Chris Dickerson is one of most inspirational bodybuilders in the history of the sport. Not only because of what he achieved with his physique, but because of the impact he had on the industry as a person.
He was the first, Black, Gay and Over 40 bodybuilder to be crowned Mr. Olympia – not only that he was one of the shortest athletes to win at just 5’6 – and he only started training at 24.
Chris’ story is one of a bodybuilder training against all odds, both physically and psychologically. He was starting off in an industry he was too old and short to begin, with a race and orientation most people wouldn’t accept – this is how he proved everyone wrong.
“The ideal physique is one with broad shoulders, a small, tapered waist, shapely and developed legs. The neck, arms and calves should all measure the same or close to it. It is equally important to work on your posing in order to show off what development you have attained to your best advantage.”
|Full Name: Henri Christophe “Chris” Dickerson|
|185 – 195lbs (83.9 – 88.5kg)||5’6″ (167.5cm)||18″ (45.7 cm)||N/A|
|Year of Birth||Nationality||Profession|
|1939||American||Bodybuilder, Model, Lecturer, Orderly, Drama Student, Singer|
|Chris||1960, 1970, 1980, 1990|
|Weight||185 – 195lbs (83.9 – 88.5kg)|
|Arms||18″ (45.7 cm)|
|Year of Birth||1939|
|Profession||Bodybuilder, Model, Lecturer, Orderly, Drama Student, Singer|
|Era||1960, 1970, 1980, 1990|
“Being a competitor can often be very rough. Physique competitions are difficult to judge. Learning to win is easy but knowing how to lose is a much truer test of the stuff we are made of. Being a competitor can bring out the very best and the worst in our nature.”
- 1966 Mr North America – AAU, 2nd
- 1966 Mr New York State – AAU, Overall Winner
- 1966 Mr Eastern America – AAU, Overall Winner
- 1966 Mr Atlantic Coast – AAU, Overall Winner
- 1966 Junior Mr USA – AAU, Most Muscular, 1st
- 1966 Junior Mr USA – AAU, Winner
- 1967 Mr California – AAU, Winner
- 1967 Mr America – AAU, Most Muscular, 4th
- 1967 Mr America – AAU, 6th
- 1967 Junior Mr America – AAU, Most Muscular, 5th
- 1967 Junior Mr America – AAU, 4th
- 1968 Mr USA – AAU, Most Muscular, 2nd
- 1968 Mr USA – AAU, Winner
- 1968 Mr America – AAU, Most Muscular, 3rd
- 1968 Mr America – AAU, 3rd
- 1968 Junior Mr America – AAU, 3rd
- 1969 Mr America – AAU, 2nd
- 1969 Junior Mr America – AAU, 2nd
- 1970 Mr Universe – NABBA, Short, 1st
- 1970 Mr America – AAU, Most Muscular, 1st
- 1970 Mr America – AAU, Winner
- 1970 Junior Mr America – AAU, Most Muscular, 1st
- 1970 Junior Mr America – AAU, Winner
- 1971 Universe – NABBA, Short, 1st
- 1973 Universe – NABBA, Short, 1st
- 1973 Universe – NABBA, Overall Winner
- 1973 Pro Mr America – WBBG, Winner
- 1974 Universe – Pro – NABBA, Short, 1st
- 1974 Universe – Pro – NABBA, Overall Winner
- 1975 World Championships – WBBG, 2nd
- 1975 Universe – Pro – PBBA, 2nd
- 1976 Universe – Pro – NABBA, Short, 2nd
- 1976 Universe – Pro – NABBA, 3rd
- 1976 Olympus – WBBG, 4th
- 1979 Mr. Olympia – IFBB, Lightweight, 4th
- 1979 Grand Prix Vancouver – IFBB, 2nd
- 1979 Canada Pro Cup – IFBB, Winner
- 1979 Canada Diamond Pro Cup – IFBB, 2nd
- 1980 Pittsburgh Pro Invitational – IFBB, 2nd
- 1980 Mr. Olympia – IFBB, 2nd
- 1980 Night of Champions – IFBB, Winner
- 1980 Grand Prix New York – IFBB, Winner
- 1980 Grand Prix Miami – IFBB, Winner
- 1980 Grand Prix Louisiana – IFBB, 2nd
- 1980 Grand Prix California – IFBB, Winner
- 1980 Florida Pro Invitational – IFBB, Winner
- 1980 Canada Pro Cup – IFBB, Winner
- 1981 Professional World Cup – IFBB, 2nd
- 1981 Mr. Olympia – IFBB, 2nd
- 1981 Night of Champions – IFBB, Winner
- 1981 Grand Prix World Cup – IFBB, 2nd
- 1981 Grand Prix Washington – IFBB, Winner
- 1981 Grand Prix New York – IFBB, Winner
- 1981 Grand Prix New England – IFBB, 2nd
- 1981 Grand Prix Louisiana – IFBB, Winner
- 1981 Grand Prix California – IFBB, Winner
- 1982 Mr. Olympia – IFBB, Winner
- 1984 Mr. Olympia – IFBB, 11th
- 1990 Arnold Classic – IFBB, 8th
- 1994 Olympia – Master
“Be prepared, have your poses down pat, practice, practice and practice. Expect to be nervous, but try to enjoy yourself on stage, and if you do not place number one, blame yourself and not the judges. Keep in mind no one will remember your losses. People only remember the winner.”
