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Chris Dickerson, legendary bodybuilder and first Black Mr. America, dies at 82

Chris Dickerson, legendary bodybuilder and first Black Mr. America, dies at 82

'He was masterful. He had more confidence than anyone out there.'

Chris Dickerson, the first Black Mr. America and the first openly gay man to be Mr. Olympia, died on December 23 at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of 82. The cause of death was heart failure, Dickerson's friend Bill Neylon, told The Washington Post. Neylon—a gym owner and retired amateur bodybuilder who had trained with the late bodybuilding icon—revealed that, prior to his death, Dickerson spent the last few years of his life at a Fort Lauderdale rehab center after being hospitalized for a broken hip in 2020 and having a heart attack and COVID-19.



 

Over the course of his career that spanned more than three decades and 50 titles, Dickerson redefined the world of bodybuilding. "I would like for people to feel that if man is made in the image of God, then the human body is a thing of power and beauty," he told The Daily Times of Mamaroneck, New York, in 1983. Known for his diamond-shaped calves, dense and symmetrical physique and graceful posing style, Dickerson "brought class and dignity and culture to bodybuilding," said Neylon, reported The New York Times



 

Samir Bannout, the 1983 Mr. Olympia champion who spent his teen years idolizing Dickerson, still recalls being blown away when he first saw the legend in person. The difference between the photos he had pinned on his wall and seeing him in real life, Bannout said, was like that of seeing a Ferrari or Lamborghini on the racetrack rather than in a photo. "He was masterful. He had more confidence than anyone out there," he remarked. Despite everything he had to offer, Dickerson was often overlooked—both figuratively and literally, as he stood only 5 feet 6 inches tall—in his career.



 

"I'm somewhat used to being overlooked," he joked in a 2007 interview with Flex magazine. "At least it's happened enough in my career that I'm not shocked by it anymore." Unlike many white former and future titleholders, Dickerson said he fielded few offers for movies or endorsements. "I'm ready if anybody calls," he said. In spite of the racial and anti-LGBTQ bias he faced, Dickerson helped broaden the sport of bodybuilding in his own way. His Mr. America win proved that Black and gay men deserved to stand on the pedestal just as much as anyone else. "I had to say a few words, being the first man of color to win the competition," Dickerson said in an interview with The Bodybuilding Legends Show in 2015. "I didn’t want to make it a racial issue, but the fact was, it was."



 

Although his sexuality was widely known in bodybuilding circles by the late 1970s, Dickerson rarely spoke about it in interviews. Instead, he focused on dispelling stereotypes about the sport. "Some people like flashy cars, some like flashy hairdos; we like healthy bodies," he once said. "Everybody's got their own thing, and ours is no funnier than anybody else's." Born on August 25, 1939, in Montgomery, Alabama, as the third of triplets, Henri Christophe Dickerson was raised primarily by his mother, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, who was a longtime friend of civil rights activist, Rosa Parks.



 

After graduating in 1957 from Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, Dickerson moved to New York City to study opera, acting and ballet at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a voice teacher suggested that he lift weights to open up his tenor range, he began lifting seriously and further developed his physique after moving to Los Angeles in 1963. He entered his first competition two years later, placing third at the Mr. Long Beach event. By 1979, he was participating in international competitions such as Mr. Olympia, the sport's most prestigious event. At the 1980 Mr. Olympia competition in Sydney, Australia, Dickerson faced Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had come out of retirement and was training for his starring role in 'Conan the Barbarian.'



 

The competition ended in controversy when Dickerson was placed second to Schwarzenegger as many spectators believed that the future governor of California was nowhere near top form. In a 2009 paper published in Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture, Dickerson opened up about some of the obstacles he had faced in bodybuilding. The promoter of the Mr. Olympia contest, he said, "was a real low life, a bigot, who had a real dislike for me—partly on racial grounds and partly for my sexual orientation." The paper's author, John Fair, wrote: "Dickerson, who was short, Black and gay, was a diametrical opposite to the kind of image Arnold represented." While Dickerson said he would have placed Schwarzenegger sixth in the competition—"I sort of felt he is a great champion and he's not ready for this yet, and he was sweating—he was obviously up, he was nervous, he had a lot to lose"—he added: "Arnold has a way about him that transcends his body. I have to give him credit."



 

Dickerson placed second again in 1981, behind Franco Columbu, before bagging the title in 1982 at age 43 as the oldest Mr. Olympia champion. He continued entering events for the next decade before retiring in 1994 after finishing fourth at the inaugural Masters Olympia competition, for former champions older than 40. "If you don't enjoy the process, you don't do it," he said. "It's sort of an affirmation of your youth, really. You want to hold onto it. Bodybuilders are like old soldiers, old jocks. You don't want to hang it up." Dickerson was inducted into the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Muscle Beach Venice Hall of Fame in 2014. He leaves no immediate survivors. "He was one of the nicest people in the entire sport," Bannout said of the late icon. "He had no chip on his shoulder. When he won the Mr. Olympia, he was still a normal guy. Now you see guys win and you can't talk to them. They walk in the gym and they think they own the world."

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