The Great Competition

The Great Competition: Bodybuilding’s first contest.

It’s hard to imagine bodybuilding without the Mr. Universe, Mr. America and Mr. Olympia contests, but these competitions have been in existence only a relatively short time. And it has taken decades for them to evolve into slick, glittering spectacles of beauty, brawn and flash. But strangely enough, grandiose competitions have come full circle: the first major bodybuilding contest was held over 80 [now 100] years ago in England, and it was so elaborate it would have made the producers of the Mr. Olympia competition proud.

Bodybuilding’s first big competition was produced by Eugen Sandow, a man as extraordinary as the contest he brought about. In 1901, the year of the “Great Competition”, as he called his contest, Sandow was only 34 years old, but he had already toiled long in the vineyards of physical culture. Rising from obscurity, he had popularized the sport of bodybuilding by his many personal exhibitions in Europe and America. By dint of his own energy, strength and personal magnetism, he had transformed the sport from the occupation of a few cranks and vaudeville performers to a viable way to build a shapely physique and to improve health. Eugen Sandow was not the sort of man to think small.


The Great Competition took three years to plan. In July of 1898, the first issue of Sandow’s Magazine announced that the contest would be open to all Sandow students in the United Kingdom. It was to promote the spread of physical culture and “afford encouragement to those who are anxious to perfect their physiques.” The tempting prizes amounted to 1,000 guineas (well over $5,000 at the time), and the man judged to have the most perfectly developed body would be awarded a magnificent solid gold statuette of Sandow himself, reported worth 500 pounds ($2,500). The second-place winner would be awarded a solid silver statuette, and the third-place winner would receive one of bronze.

The Sandow Statuette was originally sculpted in 1891 by William Pomeroy when Sandow was on the music-hall circuit. Over the years, Sandow had several copies of his statue made in both bronze and spelter. In fact, it was one of these copies that was presented to Steve Reeves when he was named Mr. Universe in 1950. Today, an original of this sculpture is one of bodybuilding’s most sought-after relics.

As soon as the announcement of the competition appeared in Sandow’s Magazine, applications began flowing in. Everyone wanted to be a part of this contest. Sandow had correctly determined that the public was ready for a competition, and he was ready to give it to them.

One of the first things Sandow did was devise a viable system of elimination, since nothing like that existed at the time – at least not on the scale he wanted. His solution was a bold one: he would organize a series of local bodybuilding contests in each of Great Britain’s many counties. In order to ensure fairness, Sandow agreed to oversee each of these regional competitions. The individual county winners would receive gold, silver and bronze medals and would then be eligible to compete in the grand competition later.
Sandow made it clear from the beginning that prizes would not necessarily be awarded to men who had huge physiques. He was looking for symmetrical, even development, and to press home that point he published a list of qualities that would be taken into consideration when the winners were chosen. First, there was general development; second, equality or balance of development; third, the condition and tone of the tissues; fourth, the general health; and fifth, the condition of the skin.

After nearly three years of county championships, the date of Saturday, September 14, 1901, was finally set for the Great Competition. Notices appeared all over London announcing the magnificent spectacle. The Royal Albert Hall, a huge building originally constructed as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s late husband, was chosen as the contest site, and it turned out to be an apt choice, since it was the largest place in London – but even so, it couldn’t accommodate all the people who showed up that night.
It was reported that on the evening of the contest all the buses and hansom cabs for miles around were taken by people eager to get to the Royal Albert Hall. Although the organizers had made restrictions against seating people in the aisles and the orchestra pit, these had to be discarded because of the huge throngs trying to gain admittance. The hall’s seating capacity was 15,000, and incredibly, the competition was a total sellout, with many hundreds turned away at the door.

thegreatcompetition5By all rights, September of 1901 was not the most auspicious time to hold a public entertainment of any sort. Britain was in the midst of the Boer War, a particularly brutal and bloody conflict in the Transvaal region of South Africa. Even worse was the shocking news that had reached England that very day from the United States: President William McKinley had just died from an assassin’s bullet. Fortunately, neither of these dreadful events totally dampened the spirits of the audience.

Sandow, too, was savvy enough to take advantage of adversity. He generously agreed to donate all the proceeds from the competition without any deductions whatsoever to the “Mansion House Transvaal War Relief Fund”. This was quite a gesture, since his expenses must have been considerable. Still, it gave the competition an air of legitimacy, since those who attended could claim that they would “both advance the cause of physical education and augment the funds of this most deserving charity”, as Sandow’s publicity flier patriotically put it.
Promptly at 8PM, the band of the Irish Guards began playing Chopin’s somber “Funeral March” in tribute to the slain American President. Immediately, the entire audience rose to its feet. There was a large American contingent in the house, and it was reported that they were “unmistakably touched by the earnest and solemn demeanor of all”.

Not one to squander the drama in the atmosphere, Sandow quickly extinguished the house lights. Suddenly, 20 powerful spotlights burst out of the darkness and shone on the floor of the hall, and row after row of boys from the Watford Orphan Asylum marched out in perfect precision. These boys, 50 in all, performed with such quickness and exactitude that they “aroused the audience to a great pitch of excitement”. The ovation they received was long and hearty.

After this came the various athletic displays. Wrestling, gymnastics, chest-expander drills and even fencing were included. Sandow evidently believed in giving the audience its money’s worth. At last the band struck up a lively march. It was in fact Sandow’s own composition, “The March of the Athletes”, and to its beat a stately procession of 60 competitors strode in.

