Champion bodybuilder and first Black gay man to win Mr America tragically dies, aged 82

Chris Dickerson smiles and poses while flexing his muscles in a bodybuilding competition

Chris Dickerson, who holds the duel honour of being the first Black man to win the Mr America contest and first openly gay man to win Mr Olympia, has died aged 82.

Dickerson was a powerhouse of the bodybuilding community and broke barriers. He died on 23 December at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his friend Bill Neylon confirming the cause of death as a heart ailment, the Washington Post reported.

Neylon – a retired amateur bodybuilder who trained alongside Dickerson – said his friend had lived in a rehab centre after he had been hospitalised for a broken hip in 2020, had a heart attack and COVID-19.

He told the New York Times that Dickerson “brought class and dignity and culture to bodybuilding”.

Chris Dickerson’s storied career spanned over three decades, and he won over 50 titles. He ended his career having won four major bodybuilding titles: Mr Olympia, Mr America, Mr Universe and the Pro Mr America.

Dickerson trained in opera and dance before beginning to lift weights to build up his chest and expand his vocal range.

He was named Mr America in 1970, becoming the first Black winner of the bodybuilding competition. He was also one of the first Black men to win the Mr Universe competition in 1982.

Dickerson was also gay, which was widely known in bodybuilding circles by the late 1970s. But he didn’t publicly discuss his sexuality at the height of his career, the New York Times reported.

Dickerson acknowledged that being gay and Black was a barrier for him in the bodybuilding world.

In a 2009 paper published in Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture, Chriis Dickerson recalled facing homophobic and racist prejudice at the Mr Olympia competition in 1980.

Dickerson narrowly lost the top title to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He said the promoter of the Mr Olympia contest was a “real low life, a bigot, who had a real dislike for me – partly on racial grounds and partly for my sexual orientation”.

The paper alleged the promoter also told another official that “Chris couldn’t win because he was a f*g”.

Chris Dickerson came in second again in 1981 before finally taking the Mr Olympia title in 1982 aged 43. He was the oldest Mr Olympia champion at the time.

In the 1970s, Dickerson modelled nude for Jim French, a photographer who specialised in erotic imagery of gay men. He also posed in a t-shirt for a portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1982.

Samir Bannout, Dickerson’s friend and the 1983 Mr Olympia champion, told the Washington Post that Dickerson was “one of the nicest people in the entire sport”.

“He had no chip on his shoulder,” Bannout said. “When he won the Mr Olympia, he was still a normal guy.”

Bannout described the gay bodybuilder as “masterful” and as someone who had “more confidence than anyone out there”.

Chris Dickerson was the youngest of triplets. His brothers died before him, the New York Times reported.

Dickerson left no immediate survivors.