How Jake Wood's Leadership Transformed the Mr. Olympia Contest (2024)

Written by Corey Young

How Jake Wood's Leadership Transformed the Mr. Olympia Contest (1)

As one of the architects of modern bodybuilding, when Joe Weider founded the Mr. Olympia contest, he did so with a grand vision of an event that would serve as the pinnacle of the sport for generations to come. He saw it not just as a bodybuilding contest but as a global platform to celebrate and promote the art of bodybuilding. From the outset, it was his objective to turn the Mr. Olympia into an exhibition that would bring the sport of bodybuilding to new heights by showcasing not just the physical achievements of the athletes, but also the discipline, dedication, and artistry that goes into achieving such physiques.

Although Weider, the Godfather of Bodybuilding, passed away in 2013 at the age of 93, his vision of Mr. Olympia as the sport’s premier event is alive and well. As we approach the show’s 59th anniversary, under Jake Wood’s direction, bodybuilding’s greatest exhibition of talent has continued to grow in size and scale. This year’s event is set to take place at the most expensive venue in fitness industry history, Resorts World Las Vegas, which cost an estimated $4.3 billion to construct, as it welcomes over 300 athletes from 49 countries.

However, despite being hailed as the most coveted title in bodybuilding for the last six decades, recently there has been a small groundswell of sentiment from voices inside the community who believe the Arnold Classic is slowly moving toward supplanting the Mr. Olympia as the sport’s premier event. To its credit and, perhaps, the surprise of no one given its founder's propensity to will himself to success at the highest level, the Arnold Classic has exponentially grown in size, scale, and prestige over the last three decades. It has expanded its global reach to host events on four continents, evolving far past its roots as a bodybuilding-centric event to become one of the most popular sporting platforms on the planet.

How Jake Wood's Leadership Transformed the Mr. Olympia Contest (2)

In recent weeks, conversations about the Arnold Classic’s potential to surpass the Mr. Olympia as the premier event in bodybuilding have seen an uptick that largely stems from Arnold’s shocking announcement of his plan to increase the prize money for the winner of the Men’s Bodybuilding up to $500,000 at the 2025 Arnold Classic. The move will award next year's champion the highest purse in bodybuilding history and exceed the current top prize of $400,000 at the Mr. Olympia contest by roughly 25%.

No one seems to dispute the notion of elevating the earning potential for athletes at one of bodybuilding’s biggest events as being inherently positive. The move ensures the sport’s top talents will have an opportunity to earn a substantial payday commensurate with their status as one of the truly elite competitors in the world. However, Arnold’s desire to turn his namesake contest into the crown jewel of the bodybuilding season does fly in the face of convention and even directly opposes the wishes of Joe and Ben Weider, who saw the Arnold Classic serve as the quintessential rival to the Mr. Olympia—a fact Arnold readily acknowledged when he made the announcement about increasing the prize money for next year’s event. While addressing the audience, he said,

“For years, we kept the money below because that’s what I promised Joe and Ben Weider—that I would not compete with the Olympia. But now, they have passed on, and I know Joe and Ben are smiling down from heaven to see how successful we are...”

Would Joe and Ben Weider approve of Arnold attempting to raise the proverbial bar by pushing prize money above and beyond what’s currently being offered to the Mr. Olympia winner? Perhaps. They made it their life’s work to grow the sport of bodybuilding, and Joe Weider once famously stated that bodybuilding was akin to nation-building while he was traveling the world during the early stages of attempting to grow the IFBB. When viewed through that lens, there is certainly a case to be made for this to be seen as a net positive for bodybuilding. If we believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, then ultimately, down the road, we’ll see the Mr. Olympia follow suit by elevating the purse for the winner of the Men’s Open to surpass the Arnold Classic’s half-million-dollar high-water mark.

However, even with a substantial increase in winnings for the champion of next year’s Men’s Open, there’s still an enormous gap in the total prize pool distributed at both contests, with the scale heavily tilted in favor of the Mr. Olympia. Recent additions of new sponsors have allowed IFBB promoters to add additional revenue to the pot for athletes across a handful of divisions. As it currently stands, the Mr. Olympia is slated to extend upwards of $1.6 million in total prize money, which is more than double what’s being offered by the Arnold Classic. In addition to a substantially larger prize pool, the Mr. Olympia also currently outpaces the Arnold Classic when it comes to taking care of its competitors throughout the weekend by providing both airfare and hotel accommodations to over 300 athletes, which is a massive undertaking in and of itself given the size, scale, and logistics of coordinating the event.

A fundamental principle of economics is that competition leads to innovation and growth. A rivalry between the Mr. Olympia and the Arnold Classic could encourage both events to innovate, improve, and increase the value delivered to athletes and fans alike. In theory, this competition wouldn’t just elevate one event over the other; it would have the potential to further grow the sport of bodybuilding as a whole—a fact Arnold alluded to while addressing the fans during his closing remarks:

“The idea is to really build competition; not for us to be number one, but just to move on and pressure the Olympia…hopefully they listen to that and will do that.”

On the surface, a tit-for-tat escalation in prize money between Arnold, who is arguably still the most universally recognizable figure in bodybuilding, and the Mr. Olympia contest creates a scenario that encourages us to believe success for one is success for all, as growth and prosperity at one event generate a ripple effect that results in better future outcomes for both athletes and fans.

