Lenda Murray is one of the most iconic figures in the world of bodybuilding. Without her, as my not-too-often used metaphor goes, no pantheon of modern bodybuilding would be complete. Her absolute reverence for the office of Ms. Olympia, and her impressive collection of eight Ms. Olympia trophies notwithstanding, Lenda occupies a seat among the most revered legends of the sport – not just the athletes, but all of the bodybuilderatti elite – not only because of how great a champion she is, and the undeniable likeness the physique she built had with the idyllic image of women’s bodybuilding, but also because she went ahead and wrapped it all with the elegance and grace one would normally find among those residing in a castle.
Lenda was it. She was a well poised unicorn. Muscular royalty. There was Lenda and then everyone else. And the “industry” knew it. That, of course, would raise the price put upon that position. I’m not suggesting the office was for sale; I’m referring to the toll it collected from an athlete who never agreed to pay it – Lenda – the human person occupying the body which evinced the ideal.
While there is no doubt a period of women’s bodybuilding history pivoted with her title defense in 1991, the path to that end came at the cost of a particularly overt scandal.
Of course bodybuilding scandals are not normally anything surprising, what makes this one so egregious is not merely because Lenda had nothing to do with it, but also for the fact that this was, of all Ms. Olympias, the worst one to have such a scandal attached to it.
It was viewed by the largest audience ever in the history of the sport because it was aired live on ESPN! Everyone saw what happened. There was no denying it. It would be as if one of those UFO shows actually found a flying saucer locked in a barn somewhere in Idaho. It was right in front of your face. The fix was in.
In a nutshell, what happened was that Australian champion Bev Francis, who had placed in the top three since 1987, showed up this year swinging an axe. The insane size and condition she brought had put her squarely ahead of Lenda going into the evening finals (routine and pose down, which we all believe mean nothing. Whomever is winning going into the finals is winning). A big score board showed the current placings for all to see. Bev was two points ahead of Lenda going into the finals. She was far more muscular than Lenda—or any other woman on the earth at the moment—and supremely conditioned. She couldn’t have stood out more in the lineup had she been covered in neon. To this day, in either men’s or women’s divisions, no one has ever stood out so far in a lineup as Bev did at the 91 Olympia. The odds on her loss were something not even Vegas could have imagined.
But, somehow, by the end of the evening, a much smaller and less defined Lenda Murray had edged out Bev by one point, 32-31, the slimmest margin of any Ms. Olympia. And not a soul, Lenda included, will tell you it was her routine that made up the points.
I was at that show. And l can attest to the fact that, after Bev’s place was announced, the ensuing eruption in the audience was thunderous. Twenty decibels over which I could hear, two rows in front of me, Bev’s husband, Steve Weinberger, standing on his feet and screaming at the judges. (Along with everyone else). And rightfully so!
If the contest is “bodybuilding,” Bev clearly had the built body. If you’re pumping this out on ESPN, then why confuse the audience you’re trying to attract? Obviously, those in power believed it was Lenda who would draw the crowd.
Right or wrong, somebody made a business decision that day and altered the evolution of the sport. For the time being anyway.
(As a side note: Fast-forward to today and time proves that history has a way of injecting irony as it moves ahead. As far as the sport goes, the standout physique Bev brought to the bodybuilding stage in ‘91 would get lost among the figure girls today. Perhaps even more ironic is Weinberger would later go on to become the IFBB’s top judge).
This event was not only scandalous, it absolutely was, but it was also significantly pivotal. It seemed like a completely overt attempt to maintain the direction of the sport. That’s because it was! It was as deliberate as it gets. Did someone have a hand in deciding this outcome? Absolutely.
Am I going to confirm that?
Lenda is. For the first time in history, Lenda Murray herself is going to answer the questions everyone wants to know about how the outcome of the 1991 Ms. Olympia came to be ranked as the top dubious outcome, ever. The truth, the whole truth, right from the eye of the storm.
Lenda, I will say it is bold of you to go along with this crazy idea of mine, but, as far as I know, no one has ever asked you to comment on what you know about the outcome of the 91 Olympia. But, I think it’s time. Joe and Ben Weider are gone, and so is the Ms. Olympia under the Weider imprimatur; it died in 2014, and stayed dead for five years until Jake Wood resurrected it. And, while you’re still involved behind the scenes of Ms. Olympia’s renaissance, with Jake’s company, there is really no connection anymore to Weider. So, no one has anything to lose by you telling the story of what actually happened one particular evening late last century.
LM: No, no one has ever asked me about it. It was one of those things that happened. I mean I know why it happened. Now… So, yes, we should talk about it.
Okay, let’s have it then. Take us back to Oct.13, 1991, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It’s your first title defense. You go into the evening finals two points behind Bev after prejudging, and suddenly you ended up scoring huge on your routine and winning?
[Bashfully] Yeah… You know that was my first introduction – wake up call – to the business – that this is a business, right? It’s a business. I’m a competitor, we can be naive…. but that was my first wake up call.
So, it was the salability— the optics.
