A row of bodybuilders

The Comeback: Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Comeback: Arnold Schwarzenegger

The controversial 1980 Mr Olympia event
 Adam Blackshaw

Forty years ago, Canberra-based filmmaker Kit Laughlin released his film The Comeback, documenting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s controversial 7th Mr Olympia title. The contest took place at the Sydney Opera House on 4 October 1980.

Arnold's 'interesting challenge’

Think 'bodybuilding' and for many people only one name comes to mind: Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the 1970s, the 'Austrian Oak’ dominated the Mr Olympia competition, winning a remarkable 6 years in a row from 1970 to 1975. Schwarzenegger retired from bodybuilding to take up other challenges, including his first starring role in a Hollywood feature film, the action-fantasy movie Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, USA, 1982).

According to Schwarzenegger, it was while preparing for his role as Conan that he thought it would be an interesting challenge to come out of retirement for one more shot at the title. He then stunned the bodybuilding world by entering the 1980 Mr Olympia contest a day before the start date, after having seriously trained for only 8 weeks. The event was held at the Sydney Opera House on 4 October 1980:

Excerpt from The Comeback, 1981. NFSA title: 39984

The opening intertitles to Kit Laughlin's film The Comeback in the clip above provide an effective impression of the unfolding drama. The tension is magnified by rival competitor Tom Platz’s awestruck comments about Schwarzenegger and head judge Bill Pearl explaining how he doubts it is possible for the Austrian to win the title after a 5-year hiatus. By contrast, Schwarzenegger himself seems very relaxed about the challenge he faced. Did this suggest, as some suspected, he knew the competition's result had already been decided?

The Legends of Bodybuilding

The 1980 Mr Olympia competition was the 16th time the event had been held and the first and only time it took place in Australia. Nearly all the legendary bodybuilders from this golden era of bodybuilding competed and can be seen in The Comeback – including Frank Zane, Boyer Coe, Chris Dickerson and Mike Mentzer. Australia’s Roger Walker also makes an appearance. Some of these competitors also appeared in the earlier docudrama, Pumping Iron (George Butler and Robert Fiore, USA, 1977),which covered the 1975 Mr Olympia. Given that everyone thought the 1975 competition was Schwarzenegger’s swan song, his last-minute entry in 1980 proved controversial.

Arnold flew over in his own plane, with his own film crew. They followed him to the toilets, showers, everywhere. They were here to promote and publicise his new movie. There was NO WAY he was going to lose, and everyone knew it. 

– claims Roger Walker, 2019. bodybuilding.com

Reactions from the other competitors to Schwarzenegger’s announcement were mixed. Mentzer was furious, while Zane and Coe expressed pity, thinking Schwarzenegger would lose and ruin his reputation.

The Posedown

Having made it through the solo posing routine, the finalists were announced – Dickerson, Zane, Roy Callender, Walker, Coe, Mentzer and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This clip from The Comeback features the 7 finalists competing in the posedown, where they attempt to outdo each other on stage. It’s a chance for the judges, and the audience, to make direct comparisons between competitors:

Excerpt from The Comeback, 1981. NFSA title: 39984

Laughlin's cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, lavishes attention on each bodybuilder. It really presents us with a celebration of extreme muscular development, effectively heightened by the addition of a hard rock soundtrack. Interestingly, 20 years later Lesnie won an Academy Award for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, NZ–USA, 2001).

The decision and the aftermath

When Schwarzenegger was announced as the winner, the decision was criticised by competitors who thought he lacked his former size and muscular definition. Booing from the audience is clearly audible in the clip above. 

Though Dickerson appeared to graciously accept the runner-up prize, he jumped off the stage and yelled, ‘I can’t believe it!’. Zane, in third place, reportedly threw his trophy against the wall backstage. Mentzer, who had tied for fourth with Coe but was awarded fifth place, was vocal in claiming it was all a conspiracy. Others vowed to boycott the competition the following year. The event was not broadcast on television as planned and it was the last time the Mr Olympia contest was filmed by an American television network.

After the 1980 Mr Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger retired from professional bodybuilding. Conan was a hit and he made a sequel 2 years later, Conan the Destroyer (Richard Fleischer, USA, 1984). That same year, Schwarzenegger played the title role in a low-budget American independent movie called The Terminator (1984, USA, James Cameron) and became a Hollywood superstar. He went on to star in numerous blockbusters and was the 38th Governor of California from 2003 to 2011.

Perhaps his own words in The Comeback best sum up his feelings about his bodybuilding career and his controversial seventh Mr Olympia win. ‘You have to be able to step back, out of yourself, and look at what you’re doing and laugh about it. Because it's all funny, being 'the best-built man in the world' –  very funny.'

Main image: Mr Olympia event, 1980. Beginning with Arnold Schwarzenegger (far left), this remarkable photo perfectly captures the extraordinary physiques of some of the legends of competitive bodybuilding.