Chris Dickerson was born in 1939 as one of three triplets in the heart of Alabama. His mother was Mahala Ashley Dickerson, one of the most inspirational women for African Americans at the time. A life long friend to Rosa Parks, Mahala was the first black female attorney in Alabama and the second black woman admitted to the Indiana bar in 1951.
Even at a young age, Chris was inspired by his mother, showing him that race or gender may set you back – but with enough determination, they would never stop you.
At school, Chris always had a flair for athletics, but his main passion was drama and singing. Hoping to one day become an opera singer, Chris went on to study at the New York Academy of Dramatic Art after high school. There, his singing teacher believed Chris would have a stronger voice if he had a stronger chest, and believed weight training was the best way to get there.
At first, Dickerson was just training for function, he wanted to become a better singer. However, after a short trip to his aunt over in California, Chris saw a photo Bill Pearl in a muscle magazine and realized the potential of what weight training could offer.
Dickerson became obsessed with the lifestyle, he even spent time in LA and even began training at Bill’s gym to learn from the man himself. Bill was so impressed with Dickerson’s attitude that he started to train the young bodybuilder immediately. Chris took up work as a hospital orderly in LA to make ends meet while out there, with the bigger picture of becoming a world class bodybuilder in mind.
Adversity, First Competition, and 1966 on the East Coast
There were three main factors Chris knew where up against him when competing in bodybuilding:
- Being openly gay in a sport of only straight men
- Being African American where racism was still prevalent
- Having a height of 5’6 while the sport was being dominated by tall men
That last one being the most important. Chris knew he’d have problems with his race and sexual orientation – racism and homophobia were rampant. However, he knew this would only affect how he was viewed as a person, which he knew he could overcome, whereas his height would affect how he was judged as a bodybuilder, a factor he couldn’t influence as easily.
He started training seriously at the age of 24 – unheard of for anyone in the sport, especially when you’re aiming for trophies like Mr. Universe and Olympia.
In 1965, two years after starting training, Dickerson entered in his first competition, Mr. Long Beach, coming in at 3rd place. Rather than viewing it as a failure, Chris was happy with the results and still remembers the 1965 Mr. Long Beach as one of his favorite events:
“To this day, this trophy remains my sentimental favourite. I was never to be the same again after winning my first trophy.”
Brimming with motivation, Dickerson entered 12 competitions back on the East Coast in 1966 and won every single one.
Within a year, Chris Dickerson had become a bodybuilding sensation, and it was only a matter of time before he would realize he was worthy of an Olympia.
‘Making it’ as a Bodybuilder – AAU & NABBA Federations
After 1966, Chris had become a hot topic in the bodybuilding world. Appearing in magazines and receiving a lot of coverage, he was fast becoming one of the most popular bodybuilders of his time.
Dickerson believed the secret to his success was all about proportions – with his calves, neck, and biceps all measuring exactly the same size, he was perfect for the aesthetic direction the sport had been heading in.
Another reason it’s believed Chris did so well was his acting talent. His time in the New York Academy of Dramatic Art showed him the best ways to present himself on stage to make the most out of his posing and overall physique.
Back to Bill Pearl
He wanted to take him to the next level, and went back to Bill Pearl with one goal in mind: Mr. America. By 1967, Bill and Chris were training five days a week and posing on the sixth, all in preparation for the Mr. America competition that year. Unfortunately, he didn’t win, placing 6th overall, but he kept going. By 1970 Chris was both Mr. America (AAU) and Mr. Universe (NABBA).
Dickerson was dominating both the AAU and the NABBA federations, and even moved over to England to win more NABBA titles as they were European based.
He would continue to win NABBA’s Mr. Universe competitions for many years before focusing in on a bigger prize – the IFBB’s Mr. Olympia.
The IFBB, and the Controversial 1980 Mr. Olympia
Chris Dickerson started his bodybuilding career in the IFBB in 1979. He was 40 years old – the age most athletes in the sport would be retired at, but Chris was just getting warmed up. He wanted to become Mr. Olympia before he retired.
It felt like a now or never situation, as he was competing against bodybuilders in the prime of their lives, while he was now middle aged. It was a rocky start, coming 6th in his first Olympia, but Dickerson didn’t take it as a setback – he knew could win.
One of Dickerson’s most famous Olympia’s was in 1980, Sydney Austrailia. After a surprise last-minute entry from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris, and many other of the bodybuilders present, felt they would lose to Arnold on popularity alone. It seemed to be the case, with Arnold taking first place, Dickerson taking second and Frank Zane taking third.
