On March 23, 2013, fitness guru and magazine publisher Joe Weider died in Marina Del Ray, California at age 93. Besides discovering Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, Weider created the Mr. Olympia competition along with a publishing empire of fitness magazines that included Muscle & Fitness, Flex, and Shape.
Above all, Joe Weider and his younger brother Ben helped popularize bodybuilding as a competitive sport.
About Joe Weider
In 1922, Joe Weider was born in the tough, mostly French-Canadian Plateau, section of Montreal. His parents were Polish-born Jewish immigrants. His father was a pants presser in a factory. At age 12, Joe dropped out of school to sell fruits and vegetables from a cart in the streets of Montreal. This was a 10-hour-a-day job.
At only 5-foot-5 and about 110 pounds, Joe was frequently targeted by bullies who robbed him for change. Tired of beatings, he tried to join a local wrestling club, but was turned down for his small stature.
His life changed when he discovered “Strength,” a low-circulation magazine that touted weightlifting. He searched a junkyard to build his own equipment, creating a barbell from a car axle and two wheels. Weider claimed that by the time he was 16, he had built his physique up to the point where he could press 330 pounds. The bullies no longer bothered him.
Still a teenager, Joe used $7 of savings to print copies of “Your Physique”, a 12-page fitness newsletter, on a mimeograph machine in his parents’ house. Eighteen months later, the magazine had made a $10,000 profit, a small fortune in the early 1940s.
At age 19, Joe Weider convinced the American News Company, one of the world’s largest magazine distributors, to sell “Your Physique” on newsstands. As a result, the magazine’s circulation grew to 50,000 per month, making Joe a millionaire by his late 20s.
Even though his business had become successful, the general public still did not consider bodybuilding to be a legitimate sport. It was for “oddballs.”
The Brothers Weider
Upon seeing Joe’s success in the fitness magazine business, younger brother Ben joined Joe in business. They started a mail order business, manufacturing and selling bodybuilding equipment.
Ben Weider also became a believer in the future of bodybuilding as an officially recognized competitive sport. In 1946, the brothers rented Montreal’s Monument National Theater to host the first Mr. Canada competition. During the same year, they established The International Federation of Body Building and Fitness (IFBB), an organization for bodybuilding and fitness competitors. Ben was its president.
In 1965, the IFBB held the first Mr. Olympia competition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As of 2013, Mr. Olympia remains the world’s biggest bodybuilding event.
As head of IFBB, Ben Weider lobbied continuously to establish bodybuilding as a legitimate competition in the sporting world, particularly the Olympics. Joe focused on finding a charismatic star to get bodybuilding the recognition that it deserved.
Joe Meets Arnold
In 1968 Joe discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger at a European bodybuilding contest. Convinced that he had found his charismatic star, Weider mentored Arnold, moving him to Los Angeles, setting him up in a Santa Monica apartment, and giving him a $100 per week stipend to write articles for his fitness magazines.
In 1970, Weider accompanied Schwarzenegger to an acting audition for a low-budget film called “Hercules in New York” (AKA “Hercules Goes Bananas”). Joe told producers that Arnold was a “German Shakespearean actor.” At the time, he barely spoke English. According to Schwarzenegger, Weider told him before the audition, “Don’t say a word. Don’t open your mouth.” When the film was released, an actor had dubbed “Hercules'” voice.
As a bodybuilding star, Schwarzenegger wound up winning seven Mr. Olympia titles and four Mr. Universe titles.
The Weider Legacy
In 1988, the IFBB asked the International Olympic Committee to recognize bodybuilding as an international sport. His request was turned down. At the time, anabolic steroid abuse had become a controversial issue in the world of professional and amateur sports. On January 30, 1998, the Olympic Committee finally granted official recognition of bodybuilding as an associate sport and of IFBB as the sport’s official governing body.
In 2003, the Weiders sold their fitness magazine empire to American Media, the publisher of “National Enquirer,” for $357 million.
As governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger honored his mentor by declaring July 9, 2007, as “Joe Weider Day.”
Ben Weider died in 2008.
In 2011, the University of Texas opened The Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture, containing Joe’s collection of bodybuilding memorabilia.
When Joe Weider died in 2013, Arnold said, “He was the godfather of fitness who told all of us to be somebody with a body. He taught us that through hard work and training we could all be champions.” He also said that Joe Weider was a presence at every stage of his career.
In 2013, film producer/director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) has signed to direct and write “Bigger,” the story of Joe and Ben Weider and the fitness business.