‘The Gentle Giant’ : Four-Time Mr. Olympia Speaks Softly, but People Listen

Times Staff Writer

Looking at his robust exterior, it’s difficult to imagine that four-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney is a mellow, soft-spoken and laid-back guy. His incredibly muscular physique, scruffy beard and ragged gym clothes make him appear like a tough guy.

“No, no, no,” said his wife Shirley in a phone interview from Atlanta, Ga., where the Haneys live with their 2-month-old son. “Lee is a gentle giant. He’s big and passive.”

The “gentle giant” was the opening guest athlete at Loyola Marymount’s third annual Muscle Camp. The camp runs until Aug. 7, and attendance is from all parts of the country. Many fans soon realized that looks can be deceiving.

“He’s real down to earth,” said Doug Grider, who came from Michigan for the fitness workshops, seminars and workouts at the camp. “He’s an easygoing and friendly guy and he’s very helpful.”


When it comes to developing his body, however, Haney is intense. His dedication and natural gifts have allowed him to win the world’s top professional bodybuilding title, the Mr. Olympia, four consecutive times.

“I think what makes me successful,” Haney said after helping several campers with workout techniques, “is that I’m so different from the other guys. Mother Nature just gave me the ultimate physique.”

That may sound like the words of a conceited fellow, but many agree with him.

“The man has the greatest physique that ever walked the face of the earth,” said Marc Missioreck, Muscle Camp executive director. “Lee’s physique is more complete and more refined than Arnold’s (Schwarzenegger). He doesn’t possess the weaknesses that Arnold did. I think it has a lot to do with constant refinement and development just like any other sport.”

Joe Weider, the pioneer of competitive bodybuilding and publisher of numerous muscle magazines, says Haney is extremely well proportioned for his height. Haney has one of the most symmetrical bodies Weider has seen in about 20 years as a fitness trainer.

“He’s perfect,” Weider said. “It’s very rare to get like that. He has so many great qualities. He poses well on the stage, has great muscularity and shape. He just has everything.”

At 5-11 1/2 and 260 pounds (he competes at 250), Haney is not only the first prominent black in the sport since the 1960s but the first bodybuilder to dominate it since Schwarzenegger, who won a record six Mr. Olympia titles before retiring.

At last year’s Mr. Olympia in Sweden, the 28-year-old Haney got a perfect score for presenting a massive and well-defined body. He received $55,000 for the victory.


“Man, it’s so hard to do that,” Haney said. “It really takes a lot out of you. Once you get a perfect score you don’t want anything less. When you get less, then I guess it’s time to step aside.”

But that time hasn’t come. Haney is confident he’ll win this year’s Mr. Olympia on Sept. 10 at the Universal Amphitheatre.

“I’m about three weeks ahead of last year’s schedule,” Haney said. “I tell ya, I’m ready to go. I’m ready for another title.”

His attitude might seem arrogant, but there’s good reason for it. Haney always is assured when he competes, and so far it’s proven effective.


In 1979 he easily swept the Mr. Teenage America in Detroit, making him the top teen-age bodybuilder in the nation. The following year he placed fourth in the Mr. USA as the second youngest competitor. He was 20.

“That was my first big national event,” Haney said, “and doing so well let me know that I had potential. I mean there I was with the big guys. I went from competing with teen-agers to going up against the men.”

In 1982 Haney became the first man to win both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles in the same year. It was his first time competing in the Mr. Universe, which is the sport’s top amateur contest.

“I knew I would be great,” Haney said, “But I think I stunned the bodybuilding scene because I really had no pre-exposure. They really didn’t know who I was.”


Shortly thereafter, everyone in the industry knew who the incognito youth from South Carolina was.

They couldn’t possibly overlook him. As a professional in 1983, he won the New York Championship, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix and placed third in his first Mr. Olympia.

“I had a big problem with nutrition that year,” Haney said. “I weighed 239 pounds and I just couldn’t hold my peak.”

That wasn’t an obstacle in 1984 when Haney won his first Mr. Olympia title.


“With the proper motivation,” Haney said, “you can do anything. I was just a poor kid that ate pork and beans out of a can and apple sauce. I went from rags to riches. But it does take a lot of determination, inner strength, drive and discipline.”

Those qualities Haney learned at an early age as a nose guard on his high school football team. He wanted to play professionally, but two severe leg injuries dimmed those hopes and he couldn’t even get a college scholarship.

So he gave up football, attended Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina and continued working with weights, which he originally started as part of football training.

The weight training has led to more than just a muscular physique and recognition. Haney recently wrote a book, “Totalee Awesome” and also has a training center in Atlanta called the “Animal Kingdom” where he works out regularly.


This summer he’ll go to Japan, Spain and Africa for guest appearances and seminars, then return for the Mr. Olympia.

“I don’t know if I can break Arnold’s record,” Haney said, “because Arnold was ahead of his time. Even on stage now, he’ll still be a monster. But I want my place in history.”

And he may get it. Weider thinks Haney can compete for another 10 years.