Something extraordinary happened in the history of bodybuilding on September 14, 1901. It was on that evening that the famous Anglo-German physical culture entrepreneur Eugen Sandow held an event called simply “The Great Competition,” the first major physique competition the world had ever seen.
There had been a nationwide search for contestants, and sixty semifinalists who came from all over the British Isles had been assembled in the cavernous purlieus of London’s Royal Albert Hall. The judges of the contest were culled from the best that turn-of-the-century British high society could offer: one was the sculptor Sir Charles Lawes, another was Sandow himself, and the third arbiter was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
These men narrowed down the field to twelve contestants, and the finalists were told to stand on pedestals where they could be seen to good effect. Despite their silly looking black tights, leather belts and leopard-skin loincloths, the men were inspected very carefully by the judges. At last, the three top winners were announced, and each of the lucky victors came forward to accept an extraordinary prize: a beautifully sculpted statuette of Sandow himself. The third place winner received a statue made of bronze, a silver for second, and for William L. Murray of Nottingham, a golden statue was his reward.
The magnificent statue that was awarded to the competitors in this early contest was fated to have a long and distinguished afterlife. It reappeared briefly as a trophy in 1950 and then was resurrected most gloriously of all at the Mr. Olympia contest of 1977, and it has remained the symbol of bodybuilding’s most coveted prize ever since. Today, it is recognized by many in the bodybuilding world, but few realize its long and convoluted history.
In 1891, muscleman Eugen Sandow was the toast of England. He had appeared on the British music-hall stage in 1889 when he defeated another flamboyant strongman in a contest of weightlifting and chain snapping. The 24-year-old athlete had toured the British Isles and had begun to lay the foundations of his long career as a music-hall performer, a gym operator and a shrewd businessman. Sandow’s graceful form and impressive musculature caught the eye of a 35-year-old sculptor whose own reputation was also on the rise. His name was Frederick W. Pomeroy and, in February of 1891, the two men collaborated on the wonderful statue which we celebrate to this day.
Pomeroy was born on October 9, 1856 in London, the son of an artist-craftsman, and he quickly gained a reputation in Victorian London for decorative and portrait work, but he was especially good when it came to nudes (both male and female).
“There is much truth in both his ideal figures and portraiture,” remarked a contemporary critic, “He sees nature in a big and broad way … He is excellent in modeling, and his technique is not less good … In his portrait statues there is a great deal of strength … “His figures stand well, and are always fine representations of the men.” [M.H. Spielmann, British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today (London: Cassell, 1901), p118]
All of these qualities are clearly present in the statuette that Pomeroy created of Sandow. The sculptor has depicted a graceful but muscled strongman who grasps one end of a globe barbell in one hand and balances delicately with the other. Sandow’s handsome face, broad shoulders and rippling abdomen are all unmistakable, and the subject of this [Sandow] was undoubtedly thrilled with the results. But the strongman was not the only one who loved the statue, in fact it was so popular with athletes and aesthetes that while Sandow was alive many copies of the sculpture were made; these were then given or sold to admirers over the years. Some were presented by the athlete to lucky admirers while others were placed in Sandow’s gymnasiums – anyplace, in fact, where strength, health and beauty were appreciated.
When Sandow became a star in the United States after 1894, he authorized the production of more copies of his portrait statue to be made in North America. These were produced by Mullers & Sons foundry in New York. This version is slightly different from the original because the athlete’s body is painted a dull gold and the base is square and decorated with block letters spelling out the name “SANDOW.” Far fewer examples of this version escaped the ravages of time.
As popular as these statues were, they remained in private hands, were relegated to attics or met various other fates. It was reported, for instance, that the original gold statue won by William Murray was destroyed in the Blitz that destroyed much of London during World War II. For whatever reason therefore, Pomeroy’s magnificent work remained virtually hidden until another contest in 1950 brought it back into the light of the sporting world.
Promoters of the 1950 Mr. Universe competition in London were certain that the winner of the contest that year would be English superstar Reg Park, so they offered a tantalizing trophy (believing that it would stay in the country): this was the original bronze Sandow statue that had been awarded to the third-place winner fifty years earlier at the Great Competition. Much to their surprise and chagrin, the victor that year was a young American, Steve Reeves, and he consequently took the prize back to his home in California. Before he left, however, he posed for a series of photos with the precious statue cradled in his arms, and these created a lasting impression in the minds of both fans and bodybuilders of the day. [right: Steve Reeves and the Sandow on the cover of Joe Weider’s March 1952 edition of YOUR PHYSIQUE]
Once again, the Sandow statue was fated to remain in the shadows for over a quarter century, but in 1977 the bodybuilding world came to recognize in Pomeroy’s immortal work the highest award the sport could offer, but this time the contest was the Mr. Olympia competition. From its beginnings in 1965, the Mr. Olympia had been conceived to honor professional bodybuilding’s biggest and best athletes, and for the first twelve years of its existence the trophies had been “traditional huge, baroque, brass wedding cakes”, tall and impressive but not very memorable. That was all destined to change in 1977 in Columbus when three of the contest’s promoters combined to honor both Sandow and the sport’s long and colorful past.
Joe Weider, Jim Lorimer and Arnold Schwarzenegger all claim the honor of devising the idea of offering the Sandow statue as the trophy for the overall winner at the Mr. Olympia contest, but perhaps the best that can be said at this point is that it was a mutual decision. According to Joe Weider, the original of the statue used as the mold for all subsequent castings had been found in an antique shop by his wife Betty. She immediately recognized the importance of the work, purchased it and presented it to Joe.
In 1977, the very first Mr. Olympia Sandow was won by Frank Zane in the Ohio capital city, and was featured on the cover of Weider’s “Muscle Builder and Power” magazine a few months later in July 1978. The statue has continued to tempt bodybuilding contestants ever since. Thus, for over thirty years, Pomeroy’s masterful work has represented bodybuilding’s ultimate award.
Physiques have changed in the century that has intervened between that first contest in 1901 and toady’s competitions, but the important things will endure. By using Sandow’s muscular image, the directors of bodybuilding anchor current athletes to the sport’s past and show that although the bodies change, the desire for beauty, strength and excellence will always be constant.
The story of the Mr. Olympia medal
Sculptor and designer of the medal
About 1987, I was the Kinesiology illustrator for Muscle & Fitness Magazine and Joe Weider asked me if I could design a new Mr. Olympia medal for him. He proposed a basic, “coin-type” design, with the Sandow on one side and a portrait of himself on the other, in profile, with his arms crossed. A size was specified, as were certain words and numbers that had to appear on the medal. By the time I got home, I wondered if I should really limit myself to a flat coin, because it seemed that it would be more interesting and beautiful if I managed to make the medal into a hanging sculpture. When I returned to show Joe a big, glistening maquette of my “wild” idea, he jumped at it and gave me the go-ahead to make the actual medal. Soon after delivering the completed master to Joe, I got an excited call from an old gentleman named Joel Meisner (who has since passed away) asking me who I was and where I came from. He was the owner of the Joel Meisner Foundry, where Joe was having the medals cast, and he said he hadn’t seen anything this good in years. Within days he saw to it that I was invited to the International Federation of Medallic Art, which was held in Colorado Springs the year the medal was completed, as a guest of the American Numismatic Association (ANA). The medal caused quite a sensation there. Everyone wanted to see and handle it so much that I later donated the medal to the ANA, for their museum.
This article was reproduced with the permission of IFBB President, Dr. Rafael Santonja. www.ifbbpro.com