Exclusive Conversation with Chris Dickerson
His birth certificate reads Henri Christophe Dickerson, his friends know him as Chris Dickerson and his fans know the title, Mr. Olympia. Each belongs to the nice southern boy from Alabama with a unique family pedigree. His mother was a legendary attorney who counted Rosa Parks as her friend. Yes, THAT Rosa Parks. The 71 year old champion talked to me about the infamous loss to Schwarzenegger, his coming out, and his new project.
Ask Chris and he will tell you, “I liked it [bodybuilding] best in the 1980’s, there are so many chemicals involved in the sport now.”
As far as pop culture, early bodybuilding was seen as “alternative” and mostly underground until Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferigno brought mainstream attention. Chris refers to this time as the “Golden Age.” Every sport evolves but according to Chris bodybuilding is painfully different today. “I don’t follow the sport as I did. But I do like Jay Cutler; he’s a real champion, my favorite.”
Recalling the 1980 “pose-off” with Arnold, Chris recalls the controversy over Arnold’s fitness for the competition coming off his Conan movie. “I was in much better shape than he was.” Folks should know that was also the year Arnold retired. Taking the loss like a soldier, Chris would take second prize again until he won in 1982. Ironically, as the oldest Mr. Olympia and first African American title holder, he was also the first black gay winner. Chris came out in the late 1970’s.
Compared to the 1980’s, today’s bodybuilding events are pretty different. Chris says the sport is saturated with athletes taking human growth hormones to the point where one has to be part-chemist in order to effectively compete. “Doing it the old fashion, natural way is dead,” he says.
There was plenty of fame but the “real money” never came. At his peak, Chris earned $100,000 and sadly no big deals or opportunities came after winning Mr. Olympia in 1982. The prize then was $25,000 compared to today’s $125,000 top prize. Chris recalled sage advice from Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson. “He told me to get an agent. I hired a P.R. firm and they did little for me.” But he accepts his life and career warts and all. “My highlight was winning Mr. Olympia but the low point had to be in 1984—I was dropped from the top 10 in competition and my favorite aunt died the same year.”
Today Chris is an active Florida retiree working on his memoir, which he promises to be a page turner. And after three serious relationships, he’s single and optimistic. His biggest physical adjustment these days come from having his knee, hip, and shoulder all replaced through surgery. Chris Dickerson, from his debut in 1966 to his retirement in 1994, he’s a warrior and a cool guy.