However, for those who claim the Arnold Classic is on the way to surpassing the Mr. Olympia as bodybuilding’s premier event, it raises two very important questions: Is simply increasing the prize money an act large enough that it warrants moving the status needle? Or does it do more for elevating the brand of the Arnold Classic than it does for the sport of bodybuilding as a whole?

Although backing up the Brinks truck for the winner of next year’s Men’s Open certainly isn’t without merit, it does little to impact the dozens of other men and women competing throughout the weekend—not to mention the fact that the event itself is only open to seven of bodybuilding’s eleven divisions, which is, in part, why the Arnold Classic is able to offer up a larger slice of a significantly smaller pie.

Unlike the Mr. Olympia, which provides any qualified athlete the opportunity to measure their talents against the most decorated competitors in their respective divisions, the Arnold Classic has historically welcomed its select group by invitation only—a process that is, by design, based less on merit than it is on marketability. Additionally, in recent years we’ve seen the number of total invitations extended by the selection committee begin to dwindle, especially for some of the bodybuilding world’s female competitors, many of whom have openly voiced their frustrations with being excluded from an event that once served as a prominent showcase for legends like Kim Chizevsky, Iris Kyle, Cyd Gillon, Juliana Malacarne, and Shanique Grant.

Both Kyle, a ten-time Ms. Olympia winner, and Sarah Villegas, the reigning three-time defending Women’s Physique Olympia champion, have taken up the mantle of being advocates for the female muscle divisions and publicly called on both Arnold and the Arnold Classic to create a more inclusive atmosphere by providing a platform that will allow all of bodybuilding’s top talents a seat at the table. If “the idea is to really build the competition,” wouldn’t it be in the best interest of everyone involved to have a more expansive list of competitors like we have at the Mr. Olympia contest?

For athletes who compete at the highest level, regardless of the sport, it’s not uncommon for individual decisions to be influenced by the desire to leave a legacy or contribute to a cause greater than themselves, as was the case for Joe Weider through his desire to bring bodybuilding to the masses.

During the height of the COVID hysteria in 2020, when occupancy and travel restrictions threatened to leave a stain on the legacy of the Mr. Olympia by derailing the contest, it was current owner, Jake Wood, who opted to relocate the contest to Orlando, Florida, and keep the existing prize payment structure intact despite incurring a significant personal expense to do so. The move allowed both fans and athletes an opportunity to fulfill their Olympia dreams and channeled the spirit of the late Godfather of Bodybuilding, who famously declared, “Let there be an Olympia,” in 1965, prior to the start of the inaugural contest. Conversely, athletes who competed in the 2020 Arnold Classic took the stage inside an empty Greater Columbus Convention Center, which did not allow fans inside due to COVID-related concerns.

In addition to marching forward during one of the sport’s most uncertain times, perhaps one of Wood’s greatest strokes of genius was tabbing veteran bodybuilding media savant Dan Solomon as President of the Olympia, and allowing Dan the freedom to flex his creative vision for bodybuilding's biggest event. Under Solomon, the Olympia made a triumphant return to the Las Vegas strip, underwent robust expansion of Olympia related media and media coverage, and a renewed connection between the Olympia brand and bodybuilding's top athletes

Due to the uncertainty that surrounded global health decisions during the pandemic, is it unfair to retroactively pass judgment on what was best for bodybuilding at the time given what we know now? Yes, perhaps. However, leadership often requires people to make difficult choices without having all the facts. During what may have been the most challenging time in history to promote an event in the world of bodybuilding, both the Arnold Classic and the Mr. Olympia managed to keep charging ahead, but only one did so while still providing an avenue for athletes, fans, and sponsors to maintain a semblance of normalcy while the world was in the midst of chaos.

In sports, it’s not uncommon for well-established entities to encounter pressure from ambitious competitors looking to secure a slice of the market share. We saw this recently when the PGA Tour was thrown into disarray by the emergence of LIV Golf in 2021. Like the Arnold Classic, LIV Golf enticed some of golf’s top talent by offering incredible sums of prize money to compete in rival tournaments. However, despite highly publicized defections from several former champions, the PGA Tour, and its Major Champions, are still viewed by most current pros and golf purists as the most highly coveted titles in the sport for one very simple reason: prestige, legacy, and winning at the highest level are the barometers we use to define an athlete’s greatness, not earnings.

Winning a Mr. Olympia title is the apex of the bodybuilding world. We mark the legacies of the sport’s greatest champions by counting their Sandow trophies. Their place in the pantheon of generational talents responsible for redefining eras is almost inextricably tied to the number of times they’ve stood alone on center stage. For the last six decades, countless men and women from all corners of the globe have stepped into the gym inspired by visions of setting foot on the Mr. Olympia stage where they can walk the same path as the legends who came before them.

The Arnold Classic isn’t going to surpass the Mr. Olympia to become bodybuilding’s premier event. It will continue to grow and occupy space as one of the most prominent events on the IFBB schedule, but it will do so as a legacy builder—not a legacy creator.

For the last six decades, winning the Mr. Olympia contest has been considered the highest honor in professional bodybuilding and, in many cases, the sole differentiator that separates good athletes from those who we consider to be all-time greats. Since its inception, the Mr. Olympia was meant to be seen not just as a bodybuilding competition, but as a cultural milestone that would elevate the sport to new heights. With the leadership of successors like Jake Wood, the contest has continued to grow, bringing to life the enduring appeal of Joe Weider’s grand vision.

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How Jake Wood's Leadership Transformed the Mr. Olympia Contest (2024)
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