WTO? Bodybuilding Highlights Issue with Subjective Sports

17 November 2023


Competitive Fitness

Sports Business



In the world of sports, one subjective thing is objectively certain: people will have their favorites. This is the very basis upon which fandom is built: a devout loyalty to a team, an athlete, a logo, a region. Fans may dispute decisions, calls, or outcomes, but oftentimes the results on the field, court, or pitch will speak for themselves. For the majority of sports, where objectivity often reigns supreme, subjective sports carve a unique niche. The very determination of the winner is determined by a panel of judges who apply criteria, or factors, which themselves can be subject to wildly varying subjective interpretations. The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness' (the “IFBB”) Mr. Olympia competition (the “Olympia”), perfectly illustrates the controversies and challenges inherent in subjective sports.


The Subjectivity Conundrum


Objective sports use quantifiable metrics to determine success. This could be in the form of whichever team has scored more goals (soccer), runs (cricket), or tries/touchdowns (rugby/American football) wins the match. For fans watching the sporting event, it becomes easy for them to tell who the winner is i.e., it is objectively determinable. These sports may have some subjective elements baked into the rules of the game, which are then subjectively interpreted and applied by match officials or referees. While these subjective decisions do not determine the objective winner, they can in some respects influence the outcome (for example, an egregious missed call or incorrect sending off). However, in most instances, these decisions have certain checks and balances in place to minimize their impact; through the use of third-match officials or video assistant referees. In the end, a match’s outcome is primarily governed by the confluence of clearly identifiable objective elements and subjective decisions. The winner will be the winner, and it is one who all fans can (mostly) agree on.


On the other hand, subjective sports, by their very nature, involve judging based on personal interpretation and aesthetic preferences. Unlike objective sports, subjective sports, like bodybuilding, introduce an element of subjectivity that can be both captivating and problematic. The setup is simple: participants engage in an event and are required to perform various predetermined routines. These performances are then subjected to grading by a panel of judges who determine the winner on the basis of applying various subjective criteria and determining a final score. So where does the problem lie? This deceptively simple ensemble masks issues and raises various problems. Are all criteria weighed equally? How are latent biases of the judges guarded against? Can the transparency of publishing scorecards assuage the concerns of fans who think the judges made the “wrong” decision? Where’s the objectivity? And therein lies the crux of the matter: in the absence of objectivity, subjective sports will always be subject (pun intended) to the usual complaints that the judges were wrong and the continual stories of esoteric rules and standards and biographies of the judges. Bodybuilding provides a great platform from which to expand upon this dilemma.


What is the Perfect Body and how is it Determined?


The Olympia is viewed as the “Super Bowl” of the bodybuilding world, the pinnacle of the sport which annually determines the best bodybuilder in the world. “Winning the title is one of the most prestigious accomplishments a bodybuilder can achieve. The mecca of muscle, it is where the biggest men to ever walk this earth go to prove they are the best.” First established in 1965, the Olympia has across the years held 59 contests in a variety of locations. Curiously though, there have only been 18 winners during this time frame, with six (6) men accounting for 40 titles between them: Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney, Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Arnold”), Phil Heath, Dorian Yates, and Jay Cutler. What can be deduced from this are a few things: i) those winners really were that good; ii) the winners’ circle is a prestigious club; and iii) maybe the judges favor repeat winners.


Throughout its storied history, the Olympia has been subject to allegations of incumbent favoritism by the judges, nationalism, and criticism levelled against what the judges deem to be the ideal body type at the time. For example, during the 70s greater emphasis was placed by the judges on symmetry and aesthetics (think of Arnold’s iconic posing routines), while the latter 80s and 90s gave way to prevailing “mass monsters” – competitors routinely weighing above 110 kilograms (fuelled, in no small part, by advancements in sports nutrition and doping). The seemingly constant controversy that is engendered is attributed to the wildly subjective criteria used to determine the perfect body.


The judging criteria in the Olympia, as set out by the IFBB, include factors like muscle size, shape, symmetry, proportion, definition, and overall presentation, leaving room for both interpretation and debate. Because bodybuilding is seen as a subjective sport, the IFBB has developed a scoring system based on averages. Typically, seven (7) to 11 judges rank the competitors. However, to achieve what the IFBB deems a fair average, each competitor’s highest and lowest scores are dropped. The lowest score is equal to the highest ranking in bodybuilding, so the competitor with the lowest overall score wins. In this way, the IFBB argues that they have a system in place to ensure fair judging.


