The 1980 Ms. Olympia: The Birth of a Tradition

This article was written by Bill Dobbins, and appeared in Muscle & Fitness magazine, in the February 1981 issue. With the Ms. Olympia now a standard tradition, it is interesting to note how it was started, and how the way of thinking in 1980 was.

“My God,” said the young man, looking in the door to watch the contestants as they signed in before the prejudging at the Ms. Olympia contest, “I can’t believe how beautiful they all are!”
It was a comment that said a lot about the first Olympia for women, as well as the current state of bodybuilding for women in general.

And, indeed, they were beautiful. In street clothes, high heels, makeup, coiffed and resplendent, it was difficult to image that these same women have so often been accused of being masculine, androgynous, or even grotesque. They were none of those things. They were gorgeous.

Ms Olympia
Bill Dobbins

Patsy Chapman, with the cheekbones of a superstar model; Carmen Lusko, possessing the world’s most engaging smile; Rachel McLish, with the long ,lean lines of a race horse; Auby Paulick, charm and energy in equal proportions; April Micotra, Stacey Bentley, Georgia Miller, Lynn Conkwright and more – the top professionals, the best of the breed, assembled together to choose the champion of champions, the first Ms. Olympia.

Of course, in one sense, this was not yet an Olympia at all. You can’t just call something on Olympia and automatically have an event with the prestige and tradition of the men’s Olympia contest. Traditions take time to develop. But you have to start somewhere, and this was an auspicious beginning. Those who claimed it was no more than “George Snyder’s women’s contest with a new name,” were simply missing the point.

And beautiful as these young women were, they knew full well they were not here for a beauty contest. Facial beauty matters in bodybuilding, for men as well as for women. It certainly never hurt Steve Reeves. But bodybuilding is more than just aesthetics; it has to do with muscles and physical development, and nobody was more aware of that than the Ms. Olympia competitors in Philadelphia. They had worked long and hard for this contest, And they were ready.

Actually, the contest was only one aspect of an entire weekend devoted to bodybuilding. The Association, in the persons of George Snyder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu and Bill Drake, had planned two days of seminars (featuring such stars as Arnold, Franco, Frank Zane, Mike Mentzer and Danny Padilla), a display of some of the latest developments in exercise equipment and health industry products, and a huge banquet preceding the finals of the contest.

“The turnout is fantastic,” George Snyder told me the afternoon of the contest. “I have had to turn away almost 1,000 people. And more request keep coming in!”

George had expected a good turnout, but this was something else. Actually, the underestimation of audience interest led to the only problem of the weekend – the prejudging was held without an audience, since George did not think that enough people would be interested to justify selling tickets. But the crowd of fans, hanging outside the hall proved him wrong.

“What happened,” George explained, “is that we wanted to use the main auditorium for the seminars, so we decided to use a smaller room upstairs for the prejudging. I had no idea so many people would want to see it, Believe me, next you we are going to make sure that tickets to the prejudging are available. As far as I am concerned, if bodybuilding fans want something, they ought to get it. That’s what makes good shows, and good shows are what we are interested in producing.”

Ms Olympia
Bill Dobbins

And so the women stood before the judges and the prejudging began. Dressed in posing costumes, their full muscularity revealed to the eye, there was no doubt now that these women were, indeed, bodybuilders. They were lean and hard, and the shapeliness of their bodies came from the fullness of muscle rather than the padding of fat.

There were 21 contestants in all. Only a handful were not in top shape, and there was one competitor who had no business being in that contest. But Snyder, recognizing the nature of the contest he was presenting, had decided to be lenient in accepting entries.

“The original idea,” he said “was that an Olympia should only have contestants who had won national titles. But when I looked into it, I realized that a lot of the so-called ‘national’ titles some of the women had won were really just local competitions with big names – and that some of the best women bodybuilders around might be left out if we tried to be too rigid about the whole thing.”

Instead, it was decided to open up the contest to professional women bodybuilders who had won a legitimate competition, and to gradually narrow the qualifications year by year as bodybuilding for women grew and contests proliferated.

“Doing it this way,” Snyder went on, “is better for bodybuilding, for the women and especially for the audience, since it gives them a better show. And, let’s face it, if we don’t have an audience, women’s bodybuilding is going nowhere. The fans are what makes the whole thing possible.”

As Christine Zane, Valerie Coe, Sven-Ole Thorson, Harold Poole, Dan Howard, Mike Katz and Doris Barrilleaux began their long day’s work as judges, the seminars were getting underway downstairs. Arnold led off, discussing the psychology of bodybuilding, and was followed by Franco on injuries, Zane talking about nutrition, John Balik answering questions about steroids, and Dr. Anita Columbu discussing women’s training.

When Arnold stood up to address the audience, it was immediately apparent how much bigger he had become, and that he must be back in serious training, But there was as yet no hint of his plans for a comeback.

Upstairs, the prejudging was proceeding according to the normal IFBB rules, identical to those used in the Mr.Olympia. There were three rounds in the afternoon:

Standing relaxed, viewed from all four sides;
Compulsory poses, six in all: two front poses, two back, arms over the head in one, lowered in the other; and two side shots, one from each side.
Free posing (the individual’s own posing routine).
In the evening, there would be another round of free posing, and a posedown, in which each judge would pick one competitor as the winner. For each first place vote received, a competitor would have one point added to her overall score.

Rachel McLish appeared to be the immediate front runner. This was only her third contest, but she had won impressively in the Atlantic City competition earlier in the year, did well in the Zane contest, and now looked even better in Philadelphia. It was by no means a sure thing, but there was no doubt that she was the one to beat.

