions held by the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). This contest displayed the most physically developed women athletes from around the world. As the years progressed the physiques became more muscular, more powerful, and more astounding than ever before. The women proved that they were capable of building impressive bodies, but this generated controversy. When the women got bigger traditionalists, detractors, and some within the fitness community objected to the new aesthetic.Opposition was not the only challenge, but limited financial resources. There were fans, but the audience shrank. Despite these obstacles the competitors performed with a high level of excellence.
The Ms.Olympia contest was developed by Joe Weider and Ben Weider. These two businessmen built up an entire fitness industry empire. Their businesses consisted of supplement products, fitness magazines, and fitness equipment. Prior to the Weider brothers acquiring the rights to the MS.Olympia it was owned by George Snyder. He held in 1977 the first IFBB sanctioned contest known as The Best Contest in the World. This was the harbinger to the Ms.Olympia. It almost resembled a beauty pageant, rather than a bodybuilding contest. Athletes were selected and did not have to win other competitions to receive an invitation. Snyder would have contestants send in resumes and photos that he would review. If he thought they could be marketable to the public, they could compete. This was not much of a competition, but this changed by 1980.
Joe Wieder with Lenda Murray
Now female athletes could do the same poses men did. At first it was not allowed for women to do clenched fist poses or most muscular poses. It was once required that the women had to wear high heels.
The first Ms. Olympia contest saw the rise of Rachel Mclish. Her physique was not the type that is seen today on stage. It was a sleeker, with modest muscle on her frame. Most competitors of the era were of this body type with some definition. Rachel Mclish got her athletic start working at a health club. Her early inspiration to engage in fitness came from seeing Lisa Lyon. She was one of the earlier pioneers of female bodybuilding. Mclish had a very short competitive career. It lasted from 1980 to 1984. She lost the 1981 Ms.Olympia to Kike Elomaa. The judging was inconsistent for these early contests and would continue to be through out the existence of the Ms.Olympia. The debate over overall appearance and size was an issue. Just how should the muscular female body be judged? The question became even more complicated when cultural perceptions of femininity were added to the discourse. Mclish won the 1982 Ms.Olympia, but another competitor Carla Dunlap was more muscular. Although not the largest competitor, Mclish did much to get female bodybuilding media attention.
Three winners of the Ms.Olympia from left to right Rachel Mclish, Kike Eloma, and Carla Dunlap.
This was helpful in breaking down some negative perceptions. A golden age had began and there was no turning back. As the decades progressed competitors would train harder and push their bodies to the maximum.
Carla Dunlap was the first African American Ms.Olympia. This was significant because black women were not given as much recognition for athletic accomplishments. Besides that achievement, Carla’s physique produced another model. It was a body a bit bigger than other competitors. While being a little larger, she managed to present symmetry that the judges were looking for. This could be considered the stage in which women started to push the size barrier.
Magazine page discussing Carla’s 1983 win.
Her competitive career lasted from 1979 to 1993. She had amazing longevity in the bodybuilding circuit. Besides doing bodybuilding she also did color commentary for ESPN, ABC, and NBC. She also has the distinction of being the only female bodybuilder to compete for three decades. She was there from the beginning and saw many changes. More developments were coming with the arrival of two competitors who decided the aesthetic need revision.
Cory Everson and Bev Francis shifted the paradigm for the Ms.Olympia physique. Cory Everson was the first woman to win the Ms.Olympia multiple times. From 1984 to 1989 she would dominate the competition. The 1980s was the era of Everson. She never lost an Olympia contest during her career. One reason was her extensive athletic background in track and field, gymnastics, and badminton. These activities allowed her to build a muscular physique. Bodybuilding was perfect for her and she saw rapid success. Her body had defined muscles, along with bigger size closer to Carla Dunlap, and powerful legs. It seemed as if women were no longer afraid of getting “too big.” Women who were even involved in the sport had their fears about this. Cory Everson demonstrated that women can have muscle and will not be considered “too big.” Bev Francis pushed the model further.
Cory Everson never lost an Olympia.
Bev Francis was an Australian shout putter and powerlifter. Before entering bodybuilding she set world records in powerlifting. At the 1981 World Powerlifting Championships she bench pressed 330 pounds. She was the first woman to accomplish this feat. Her body was naturally muscular and one would have assumed she would have won contests. The judges did not like her physique, even though it was impressive. They were concerned about vague definitions of femininity in the judging standards. Clearly they were misguided by traditional convictions about women. Bev Francis was a fan favorite and was popular at contests. She attempted to conform to the judges standards and found herself getting frustrated. She lost some size and dyed her hair blonde. This did not guarantee her victory. After a while she refused to conform and decided to go all out for muscle size. It was no longer about winning a contest. As Bev once stated “I wanted to show them just how muscular a woman could be.”