Yes… and it took me a long time to wrap my head around what happened. See, Bev was really schooled. She was mature, she had been in the business and was looking at this as her year and here I come…. But you know, I did hear Joe and Ben Weider came in before the finals and …. did something. I don’t know exactly what specifically they did, or who did it for them, but I understand it…. Now
How bewildering was it then? Did you know, or understand what was going on – obviously you weren’t part of it – you had no clue what was going on, but you did know that up until 15 minutes ago you were two points behind and now…
Well… I think, honestly, I can say…. well, like you say, was it my routine? [laughing] I can say that was a horrible routine!!… that was the worst routine of all of my years of doing routines. And I knew it, from my gut because at the time I was very much an entertainer and did a lot of cheerleading and I knew what I planned and it didn’t work out that way, but what I believe I did know at the time was that I understood politics…. I understood I was the reigning Ms. Olympia and I did recognize that I made some people unhappy, but it was just an acceptance. It was challenging, my relationship with Bev and Steve that second, third, fourth year… and now we’re great friends…but yeah, that was challenging.
I could imagine…
Yes, very, very challenging. Steve and I talk about it openly. Part of what was weird about it was back then you didn’t have a voice – there was no social media. It was the writers… Bill Dobbins wrote this big article on how I deserved to win and how my physique was that much better…. But, they know. Bev and Steve know that I know. They know I’m wiser. They know I’m not going out and saying I was better; I should have won that show… it was clear I was the winner… No. Let me say that what happened in 91, I see happening throughout our sport, like, um… when you see first and second place… the reality is that there’s a lot more that goes into – in my opinion – a decision between first place and second place.
Did Bev ever confront you afterward? Like, to make sure you knew she really won?
Oh yes. I remember clearly.That was the end of ‘91. Shortly thereafter [after the Article Bill Dobbins wrote], I saw Bev in Europe and… it’s funny…. because she walked up to me – this was our first conversation since the Olympia… She was…. she had that look… she grabbed my arm – my forearm – and she was holding it and… I’m from Detroit, so I’m like… this is confrontational. She was serious. Her attitude was that I was running around saying how I was better than her and I beat her… [all the stuff Bill said] and we need to kind of settle some things here – between us…. I’m hearing that you’re saying without question that you managed to make up two points between the prejudging and the evening show…. That was my opportunity to say to her… to kind of show her that, gosh I’m really naive to this whole thing – because I was. And I was uncomfortable and I let her know that she’s a bad ass. And I told her, I have done nothing but admire you. My journey through bodybuilding, up to the Ms. Olympia… I mean I knew Corey Everson, Bev Francis, Rachel McClish, I knew Anja Langer, Mary Roberts so yes…. I am humbled. I mean really… That’s how it happened.
How does that Olympia rank among the other seven?
The worst. It was my worst Olympia in my head, because there were a whole lot of things going on. I was scared. It was the first time trying to defend my title. All of a sudden I’m important. You win the title and you take the trophy home. And then… We didn’t have social media, so I didn’t hear what everyone was saying… You wait for the magazine to come out and then you run into people throughout the year. But for me to actually see Bev, it’s like there’s BEV FRANCIS! And her big husband STEVE… larger than life….. Wow, that was challenging. But we’re all good now and have been for years. Bev and I send each other Christmas cards every year.
So, you don’t know the mechanics of what actually happened?
Like I said, it was a business decision. I get it. Well, now I do. At the time though, it was just like, Wow, OK. Somebody did something.
Ben Weider, as far as I know.
What makes you say it was Ben? And not the ESPN brass?
It probably could have been both. I don’t really know. But, you remember how Ben was trying to get bodybuilding into the Olympics. They even drug tested the 1990 Olympia.
Yes! After which Ben got a letter from the head of the IOC’s doping agency, Prince Alexandre de Merode, that Ben read at the beginning of every big show for a couple of years, quoting the prince as being “most impressed” with the IFBB’s anti-doping policy. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have been, it was a carbon copy of the IOC’s. But it never went anywhere.
No. And they never drug tested us again. The men either. And ESPN didn’t air us anymore, and bodybuilding never made it to the Olympics. And Bev never competed again
New Year New Competition
At the 1996 Olympia shoes would sort of change feet. This time it would be Lenda giving up the crown. While there was no overt scandal per se, there did seem to be a shift in the judging that went back to the 1991 option. Kim Chizevsky would show up with what some would say was a more “complete package” than what Lenda brought, but in reality, she created close to as much of a distinction between the two as Bev did five years earlier. This time the judges didn’t go with what Lenda brought.
After losing to Kim again in 1997, Lenda hung up her posing suit and stepped away from the sport. By the time 2004 came along, an extraordinarily muscled and insanely conditioned Iris Kyle started racking up her eventual collection of ten Ms. Olympia titles.
Graduating from Kim Chizevsky to Iris Kyle would ostensibly stand to continue the precipitous decline in women’s bodybuilding, in both ticket buying fans, sponsorship and prize money. But, there were already cracks in the foundation.
