The Great Competition: Competitive bodybuilding dates back at least to the times of the ancient Greeks, who held physique exhibitions between regularly scheduled events. Though these were impromptu events, they almost certainly drew crowds, and given the Greek preoccupation with the male form they resulted in lucrative modelling contracts for the various statues that were constantly being commissioned.
Though local contests were regularly held for “best physique” in a given area, there had never been a definitive national competition replete with qualifying contests. The greatest bodybuilder of that era, Eugen Sandow, spent three years promoting the show. Though his promotion began in July of 1898 and the show wasn’t to occur until 1901, Sandow was inundated with applications. As such, he arranged local qualifying meets that he personally attended and handed out medals at each. The gold medal winners were then invited to The Great Competition.
The Great Competition itself was much like an early version of the Arnold Classic Weekend. It featured everything from wrestling to fencing to strongman, but the bodybuilding was its focus. With 15,000 people in a packed house and hundreds in the streets attempting to get into the oversold show, 60 competitors were whittled to twelve and then a top three, with Sandow, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the most famous English sculptor of the time as judges. Contestants were judged on general development equality or balance of development, the condition and tone of the tissues, general health, condition of the skin (which was also one of the primary considerations for Mr. America contestants until the early 80s).
The winner, William Murray, received the equivalent of $5000 dollars and a statue of Sandow himself… which is exactly the statue handed to the winners of the Olympia today.