Bev Francis change in appearance from 1983 to 1988.
This was a bold move, considering the criticism she faced. She did pioneer the larger physique that would later appear in the 1990s. After being disappointed with her placing in the 1990 Ms. Olympia, Bev decided to build a physique more tremendous than anything any fan had seen before. Lenda Murray would win her first in a long list of victories in the Ms.Olympia. Most important development was that their was a paradigm shift among competitors. Women competing were no longer afraid of having large muscles.
The 1991 Ms.Olympia was a major turning point. The issue of women and muscle size seemed to have created two major factions in female bodybuilding. The first was the one that wanted women with some muscle, but emphasizing “femininity.” It seemed to want to make it a beauty pageant with women in moderately good shape. The opposing side wanted to be strictly about athletic endeavor and muscular size.
The muscle size issue has been debated through out female bodybuilding circles since its inception. This magazine page is from the 1980s.
Bev Francis lost again, but amazed the audience. She was bigger than any woman the crowd had ever seen. Lenda Murray was back to defend her tile and won. The competitors were much larger than they had been in the past. The female bodybuilding physique was becoming more powerful. The question of “how much is too much?” was seriously brought up within the sport after the 1991 Ms.Olympia. Bev Francis retired from the sport, but had a lasting impact. She proved that women could build large muscle and be good at it. As the years progressed her physique would be more common on stage.
Bev Francis competing in the 1991 Ms.Olympia.
Her competition was challenging, because Lenda Murray also was coming into the contest bigger. Lenda’s body would also serve as model for which competitors would be judged. Large upper body combined with a small waist was the aesthetic. Many competitors became frustrated with inconsistent judging standards. Vacillation and indecision hindered a standard judging criteria. Bev Francis dared to defy the hegemony of IFBB judging criteria and made her body as muscular as possible.
The routine that changed everything.
Even though Bev Francis did not win the Ms.Olympia, she was one of the best bodybuilders . The 1990s would progress producing more high quality athletes.
Lenda Murray would be a dominant force in the 1990s and even into the early 2000s. There were formidable challengers to her title.From 1990 to 1995 she would decimate the competition. Her physique had an hour glass like figure packed with large muscles. A highly developed lower body and a developed upper body gave her an edge on competition. Her posing and grace made her very popular among the Olympia attendees. She became highly regarded in the fitness community and broke Cory Everson’s record. Lenda did something that was not done before.
Lenda Murray set a record for Olympia wins.
Competitors like Lenda, were getting bigger. Fans who opposed the new aesthetic defected to developing fitness contests. Fitness contests involved women performing gymnastics and doing some posing in swim suits. Critics claimed that this was way to limit the exposure of larger women competing. Others claimed that it was another option for women who had difficulty acquiring muscle size. Some believed it was a reactionary backlash against women’s advancement in the sport. It was not as if women were awful at bodybuilding, it was that they were too good at it. Traditionalists and people with one dimensional perspectives on what women should be or do decided to stop the progression. Bodybuilding became the only sport in which women were judged on “femininity.” This double standard exposed the blatant sexism that exists in the sport. Men were never subject to judging criteria on masculinity. As vague and ludicrous as these demands were the women continued to perform. Lenda Murray was able to balance these often unreasonable requests. Every year to her admission it became more challenging to present a body the judges were looking for.
Lenda Murray soon confronted a challenger that would dethrone her. Kim Chizevsky brought in a body of massive size, definition, and impressive symmetry. Her body looked like a living statue. She would be Ms.Olympia from 1996 to 1999. She was the first to win the Ms.International and Ms.Olympia in the same year. At her most muscular she was an incredible 157 pounds in competition in 1997. She was one of the best bodybuilders. The bodybuilding category was facing some issues by the late 1990s. Fitness competitions were becoming more popular. Chizevsky despite her victories was still frustrated with the judging standards. After the 1999 Ms.Olympia, Kim decided to retire from bodybuilding. It seemed also that women were defecting to the fitness category. Kim Chizevsky even came out of retirement to compete in the fitness category( subsequently in figure as well).
This change in category seems to parallel the Bev Francis situation.
Women were not being supported. The prize money for women competitors was lower than that of their male counterparts. Even promoters and heads of the fitness industry were not supportive of these talented athletes. Ben Weider seemed to differ with his brother in terms of the bodybuilding aesthetic form women. Ben held the extreme traditionalist perspective that women should not build strength to a maximum, but limit themselves in a manner that is acceptable to standard gender roles. Joe Weider seemed to have a more tolerant view of the female bodybuilder.The environment was hostile to the women in general.
A summery and evolution of female bodybuilding from the 1980s to early 2000s. Ben Weider’s comments reveal a subtle sexism that is present in the fitness industry.
