Chris Dickerson, who made history as the first Black Mr. America and the first openly gay Mr. Olympia, passed away on Dec. 23 at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Washington Post reports. He was 82.
Dickerson’s friend Bill Neylon, a gym owner and retired amateur bodybuilder who also trained with him, confirmed that his passing was due to a heart ailment.
Nicknamed “Diamond Calves,” and standing at 5 feet 6 inches tall and with a chiseled 190-pound frame, Dickerson won over 50 titles in his career that spanned over three decades.
Born Henri Christophe Dickerson was born on Aug. 25, 1939, in Montgomery, Alabama, he was the last of triplets. His mother, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, was a lawyer, civil rights activist, and friend of Rosa Parks. His father, Henry Dickerson, was a former bellhop who became an executive at the Cleveland Trust Company.
Upon graduating high school, Dickerson moved to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A voice teacher suggested that he lift weights to open up his tenor range and so began his love affair with weight training. When he began to take it seriously, he moved to Los Angeles in 1963 to pursue bodybuilding.
In his first competition, for Mr. Long Beach in 1965, he took third place. The next year he won Mr. Atlantic, Mr. New York City, and Mr. New York State titles.
Dickerson made history in 1970 as the first Black man to win Mr. America.
Following controversial losses to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu in 1980 and 1981, he became Mr. Olympia in 1982, blazing a trail for Black bodybuilders to follow.
“I had to say a few words, being the first man of color to win the competition,” he 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.”
After placing 11th at the 1984 Mr. Olympia contest, Dickerson competed occasionally over the next decade and was a guest poser in bodybuilding events, including The National Lesbian and Gay Bodybuilding Championships in 1990. Also, he worked as a personal trainer at the renowned Gold’s Gym in Los Angeles.
Relocating to Fort Lauderdale in 2006, he donated many of his awards and trophies to the Joe and Betty Weider Museum at the Stark Center for Physical Culture, housed at the University of Texas at Austin.
In a 2009 paper published in Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture, Dickerson spoke about the opposition he encountered in the world of bodybuilding as a gay, Black man. The promoter of the Mr. Olympia contest, he noted, “was a real low life, a bigot, who had a real dislike for me—partly on racial grounds and partly for my sexual orientation.”
We extend our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Chris Dickerson.