Again, it must be stressed, how the panel of judges weigh the various factors is not known to the public. Additionally, there are always the latent criteria which are “unofficial” but understood by the bodybuilding community to be involved in the judging process – such as ambassadorial quality and the favored body type at the time. Nowhere is this example better illustrated than in the case of the 2023 Olympia.


Is the Winner the “Winner” or the Best Winner for the Brand?


The 2023 Olympia saw a relatively strong field headlined by the reigning champion Hadi Choopan (“Choopan”), a deaf Iranian bodybuilder, and Derek Lunsford (“Lunsford”), an American rising star and 2022 Olympia runner-up. The event was the culmination of a year of intense training and preparation for the world's top bodybuilders. In the end, Lunsford won the event for the first time in his career, defeating Hadi Choopan in a close contest. Lunsford was praised for his incredible physique and conditioning, which he had worked hard to achieve in the months leading up to the competition. Choopan was also in excellent shape and put on a stunning display of muscle and symmetry. However, Lunsford's superior conditioning gave him the edge in the end. The final scores for the event read Lunsford 7 (prejudging) / 6 (finals) | 13 (total) and Choopan 9 (prejudging) / 9 (finals) | 18 (total). What this indicates is that Lunsford was in the lead throughout the competition, and actually widened the gap following the final round of posing.


Despite this seemingly objective outcome, a lot of fans were disgruntled about the outcome – arguing that Choopan looked better than his 2022 form (where he won) and beat Lunsford in all poses displaying the front of the body’s muscularity. The counterpoint to this was that Lunsford won all of the back poses (evoking memories of the old adage that bodybuilding shows are “won from the back” – which is in itself an entirely subjective notion). Furthermore, there were rumors amongst bodybuilding fans that the IFBB (who sanctions the Olympia) was unhappy with Choopan’s decision to spur the (expected but not required) ambassadorial duties of a reigning Olympia champion – namely, attending fitness expos around the world and participating in guest posing sessions at amateur and professional bodybuilding events. It is understandable why the IFBB would want a champion to observe these duties – the IFBB is after all a business, whose profitability is centered upon selling tickets to the Olympia weekend fitness expo and subscriptions to pay-per-view streams of the event. An active champion would heighten brand name recognition and help to bolster the popularity of the sport (which Arnold did to great effect during his time as Mr. Olympia). However, this is a “nice to have” and not part of the criteria which judges should consider in determining the Olympia winner. But without any sort of objective elements, such unspoken factors can end up launching careers and preventing genuinely deserving competitors from ever winning the coveted Sandow trophy. So should Choopan have won the 2023 Olympia? Who can say? The panel of judges made a normative decision based on a variety of factors, which were not all objectively apparent to fans.




In the intricate world of subjective sports, epitomized by the Olympia, the conclusion echoes a plea for transparency, fairness, and objectivity. While the allure of subjectivity adds an artistic flair to the sporting realm, the challenges it poses are evident in the controversies and debates that surround competitions like the Olympia.


The 2023 Olympia emphasizes the universal importance of clear, accountable frameworks in diverse domains. The subjective conundrum inherent in sports like bodybuilding raises fundamental questions about the very essence of competition: can a sport truly flourish without a foundation of objectivity? The 2023 Olympia exemplifies the delicate balance between recognizing athletic prowess and navigating external pressures that may compromise the integrity of the competition.


The call for transparency in the judging process, coupled with a deeper understanding of the criteria and potential biases, is not just a demand from disillusioned fans but a necessity for the credibility and longevity of subjective sports. As the IFBB continues to refine its scoring system and address concerns surrounding backstage politics, the broader conversation around subjectivity in sports must evolve.


In conclusion, the Olympia competition serves as a microcosm, encapsulating the challenges and potential solutions for subjective sports worldwide. As athletes strive for perfection in a world of ever-changing ideals, the need for fairness and clarity in judging becomes paramount. The evolution of the Olympia and similar competitions hinges on the commitment to transparency, objectivity, and inclusivity, ensuring that the subjective beauty of these sports does not mask the underlying imperative for integrity and fairness on the international stage. Until then, the salient question will remain starkly prominent: where’s the objectivity?



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- By Shane Wafer And Nick Flowers, Esq.