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Before anyone gets their undies all in a twist, rest assured I have no desire to push women's bodybuilding towards pageantry status. But such was not the case back in 1982 when the Miss (yes, Miss) Olympia event (which was held at the Playboy Club Casino in Atlantic City) was being unmistakably touted as a "Pageant".
I was reminded of this moment in the history of women's bodybuilding when I recently found the original copy of what was to be the "script" used by the emcee for the 1982 Miss Olympia. It was a script that would thankfully never see the light of day.
What that group of pages contained was a detailed verbal format of the entire contest and exactly what the emcee was to say throughout the course of the event. It was very telling, to say the least.
The emcee that night was a gentleman by the name of Thom Fleming, and had the script been followed to the letter, it would have been all downhill from there.
"My name is Thom Fleming and I'll be with you this evening as your host and emcee to crown the International Queen of Bodybuilding...Miss Olympia...champion woman bodybuilder of the world," read the script.
"This is a special occasion for me. As an actor and high fashion model I am used to being around beautiful women....and tonight we have twenty-seven contestants from all over the world and all of them are quite beautiful..."
A bit cheesy? Yes. But keep in mind it was only the third Miss Olympia ever held.....and I'm getting ahead of myself.
|Rachel McLish, 1st place|
The remainder of the ten pages Fleming was to follow only became a bone of contention when - during the athletes' briefing and dress rehearsal before the evening show began - the competitors heard Fleming refer to the contest as a "pageant" as he ran through what would be the minute-by-minute progression of the evening's festivities.
The room went briefly silent as many of the competitors stared at one another with various looks of confusion to disbelief.
It was at that point Claudia Wilbourn outwardly expressed her displeasure with the contest being referred to as a pageant. Laura Combes was not far behind following Wilbourn's lead as she also protested the term.
Said Wilbourn of the contest, "It was clear the ubiquitous TV film crew was instrumental in shaping the format of the show.
"I felt myself trapped in a nightmare when I learned that we would be introduced by a sexist, ludicrous song sung off key by the male model emcee and two women with a piano accompaniment."
In addition to the contest being referred to as a pageant, the script referred to the competitors as "girls".
Further, the TV crew requested that each competitor step up to the microphone and give their home city and state - or country if they were foreign contestants.
Both Wilbourn and Combes had made it openly and abundantly clear that the event was an athletic competition, not a pageant and that the competitors were women, not girls.
|Kike Elomaa, 3rd place|
"All the women near me had groaned with embarrassment over the song and the show format," said Wilbourn. "My distress was even a surprise to me. I hadn't realized how thoroughly I was a feminist, a rebel and an iconoclast. My whole being was offended by the Miss Olympia format and tone."
The complaints were duly noted. And to be fair, the TV crew and promoter George Snyder made the changes quickly. Competitors would be referred to as "women", and the event would be called a bodybuilding competition. The corny song and self-introductions were scratched.
The briefing also produced another benchmark happening that was recounted by British competitor Carolyn Cheshire in England's Bodypower magazine.
"Without any of the judges present we were asked if we had any objections to members of the panel," said Cheshire. "The whole session went off very well with competitors able to voice their concerns. In the end the panel is accepted, and as far as I could tell all the competitors feel good about it."
Cheshire had her own was of describing the dress rehearsal, "The shocks were not over yet for we were all asked to line up in a semi-circle whilst a singer serenaded us with a song specially composed for the Miss Olympia. It was so corny that I thought I would die of embarrassment. A few of the "girls" couldn't stop giggling. But more to the point, there was another protest, and out went the pageant nonsense, the funny introductions, and the Miss Olympia song."
With many of the bodybuilding publications touting this new breed of women as the ‘Role Models of the 80's', the written reports were also exploring new territory, much like the promoter and TV crew.
One magazine writer described the venue and the event by stating, "The Playboy Hotel and Casino was an interesting place to hold a woman's bodybuilding contest. Here were the poles of, shall we say, tastes or preferences for the ideal female body. The casino bunnies with their cottontails, furry ears and high heels sharply contrasted with the women athletes who display beauty without such props or costumes. On the sexual spectrum, the bunnies are one kind of fantasy, the women bodybuilders quite another.
"The Miss Olympia was food for fantasies, whatever those fantasies might be. Women eyed the show for an image of the body they would want to have, the body they would train hard for. Men, well, men watched the show for other reasons. Both sexes seemed satisfied with the results, which nonetheless took the course of a day to be finalized."
All that said the 1982 Olympia still remains as a ground-breaking, memorable event that featured seven female bodybuilders in the field of 26 who would eventually make their collective ways into Joe Weider's Bodybuilding Hall of Fame. They included Rachel McLish, Carla Dunlap, Kike Elomaa, Lynn Conkwright, Laura Combes, Kay Baxter, and Claudia Wilbourn.
So, with the political correctness of the event hammered out to the satisfaction of the participants, the actual competition turned into a real barnburner.
With Rachel McLish looking to add a second Ms. O title after first winning in 1980, she was up against
|Carla Dunlap, 2nd place|
defending Ms. Olympia Kike Elomaa, two-time American champion Carla Dunlap, and Laura Combes - the winner of the first-ever American Women's Championships in 1980. The rest of the cast was impressive as well. Hardcore fans waited to see where judges would place the mega-popular and impressively-muscled Kay Baxter (she would eventually place eighth), and what the panel would do with the wide variety of physiques the contest featured.
The final results ranged from placings that were expected, to finishes that made little sense to anyone. Still in its infancy, judging exacted extreme shifts in the placements of competitors from contest to contest. Striking Texan Patsy Chapman , who just three years earlier had won the 1979 ‘Best in the World' contest - a contest that would serve as the forerunner of the first Miss Olympia a year later - found herself tied for 19th place along with seven other contestants. But the contest did offer high-end excitement, impromptu posedowns, and a final top six that divided $25,000 in prize money.
As extremely competitive as a women's bodybuilding contest could be in 1982, Rachel McLish claimed her second Olympia title, but the final tallies showed it was a horse race to the very end. McLish's winnings totaled $10,000, and just two points behind McLish, Carla Dunlap took the runner-up finish and $6,000 for her efforts. Defending Miss Olympia Kike Elomaa graciously accepted the third-place position and $4,000. Diminutive former gymnast
|Laura Combs, 6th place|
Lynn Conkwright placed fourth earning $3,000, and Deborah Diana (5th) and Laura Combes (6th) each took home checks for $1,000.
Still new on the women's sports scene worldwide, the ‘Miss Olympia' would have to wait two more years before promoters and the majority of bodybuilding media finally began to call the contest ‘Ms. Olympia'. It was merely a case of old habits dying hard.
So, the ‘Miss Olympia' contest never got off the ground as a pageant, but as a women's bodybuilding competition is was a raging success and helped catapult the sport into a higher level of popularity and familiarity led by the stalwart contingent of pioneering women at the 1982 Miss Olympia.