In 2000 the economics of the division had dwindled to the point where the Ms. Olympia contest would no longer be held as a separate contest – in of all places Las Vegas – but instead it became part of the “Olympia Weekend” and held the day before the men’s show, with prejudging held during the expo at the Mandalay Bay convention center.
A year later (2001), Iris won her height class, but lost the overall to Juliette Bergman. The next year, with the decline in the sport strengthening, Iris stood to take over as Ms. Olympia. No shade on Iris, but the fact of the matter is that whatever she, and the girls chasing her, brought to the stage might have meant to them, the audience for it was getting more and more sparse.
The writing on the wall was: if the direction of the sport didn’t change to attract more audience, the division would die. At that point it could be said that the powers that be read that writing on the wall and made an appeal for something disruptive to happen. The way I picture it in my mind, it was like Gotham City lighting up the night sky with the Batman signal. Would Lenda be soldier enough to return to the stage and jolt the sport back on a more popular track? However you want to visualize it, the fact is, in 2002 Lenda came back and went head-to-head with Iris Kyle.
What initiated your comeback?
I was working in my gym, minding my business, not really doing anything, and one day Lonnie Teeper called me and left the msg:“You should come back to compete.”
Out of the blue like that, you didn’t put out feelers or anything?
No, it was out of the blue. I don’t remember if, or when, I called him back; what I do remember is that it got me thinking. I knew I could beat Juliette [Bergman]. When they chose her over Iris in 01, that was a sign to me. I started thinking about it. I wanted to do something, wanted to help myself, but I also didn’t like the energy the women were putting out. We weren’t going in the right direction.
So, you just threw your hat in the ring?
Pretty much. I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to do it. Once I did decide, that was it. I called Wayne DeMilia [the promotor] and he was all for it, I got no resistance. Not from him nor anyone else.
Did you enlist any help after you decided to come back?
Yes. I saw what I had to do to win and it made me decide to look for some help. The landscape had changed since ’91. So, with Kim’s blessing, Chad Nichols helped me.
As history will commonly show, when a champion takes an extended time away from competition, the competition usually progresses to the point where it is insanely rare, if not impossible, that said former champion can come back and retake the gold.
Apparently, you were absent the day they taught that piece of history, because not only did you come back and win in 2002, you came back again the next year to punctuate your point by bagging your eighth. So…. yeah, that former champion coming back crap was lost on you.
I look back at my career in huge chunks: 1991 was of course pivotal. Then returning in 2002. it wasn’t about the money. I was clear – this is a business. I was clear. I understood. I understood what happened in 1991. But when I came back in 2001 I wasn’t nice anymore.
It took me back to 1991, and I had a fleeting thought—imagining if it was Iris in Bev’s spot—is Weinberger getting me back? Why are they doing this? It was the worst thing for the sport.
But, it’s why I’m still here today. I didn’t want to allow my legacy to just be there. I wanted to stand as an advocate for the sport…. For the women.
I guess for some, of the 1991 Olympia they would say that Ben, Joe, whomever, swooped in and saved the direction the sport could have taken. While that may be up for debate, the fact of the matter is, that in 2002 the direction of the sport would once again require Lenda’s participation, and her doing so, once again, unwittingly, staved off the inevitable.
Ultimately, however, the title of Ms. Olympia would be consumed by the groups evolved dynamic and it would die. Not even Lenda could save it.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt Lenda has secured her place as one of the greatest bodybuilders in history, as well as set a standard for mass, shape, condition, beauty, and poise, that history has proven is pretty hard to come by.
But, all that wasn’t enough for the sport. Lenda retired, Iris won the following year, and continued to win and win some more. The women chasing her kept bringing more and more muscle and condition and Iris kept ahead of them. And women’s bodybuilding continued its decline.
It took another ten, demoralizing years as an expo side show, with ever dwindling prize money and prestige, for Ms. Olympia to gasp her final breath and succumb to the lack of life support.
Thankfully, after five years in the grave, the Ms. Olympia has been resurrected and Lenda is deeply involved behind the scenes. But that’s a subject for another day.
What I hope you take away from this is an understanding of Lenda’s respect for her gifts, unwavering work ethic, and unstoppable drive, and how it propelled her to unparalleled heights in the realm of women’s bodybuilding. Because she’s a champion. For nearly a decade she embodied the ideal. And, let me tell you, she was good at it. So good in fact, that the end of her reign marked a turning point. It was the beginning of the end for women’s bodybuilding. Lenda left a hole that history proved was too hard to fill.
But, as with most success stories, it didn’t go off without a hitch. Lenda was also, unwittingly, at the center of what many consider to be one of, if not the, most controversial Olympia outcome in the sport’s history. All of which, by the way, she navigated with the finesse and sagacity of a seasoned diplomat.
To this very day, Lenda’s presence adds a shimmer to even the most prestigious, star studded, events. The attraction people have to her is unending.
I don’t know how many women ever aspire to be an elegant bad-ass, or what it means to be one. Or how rare they are. Or how cool. Any questions on the matter should be directed to the above mentioned Olympian. She’s got that covered.