Samir Bannout and The Golden Age of Bodybuilding

There is a reason that the 1980s are considered a “Golden Age” in the history of bodybuilding. Champions in the sport included such classic legends as Frank Zane, Chris Dickerson, Franco Columbu – and Samir Bannout. These competitors all had super aesthetic physiques and were not so huge that younger bodybuilders couldn’t aspire to follow in their footsteps.

Big Ramy is an amazing and deserving Mr. Olympia. But there are not many young bodybuilders in gyms around the world who look at him and say, “Someday I’m going to build a physique like that.”

There also occurred a confluence of forces that occurred during that period. Muscle & Fitness Magazine was so unexpectedly successful it was called “the publishing miracle of the 1980s” by the industry. Because Joe Weider was located in Los Angeles, and had most of the top bodybuilders under contract, many of the pros either lived in the area or visited on a regular basis. Me and other Weider photographers were always shooting them at Gold’s Gym or in the studio, which helped Gold’s, Venice earn its reputation as the “Mecca of bodybuilding.”

Samir Bannout at Gold’s Gym in Venice, “The Mecca of Bodybuilding”. Bill Dobbins

Because photos in Muscle & Fitness and Flex were mostly done at the gym in Venice, this brought bodybuilders from all over the world to train there where they could rub shoulders with the champions of the day. In fact, so many visitors came from foreign countries, especially in the summer, I used to joke that I felt I needed a visa to workout at the gym.

Samir Bannout working out his legs in Gold's Gym
The Lion of Lebanon trained for the Olympia at Venice Gold’s. Bill Dobbins

Among the other champions on the gym floor, one of the most prominent was Samir Bannout, known as “the Lion of Lebanon”, Samir left his native Lebanon and emigrated to America where he first moved to Detroit, Michigan and later relocated to Santa Monica , California. He began competing at the amateur level where he rose up the ranks and eventually achieved IFBB pro status by winning the light-heavyweight class at the 1979 IFBB World Amateur Championships. Bannout took 4th place at the 1982 Mr. Olympia contest and returned the following year to

Munich, Germany to take home the Olympia title in 1983. Bannout weighed 196 lbs. for his win at the contest which made him the last Mr. Olympia to weigh under 200 lbs. His victory ended what is referred to as the “aesthetics” era for the Mr. Olympia contest which had originally started with American Frank Zane winning the title in 1977 and reverted to emphasizing increased mass and size starting with American Lee Haney winning in 1984 for the first time and following up his inaugural victory with 7 additional consecutive wins for a record grand total of 8 titles.

Samir posing in green shorts
A classic physique shown hitting a classic bodybuilding pose. Bill Dobbins

This was the last period in pro bodybuilding before the arrival of the “muscle monsters,” champions like Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and subsequent more really big Mr. Olympia winners. Today, Samir would be in the 212-pound class, as would Zane, Lee Labrada, Franco Columbu, Rich Gaspari, Shawn Ray, Bob Paris and many other legends of the period. Nowadays, even the “smaller” pro bodybuilders tend to weigh more than 212 pounds and must compete on stage next to physiques that are 270, 290 or even 300 pounds.

Samir Bannout showing his aesthetic
For Samir Bannout, aesthetics are more important than sheer mass. Bill Dobbins

“Like any serious bodybuilder,” “Samir says, “I worked hard to build muscle when I started training. But I was never interested in mass for the sake of mass. Bodybuilding to me has always been about aesthetic quality, sculptural detail. We tend to admire statues of athletes from ancient Greece or the sculptures of Michelangelo not just because they are muscular but because all that muscle is presented as so beautiful.”

I photographed Samir many times on stage and in the gym. Then one day in 1989 we decided to go to nearby Marina Del Rey and do outdoor photos in the great California beach sunlight. Samir was not in ripped contest shape, but he looked good, and you could certainly see the aesthetic qualities that made him a champion. I remembered this photo session recently and went looking through my vast photo library for the pictures.

Samir Bannout at Marina Del Rey
Samir Bannout at Marina Del Rey, 1989. Bill Dobbins

It turned out that the kind of color slide film had used was Kodachrome 25, which created very high quality and distinctive tones. The only problem is when these frames were mounted on cardboard slide mounts, they sometimes ended up having the edges slightly clipped. But even so it is obvious that these images are worth sharing with Samir’s many friends, fans and admirers. For one thing, they make it clear why the early 1980s were considered a Golden Age – and why.

As champions continue to get bigger and more massive, there is growing nostalgia for a time when aesthetic and quality were more important aspects of a champion physique and sheer mass simply wasn’t that big a factor.

Samir Bannout sitting on the ocean cliff
Samir and surf. Bill Dobbins

Samir Bannout Bodybuilding Competition History

2011 IFBB Pro World Masters Bodybuilding 11th

1996 Masters Olympia 6th

1994 Olympia 19th

1994 Grand Prix Spain 12th

1994 Grand Prix Italy 12th

1994 Grand Prix Germany 13th

1994 Grand Prix England 14th

1993 San Jose Pro Invitational 10th

1993 Ironman Pro Invitational 13th

1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic 13th

1992 Olympia 16th

1992 Grand Prix Germany 11th

1992 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic N/A

1991 Olympia 16th

1990 NABBA World Championships Professional 2nd

1990 Pittsburgh Pro Invitational 1st (Winner)

1990 Olympia 8th

1990 Houston Pro Invitational 2rd

1990 Grand Prix Italy 6th

1990 Grand Prix Finland 5th

1990 Grand Prix England 6th

1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic 4th

1989 Olympia 9th

1989 Grand Prix Sweden 3rd

1989 Grand Prix Spain (2nd) 5th

1989 Grand Prix Spain 5th

1989 Grand Prix Holland 5th

1989 Grand Prix Germany 5th

1989 Grand Prix France 8th

1989 Grand Prix Finland 6th

1989 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic 4th

1988 Grand Prix Italy 9th

1988 Grand Prix England 10th

1986 WABBA World Championship 1st

1985 WABBA World Championship 1st

1984 World Grand Prix 5th

1984 Olympia 6th

1984 Canada Pro Cup 5th

1983 Olympia 1st

1982 Olympia 4th

1982 Grand Prix Sweden 2nd

1981 Olympia 9th

1981 Night of Champions 10th

1981 Grand Prix New England 6th

1981 Grand Prix California 7th

1980 Pittsburgh Pro Invitational N/A

1980 Mr. Olympia 15th

1980 Night of Champions 10th

1980 Grand Prix Pennsylvania 7th

1980 Grand Prix California 4th

1979 World Amateur Championships, Light Heavyweight 1st

1979 Canada Pro Cup, N/A

1979 Best in the World, Amateur 1st

1978 International, Middleweight 2nd

1977 International, Middleweight 2nd

· 1976 Universe, Middleweight 12th

1974 Universe, Medium Class 7th (Youngest contestant)

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