The 1980 Mr. Olympia Aftermath
The Australian Bodybuilders Association (ABBA) believed it to be the case too, and awarded Dickerson the winner’s to fight back against the IFBB. But Chris wanted to win outright, with all judges on board, and set his sights on the next Olympia to secure an honest victory.
Unfortunately the following year the same result occurred – Dickerson came second again, only this time to Arnold’s close friend Franco Columbu. And again, Chris took the defeat. He considered giving up on returning until Canadian official, Winston Roberts told him:
“Chris, if you don’t come back you are just going to make it easy for all the others, they won’t have to deal with you.”
This is where the magic happened. After Winston’s advice, Chris decided to give it all one last shot, and in 1982 at the age of 43, Chris Dickerson finally became Mr. Olympia. This was a historic moment, for both Dickerson and sport – he was the first black, and gay competitor to become Mr. Olympia, he was also the oldest at the time to ever become Mr. Olympia.
After finally achieving what he set out to accomplish, Chris retired from bodybuilding as one of the most influential people the sport has ever seen.
However, he did return for one last dance in 1994 to win the Olympia again in the Masters’ 50+ category.
“Invest your time in education… Do what your body tells you to and do your absolute best to avoid injuries.”
The unique thing about Chris’ training style, is that it was a middle ground between the high-rep, light-weight workouts of Frank Zane, and the low-rep, overly-heavy sessions of Mike Mentzer.
It was a perfect balance of both size and aesthetic training, and the exercises Dickerson used had a beauty to their simplicity. He claimed you could get all training you need from just using free weights. He thought very little of machines.
This quote from Dickerson accurately describes his passion for this style of lifting:
“Nothing comes close when building the necessary foundations for title winning physiques [than training with free weights].”
A good example of Chris’ workouts would be his bench press routine. He was reported to set up a bench with 400lbs on the bar and squeeze out rep after rep. This allowed Chris to fully work his muscles with a heavy weight while still keeping proper form – a fantastic middle ground.
Keeping it simple, Chris would perform the basic exercises with the idea of developing his body from the inside out. Concentrating on the ‘cosmetic’ side of his physique last, ensuring that he had enough ‘clay’ that he could sculpt down later. He was a firm believer in building the foundation before making any other adjustments, to take your time and be patient with your body.
“You can stimulate the muscles and you separate them, isolate them and put them together and work them in all sorts of directions and angles and positions, but they are going to come out the way the are going to come out. The secret, of course, is to include variety in your training, but your body is programmed for a certain look.”
When it comes to nutrition, Chris believes nutrition and recovery are two main factors to a killer physique. He saw over-training as a burden that not many guys knew how to handle, mainly because they didn’t know how to handle their diet.
Unlike some of the other bodybuilders of that era that took an approach to a natural, ‘whole’ diet, Chris thought supplementation was the best way to go to reach your goals.
By paying close attention to amino acids, B-Complex vitamins, Vitamin E and other factors in his diet, Chris was able to get technical and measure out exactly what he needed to achieve the body he wanted.
He didn’t listen to his body, he studied the science – and it was this objective approach that propelled him on to dominate the Mr. Olympia in 1982 at the age of 43, against other competitors who had a lot more youth on their side.
“I think I did a very good job putting all of the elements together, with, of course, the help of my coach and mentor, Bill Pearl. I was very, very lucky from the start, having him watch me lift my first weights. And he would say I was his best student because I did not know anything, I did not have to unlearn bad habits and, of course, I was smart enough to listen to what he said.”
Idols and Influences
Chris’ main influence is his tutor and trainer Bill Pearl. From first seeing Pearl in a muscle magazine in California, Dickerson was not only impressed by his musculature, but inspired to take up the sport himself.
He was so taken aback by Bill (5-time Mr. Universe winner) that soon after seeing his physique, Chris traveled to his California-based gym and asked him for training. The two bonded almost instantly, Pearl was inspired by Dickerson’s enthusiasm for the sport, and took him on as his own personal protege.
If it were not for Bill Pearl, described in the industry as “World’s Best-Built Man of the Century”, Chris may not have been motivated to take up his training in California and become one of the world greats we know today.
“I think the worst thing a bodybuilder can do is to have a bad attitude… Once you are standing up there, you are the instrument – that is all that you have. And to bring that negativity to it, you are defeating yourself.”
What we can learn from Chris Dickerson
Without question, Chris is on of the most influential bodybuilders in the history of the sport.
He was the most diverse Mr. Olympia winner to ever walk the stage. The first black and gay champion, and as of 2016, the oldest winner of the event.
If there’s one thing you can learn from Chris Dickerson, it’s that hard work pays off. In a mostly racist and homophobic era, Chris worked against all odds to have his place in the history books. Where anybody else would’ve given up, he succeeded.
If you find yourself against the odds in your sport, training, work, or in life in general – think back to Chris. Think about what he was up against, and think about what he did – he overcame them.
No matter how long it takes, no matter how impossible it seems: hard work pays off. Put in the time, be patient, and reap the rewards.