It must have been a stirring sight to see all those athletes marching in cadence. Only the costume the men were ordered to wear detracted from the solemnity of the occasion: black tights, black jockey belt and leopard skins. Not only did the leopard skin and tights cover up the men’s legs, but they just plain looked silly. But no one laughed – after all, who in his right mind would have the nerve to point and snicker at 60 well-muscled strongmen? However ridiculous the athlete may have looked, they represented the flower of British bodybuilding, and, as one journalist remarked, “to stand in their ranks was a distinction.”

Sandow was able to secure the services of two of Edwardian England’s most honored and respected men as his judges. One was a famous sculptor and amateur athlete, Sir Charles Lawes. The other was the even more famous Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, well known to readers then as now as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Sandow himself was to act as referee in case of a difference of opinion between the two.
The presence of these two luminaries shows the depth of interest in bodybuilding that permeated the early years. The fact that neither of these men was a bodybuilder seemed to make no difference. What they lacked in judging expertise they more than made up for in the prestige they lent to the competition and the sport.
As the judging began, the judges walked slowly up and down the rows of men, pausing here and there to inspect them at closer range. They made their decisions, and 12 finalists were picked from the group. Then an intermission was called.

When the show resumed, it was Sandow’s turn to perform. He came out in the middle of the arena and went through his famous strongman act. He posed, tore a pack of cards in two, lifted weights and generally impressed the audience with his strength and grace. The spectators showed their appreciation by giving him an ovation that lasted a full five minutes. They were obviously grateful not only for his performance, but for all his labors on behalf of physical culture.

After Sandow finished, the important part of the evening began: the final judging. Each of the 12 men stood on a separate pedestal and went through a series of compulsory poses designed to display each set of muscles. The care and attention given to the contestants before was nothing compared to what they were now subjected to. Not a single aspect of their bodies was missed by the judges as they carefully inspected the men, scrupulously looking for strengths and weaknesses. “Mr. Sandow”, it was noted, “fairly went on his hands and knees to examine the nether limbs of men”. And all the time the audience watched and waited “with breathless interest”.
of Birmingham, and the solid gold statue for the best developed man in Great Britain and Ireland went to At last three winners were selected. The bronze statue for third place went to A.C. Smythe of Middlesex, the silver statue for second place went to D. CooperWilliam L. Murray of Nottingham. The band struck up “See the Conquering Hero” and a huge roar of approval arose from the thousands of spectators. The world’s first bodybuilding competition ended triumphantly.

Sandow had done the seemingly impossible. He had made bodybuilding – a sport in its infancy – a center of public interest. Even the staid, respectable Times of London reported the competition favorably, calling it a “novel and interesting display”. However, it characteristically warned its readers that “in some cases the development of muscles appeared to be abnormal”, and it questioned whether Sandow’s system might be beneficial to everyone, since it produces “such extraordinary muscular deviation”.
Still, people who would never normally have come into contact with the sport found themselves caught up in the enthusiasm that gripped London. It suddenly appeared that thousands were willing to risk “muscular deviation” and give bodybuilding a try.

The proceeds from the competition amounted to over 500 pounds, all of which (as promised) was donated to charity. With unerring instinct, Sandow had struck a responsive cord in the British public. They were ready for health and bodybuilding, and he was willing to supply it. Many people had observed a gradual decline in British vigor and fitness, and, in fact, the large number of army recruits who had been turned down because of poor health or scrawny physiques had become a national disgrace. There was no regular physical education in British schools, so Sandow came along just in the nick of time. He offered the British health, vitality and strong bodies, and the public was ready to listen. Bodybuilding came of age overnight.

There is an interesting postscript concerning the solid gold statuette that was awarded to William Murray. Not only was Steve Reeves presented with the same type in 1950, but in 1978 Joe Weider commissioned a West Coast artist to “muscle up” the original Sandow statue, giving it a present-day physique. It was this version that Arnold Schwarzenegger used to present to winners of the Mr. Olympia contest during his tenure as director.
But what had become of the original statue and its owner? Surely, thought historian David Webster, there must be some record of an extremely valuable solid gold statue. After several years of patient detective work, the real story began to emerge.

After the Great Competition, the winner, William Murray, decided to take advantage of the championship that he had won. He organized a strongman act of his own, complete with mock Roman games, gladiatorial combats, and heavy silver wands that were swung through the air in time to music.
But when the call to arms came for World War I, Murray gave up his act and enlisted. Unfortunately, he was the victim of a poison-gas attack while in the trenches, and this left him weakened and debilitated for the rest of his life. After the war he became the manager of a theater in the northern English city of Newcastle, and despite his grievous injuries, lived to the age of 75.

Murray had kept the Sandow statue, but over the years its existence had been forgotten. Eventually, Webster tracked down this elusive prize. It was in the possession of Murray’s nephew. But when Webster was finally able to examine the statue at close range, he received quite a surprise. It turned out not to be solid gold, as Sandow publicity had reported, but bronze with merely a thin gold plating! Even the great Sandow was not above a little skullduggery when it suited his purposes.

But this certainly does not detract from the importance of the contest itself. Sandow’s Great Competition accomplished four major goals: it brought together the top bodybuilders of Great Britain, then the sports superpower of the world; it demonstrated that betterment of the body was an attainable goal; it proved beyond a doubt that a bodybuilding competition made a damn fine show; and finally, it laid sturdy foundations of popular support. One well-known bodybuilding instructor of the time called the competition “a complete and glorious victory for Physical Culture”, and added that Sandow could “claim to have accomplished a marvelous success toward the advance of the great cause we all have so much at heart”. Thanks to Sandow and people like him, today bodybuilding is a lively, popular and growing sport.

This article was reproduced with the permission of  IFBB President, Dr. Rafael Santonja.

Subscribe to‘s new NEWSLETTER.
It is the best way to keep up with all out latest stories and features related to the bodybuilding and fitness world!
Don’t forget to check your SPAM folder just in case it is sent there.