Many people said the women were too big. Some blamed the use of performance enhancing drugs or women’s lack of conventional beauty. Questions of beauty seemed irrelevant seeing as these were athletic competitions not beauty pageants. The issue of performance enhancing drugs became more of a problem, when the Weiders attempted to make bodybuilding an Olympic sport. That required to be more conscious about what substances athletes used. No sport is completely drug free, but bodybuilding has a reputation for anabolic steroid use. This image was something the Weiders attempted dismantle, but were unsuccessful. Presently, it seems very unlikely that bodybuilding would become an Olympic sport. Steroids do not make champions and to say that was the only reason for women’s advance is ludicrous. Without correct training and diet one could not progress far in this sport . The another development that added to questions of looks was the introduction of figure. Figure was different from fitness in the sense that women needed to be slightly more muscular. Gymnastic routines were not required. It was a better alternative to women who could not achieve the size of a Ms.Olympia champion.
The rule changes were at times erratic. The judgement on femininity was officially put in place by 1992. The next major change was in the year 2000. Contestants now were judged on their make-up, face, and skin tone. They needed to have a “healthy” appearance. Weight classes were introduced for the first time. Competitors were still encouraged to not be “too extreme.” This like other elements of the sport are subjective. What is extreme for another person may seem normal for others. Men did not have to worry about being too big or standards of attractiveness. It was clear that the atmosphere was not welcoming to women competitors. Even with this level of double standards, the women performed even better. Andrulla Blanchette would win the lightweight class, while Valentina Chepiga took the heavyweights.
This was the only year there was no overall winner, but two Ms.Olympia champions in different weight categories.
The development of weight class may not have been a negative change. It did give women with a relatively smaller build to remain competitive. Juliette Bergmann was able to compete in the lightweight category with more success. Before she took the overall tile in the 2001 Ms.Olympia. Dayana Cadeau would also see victory in the lightweight class in 2004. Even when she did not win, in most of her competitions she placed in the top three. Lenda Murray would return winning both the 2002 and 2003 Ms.Olympia. She would lose to Iris Kyle who would dominate the Ms.Olympia to the end.
The two lightweight category champions Dayana Cadeau and Juliette Bergmann.
Iris Kyle was the best Ms.Olympia and the number of wins is evidence. She broke both Lenda Murray’s record and Cory Everson’s record. She has to be one of the most successful bodybuilders. She did have formidable opponents. First Lenda Murray was a challenge and after two tries she defeated her in 2004. Iris Kyle then lost in 2005 to Yaxeni Oriquen Garcia who also was a very accomplished competitor. Her competitive longevity was a useful asset. Learning from other competitions she improved her training methods to be the 2005 Ms.Olympia.
Two great champions Iris Kyle and Yaxeni Oriquen Garcia.
However, Iris Kyle would be resurgent and would continue to win until the last Ms.Olympia in 2014. This is an example of a remarkable athletic career. Yet, like her other women she was not given praise for her accomplishments.
The problem with the Ms.Olympia contest was that the Weiders did not attempt to market it as much as the Mr.Olympia. There were financial issues due to low ticket sales. The 1999 Ms.Olympia was nearly cancelled. Flex Magazine donated funds to the contest and it went ahead as scheduled. Just like other sports men were paid more, but in the bodybuilding community the wage gap was egregious. The Weider fitness empire was worth billions by the 2000s. It is odd that pay could not be adjusted for women athletes. The Weider brothers may have thought that muscular women were not marketable. This argument lacks cogency, because there were fans who would pay to access sites devoted to a particular athlete. Female bodybuilders by the 2000s began making members web sites with exclusive content. This was very helpful, because it provided extra funds that would go directly to the athletes. It seems like it was a lost business opportunity that Weiders missed out on.
Joe and Ben Weider did much to promote women’s bodybuilding, but did not give it the same respect as the men’s.
The Weider publishing empire was still functioning on the model “sex sells.” Readers they believed did not care about a woman’s athletic performance, but appearance. Ms.Olympia was regulated to a secondary status next to fitness competitions. It is uncertain what the latest effect physique competitions will have. This is a new category and the women are more muscular than figure competitors. It could easily be mistaken for lightweight bodybuilding. Some say that the disappearance of the Ms.Olympia signals the death of female bodybuilding.
It was announced that there would no longer be a Ms.Olympia in 2015. This was a major shock for fans and supporters. The Ms.Olympia contest was an important part of women’s sports history. It was the sport that developed during the second wave feminist movement and early Title IX era. The contest showed just how far the female body could be developed. Athletes performed magnificently under societal pressure, ostracism, and prejudice. Although there is no more Ms.Olympia, muscular women will not be disappearing anytime soon. There is another professional contest opened to athletes known as The Wings of Strength. This looks like a successor, but it will never be anything like the Ms.Olympia.