Sergio Oliva Bio
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 weightlifting.
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 you far
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 Schwarzenegger.
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.
Return of 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. -Shawn Perine
Sergio Oliva Pictures