Some of the best known women were, unfortunately, not in their best shape. Patsy Chapman displayed beautiful shape and proportion as usual, but she was way too smooth. Stacey Bentley was also not as cut up as she had been at the Zane contest. “I guess I’ve just tried to enter too many contests in a row, do too many exhibitions, and stay in training too long,” she admitted later. “I’ve seen it happen to the men, and now I know it can happen to me, too.” A quiet, unobtrusive photographer, armed only with two very small, old fashioned Leicas, took shots continuously This was George Butler, who had shot the photographs for the book version of Pumping Iron. At Philadelphia, he was taking pictures for an updated version that will include woman’s bodybuilding.

When the prejudging concluded, it was pretty clear how the battle for first was shaping up. Rachel McLish, no doubt, was a a top contender. But she was getting some close competition from a petite blond dynamo named Auby Paulick, who was experiencing her first national level contest. That night, the auditorium of the Sheraton in Philadelphia filled up early for the banquet. Among the hundreds of diners, the competitors say and (most) ate sparingly. In a short time, they would be called backstage to get ready and the show would begin.

Bill Dobbins

After dinner, the audience was treated to a number of guest posers. Ron Teufel got a warm welcome, and came out looking perhaps a little better than he would at the Mr. America a week later. Mike Mentzer appeared, thick as a house. Frank Zane looked somewhat drawn and tired, a result of a training accident in early August.

The high point of the exhibitions was, to my mind, the dual posing routine of Boyer and Valerie Coe. For one thing, Boyer was in phenomenal shape, keeping to his timetable that called for him to peak for the Mr. Olympia. But more than that, there was the excellence of the routine itself: a combination of athletic and aesthetic elements that few men and women teams have achieved. It was like a pairs skating routine, with Boyer displaying power and athleticism in a number of well executed lifts, and Valerie flowing with his movements as if she were unconfined by gravity.

Now it was time for the show itself. Back in the small dressing rooms, unlike at the men’s events, the women were cheerful and bubbling. No drawn faces and withdrawn personalities here. Just some nervous anticipation, a lot of excitement, and competitors pitching in to apply oil to the nearest back.

Second competitor out was Anniqa Fors, a beautiful blonde Danish girl and discovered by Sven-Ole Thorsen. Anniqa is really just a beginner at bodybuilding but she showed enormous potential. Later we saw Corinne Machado, who showed such quality of development that it was certain she would place well; and then there was Auby Paulick.

Auby took the stage the way Patton took Sicily. She sent beams of energy into the audience, and the people responded with by far the most enthusiasm of the evening. Auby, it turns out, had had considerable experience as a professional dancer back in her native Michigan, and she is no stranger to playing to crowds. If the contest were to have been decided purely on the basis of audience response to this last round, she would have emerged the clear winner.

It was almost unfair to ask Lynn Conkwright to follow such an act, but if somebody had to do it, she was a good choice. Lynn has such enormous strength and control of her body, she’s able to do things in her posing routine that many other cannot, and the audience quickly caught on and gave her their arrival.

Then Rachel McLish came out. Her routine was careful and precise, well though out, but it lacked something – perhaps a certain dynamism, the right kind of energy. It seemed a bit too “ladylike.” But at the same time, the quality of her physique was unmistakable, so perhaps the routine served its purpose. “What a thoroughbred!” Mike Mentzer said in admiration, and that about sums it up.

After all the contestants had completed their posing routines, the top five were called out for a posedown: Rachel McLish, Auby Paulick, Lynn Conkwright, Corinne Machado and Stacey Bentley. If the contest was close, this was a chance for the competitors to make up the difference, and they worked as hard as any lineup of male professionals. And then we got the judge’s decision. The winner was Rachel, followed by Auby, Lynn, Corinne and Stacey. It was over. The first Ms. Olympia had been awarded.

Ms Olympia
Bill Dobbins

Many in the audience were surprised that Auby Paulick hadn’t won. After all the spectators hadn’t seen the prejudging, so they could only go on what had happened onstage during the evening show. And Auby had clearly dominated that aspect of the show as far as the crowd as concerned. But if we take a closer look at the scoring for all three rounds i becomes apparent what happened. The scoring in the prejudging for Rachel and Auby went like this:

Once again, Auby tied Rachel, but she was too far behind to win even if all seven judges had voted for her. but the question in the audience would have asked is why Auby, who got such a great response from the crowd, didn’t score higher than Rachel?

“Auby did a fantastic job of entertaining the audience”, one judge told me (a judge, incidentally, who gave Auby one of her first place votes), “but we weren’t there to judge a popularity contest. A lot of what she did onstage had nothing to do with bodybuilding. But, as far as presenting her physique was concerned, I thought she did well and I scored her pretty high. Although Rachel didn’t come on to the audience the way Auby did, she also presented her physique well, and I scored her high, too.”

Rachel, it seemed, showed an attachment to her ballet training, and may have approached her posing from somewhat too conservative an angle. But this was only her third contest, so she will no doubt develop new routines in the future.

Auby had admittedly not been training very long, and has never trained consistently heavy enough to develop a full muscular shape like Rachel. But the development she has already achieved indicates she had extraordinary potential. If she keeps it up, she had a great future in bodybuilding.

Rachel and Auby are both attractive, charismatic, and are good representatives of the sport. But it speaks well for the Ms. Olympia contest, the judges involved and women’s bodybuilding as a whole that, when it came down to the wire, the best physique won the day.

When that happens, everybody wins; when it doesn’t, we all lose.

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