Photo of Sergio Oliva in bodybuilding pose

Sergio Oliva (1941-2012)

By Hannah Houser

A bodybuilder. A police officer. A defector. These are the many lives lived by Sergio Oliva, a Rogers Park resident who lived at 6540 N. Talman St. from 1992 until his death on November 12, 2012. After fleeing Castro’s Cuba in 1962, Oliva went on to win the titles of Mr. Chicago and Mr. Illinois in 1963, the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation (IFBB) titles of Mr. World and Mr. Universe in 1966 and the IFBB title of Mr. Olympia in 1967. 

To the outside world, he became a spectacle of bodybuilding wonder — described as “the most muscular man in the world” — known by his competitive persona, “The Myth.”

 But amongst neighbors he was a beloved police officer and community member, described by resident and RPWRHS Board member Jim Cusick as “friendly with all the neighborhood kids who knew and respected his accomplishments.”

Oliva was born on July 4, 1941 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba [1] — a town about 100 miles from Havana in Cuba’s far west end. Sources indicate his teenage years were spent serving in the Cuban Army under the dictator Fulgencio Batista, combating the insurgency levied by Fidel Castro. Although Castro’s coup ousted Batista in 1959, Oliva remained in Cuba and began training as a weightlifter. By the time he turned 21, Oliva had already broken three Cuban weightlifting records, securing his spot on Cuba’s national bodybuilding team. [2]

The "Cuban Defectors." The Daily Independent Journal, August 15, 1962

In August 1962, Oliva was part of a four-man team of weight lifters competing in the Central American-Caribbean Games held in Kingston, Jamaica — a qualifying event for the upcoming Pan-American Games. [3]

Yet, Castro’s charged political jargon drove Oliva, his teammates and their coach to defect — making him one of the first athletes to ever do so — and seek asylum in the United States.

“You’re not going just to win medals, but as representatives of socialism of the entire world,” Castro had told the group before they left Cuba for the competition. [4]

Just one month after arriving in the United States, Sergio was living in Miami, had a U.S. passport as a registered alien, and traveled to Brazil on a thirty-day tourist visa, perhaps for another weightlifting competition.[5] Soon after that trip, he moved to Chicago. Sources point to him potentially wanting to evade Cuban retaliation for his defection, while others claim he was attracted by a job in the city’s steel mills. 

Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1968

In Chicago, he saw tremendous success in bodybuilding, embodying his identity as “the Myth ” while securing virtually every professional weightlifting title in the world, including a three-year stint as Mr. Olympia, the highest international bodybuilding competition title authorized by the IFBB Professional League. [6] He worked out at Chicago’s Duncan YMCA, also known as “the muscle factory,” garnering crowds of spectators eager to observe his godlike figure.
Setting out to defend his first Mr. Olympia title in 1968, Sergio Olivia’s might spoke for itself when no challengers opted to enter against him. One year later in 1969, he secured the title again after defeating the young Austrian, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who eventually snagged Olivia’s title in a 1970 rematch. The two became both friends and arch-rivals until the end of Oliva’s bodybuilding career in 1985.

Upon his death, Schwartzenegger described Oliva as “one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time & a true friend,” in a message posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Unlike Schwarzenegger, however, Oliva’s bodybuilding career didn’t come with financial security. After taking on various day jobs, he set out to become a policeman in 1971 when he took the patrolman’s exam, which placed him on a waitlist for getting a full-time officer position. [7] While waiting for the job, he continued to work at the Police Academy and starred in four Spanish-language movies released from 1971 to 1976. [8]

In 1974 — as he approached the top of the eligibility list — his approval was delayed when federal judge Prentice H. Marshall ruled that the patrolman’s test discriminated against African Americans.  

Disappointed by the news, Oliva spoke out in frustration: “I’m being discriminated against on both sides,” Oliva said. I am a black man and a Latino because of my Cuban birth. I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Now that I had a chance to make it, they come up with this baloney!” [9]

Marshall’s ruling led to a two-year struggle pitting the efforts of anti-discrimination advocates to increase hiring of women and minorities against Chicago’s established hiring practices. Debates over the use of quotas swelled amongst federal officials, until the judge ruled to stop distribution of revenue-sharing funds until hiring practices were revised. Mayor Richard J. Daley — burdened by the loss of millions of dollars — at first continued to resist, but eventually conceded. In 1976 a new test emerged and Judge Marshall withdrew the injunction in September 1976 [10]. The new hiring system allowed minority applicants from the 1971 list to be hired, which allowed Oliva to join the Chicago Police force just before his 35th birthday. [11]

For most of his tenure in law enforcement was served in Chicago’s 24th District in Rogers Park, where he became the object of intrigue and admiration for community members awed at his sculpted physique. He continued to enter contests and make personal appearances while working as a police officer. In 1981, he won the Mr. Europe title in Germany [12] and in 1984, he competed once more for the title of Mr. Olympia two weeks after the birth of his only son.

