There’s so much to remember about Sergio Oliva long after his passing in November 2012. Some say he was the greatest bodybuilder in history. And though the controversy will always reign as to who was really the greatest, what cannot be disputed was that Oliva was certainly the most feared. In fact, the Myth was such a dominant force in his prime competitive shape that this three-time Mr. Olympia won his second title completely unopposed. That year he was so huge even by today’s standards, that prevailing was a foregone conclusion by literally everyone. It was unanimously felt by the competitors of his day that could have gone up against him that they would not only lose but actually would be thoroughly embarrassed by comparison. We have seen nothing remotely similar in our sport to date at such a lofty level. As such, Oliva remains the only Mr. Olympia to ever win the coveted title by unanimous default, yet so few talk about or even know about the training regimen that got him to “parts unknown.”
While his enduring victory pose will perhaps be what he is best remembered for, I remember many other things. I remember his friendship and warm smile every time we saw each other. I remember his personal story of risking his life defecting from Cuba and literally running through the streets to take refuge in the American Embassy. He always spoke of his love for Chicago and his patriotism and thankfulness to be an American citizen. Oliva used to love to rib me over dinner about the fact that I was a Yankees fan even though I had worked with the New York Mets in my capacity as a sports physician. Oliva loved his Mets even more than his Chicago teams (an aspect of Oliva I never fully understood). Yet Oliva would stick that in my face every time he could. Him looking at me with that smile and those eyes and shaking his head saying, “The Mets, baby!” is so ingrained in my conscience that I can’t go to the stadium or treat a Mets player without Oliva entering my mind.
But I also remember his personal pain, resentments that persisted throughout his life, at past racial prejudices suffered back in the ’60s at the hands of the AAU. Honestly, behind his warm smile, I knew Oliva as a bit of a bitter man. The same year I won the teenage East Coast, I was there at Madison Square Garden to witness what Oliva felt were the resurrections of bias over his finishing eighth in the 1984 Mr. Olympia at the Felt Forum in New York. He still talked about it with me decades later. At times it seemed like Oliva eventually resented almost everyone around him for one reason or another. Of course, the fact that this amazingly strong human being, both physically and mentally, would put himself out as a perpetual victim sometimes sounded so ridiculous I’d actually laugh in his face. But to his credit, he’d laugh back, almost acknowledging the absurdity of his aspersions.