His eighth place position didn’t carry much disappointment for Oliva, who had begun embracing his new role as a father.  “No matter what happened tonight, 8th, 17th or 20th, I’ll forever be The Myth,” Oliva said, holding up his infant son before the crowd. “And I hold in my arms Sergio Junior, the next Myth.” [13]

The Myth Settles into Fatherhood

Oliva had four kids across two marriages. Sergio Junior was born out of his second marriage to Arleen Garrett, also a former bodybuilder.

After the birth of his son, Oliva continue to train, as he expected to be part of the 1986 US Olympic Team until an unfortunate domestic incident ended his bodybuilding career. During an impassioned argument, Sergio and Arleen struggled over his service revolver. The gun went off, and Sergio was hospitalized in serious condition from several bullet wounds in the abdomen. [14] After the accident, the marriage ultimately ended in divorce in 1990 and Arleen left Chicago, becoming an exercise physiologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. [15] 

 

Sergio Sr. holding Sergio Jr. in 1985

Sergio Junior was eight years old when Oliva purchased the home at 6540 N. Talman in 1992.  It is believed Sergio Junior lived out his childhood in the home, but it is unknown if any of his older sisters, the children of Sergio’s first wife, lived there with their father. When he turned 18, Sergio Junior ignited a bodybuilding career of his own, although by then, his father opposed the decision. 

Sergio Oliva died on November 12, 2012, suffering from kidney failure. His obituary notes that he was survived by four daughters and his son, Sergio Oliva Jr. It reports that the younger Sergio became a bodybuilder and actor, even portraying his father in Bigger: The Joe Weider Story, a 2018 film about “the godfathers of fitness” Joe and Ben Weider [16].

About the author: Hannah Houser

Hanna Houser, a student intern with RPWHS, is drawn to history because it helps interpret modern life in the context of what came before.

Houser first moved to Rogers Park for school and has lived in the neighborhood for four years. She first became involved with RPWHS in late 2023. Prior to moving to Rogers Park, she spent time living on both the east and west coasts.

Houser is currently an undergraduate student at Loyola University majoring in Multimedia Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She is heavily involved with the school newspaper The Phoenix. After she graduates, she is set to pursue a career in investigations at a financial investment firm.

Sources cited in this story:
1: Brazilian Tourist Visa issued to Sergio Oliva, October 2, 1962.
2: A full history of Sergio’s bodybuilding career, summarized here, can be found at https://www.greatestphysiques.com/male-physiques/sergio-oliva/
3: “Cuban Athletes, Coach, Set to Pick Up Visas,” The Odessa (TX) American, August 14, 1962, page 17.
4: “Brawls, Defections Highlight Games, “San Rafael (CA) Daily Independent Journal, August 15, 1962, page 23, also “Spymanship Ousts Sportsmanship in Cuba Under Castro,” Lebanon (PA) Daily News, February 23, 1965.
5: Brazilian Tourist Visa issued October 2, 1962, previously cited.
6: “The Muscle Factory on West Monroe,” Chicago Tribune Magazine, March 17, 1968, pages 32-50.
7: Cop ruling thwarts dreams of Latino,” Bob Weidrich column Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1974, page
8: See details of his movie career at https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0694369/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_1
9: Bob Weidrich column, Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1974, previously cited.
10: “Muscle Man Trades Trophy for Cop’s Badge,” Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1976, page 28.
11: “Judge drops demand for police job quotas,” Chicago Tribune, September 8, 1976, pages 1 and 19.
12: “Who Needs a Gun?” The Argus, Rock Island/Moline Illinois, February 2, 1981, page 5.
13: https://musculardevelopment.com/34-in-the-trenches/14914-the-sergio-oliva-jr-story-a-dream-fulfilled.html#.Y7yrmXbMJMs
14: “Cop Shot in fight with Wife,” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 25, 1986, page
15: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arleen-garrett-ab62713b/ or Instagram @coacharleen. 
16: “Top Bodybuilder and Chicago Cop,” Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2012, page 33.