The first U.S. Women's National Physique Championship, promoted by Henry McGhee and held in Canton, Ohio in 1978, is generally regarded as the first true female bodybuilding contest—that is, the first contest where the entrants were judged solely on muscularity.[13] In 1980, the first Ms. Olympia (initially known as the "Miss" Olympia), the most prestigious contest for professionals, was held. The first winner was Rachel McLish, who had also won the NPC's USA Championship earlier in the year. The contest was a major turning point for female bodybuilding. McLish inspired many future competitors to start training and competing. In 1985, a movie called Pumping Iron II: The Women was released. It documented the preparation of several women for the 1983 Caesars Palace World Cup Championship. Competitors prominently featured in the film were Kris Alexander, Lori Bowen, Lydia Cheng, Carla Dunlap, Bev Francis, and McLish. At the time, Francis was actually a powerlifter, though she soon made a successful transition to bodybuilding, becoming one of the leading competitors of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the modern bodybuilding industry, the term "professional" generally means a bodybuilder who has won qualifying competitions as an amateur and has earned a "pro card" from their respective organization. Professionals earn the right to compete in competitions that include monetary prizes. A pro card also prohibits the athlete from competing in federations other than the one from which they have received the pro card.[12] Depending on the level of success, these bodybuilders may receive monetary compensation from sponsors, much like athletes in other sports.
During the 1950s, the most successful and most famous competing bodybuilders[according to whom?] were Bill Pearl, Reg Park, Leroy Colbert, and Clarence Ross. Certain bodybuilders rose to fame thanks to the relatively new medium of television, as well as cinema. The most notable[according to whom?] were Jack LaLanne, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, and Mickey Hargitay. While there were well-known gyms throughout the country during the 1950s (such as Vince's Gym in North Hollywood, California and Vic Tanny's chain gyms), there were still segments of the United States that had no "hardcore" bodybuilding gyms until the advent of Gold's Gym in the mid-1960s. Finally, the famed Muscle Beach in Santa Monica continued its popularity as the place to be for witnessing acrobatic acts, feats of strength, and the like. The movement grew more in the 1960s with increased TV and movie exposure, as bodybuilders were typecast in popular shows and movies.[citation needed]
Sandow organized the first bodybuilding contest on September 14, 1901, called the "Great Competition". It was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Judged by Sandow, Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the contest was a great success and many bodybuilding enthusiasts were turned away due to the overwhelming amount of audience members.[4] The trophy presented to the winner was a gold statue of Sandow sculpted by Frederick Pomeroy. The winner was William L. Murray of Nottingham. The silver Sandow trophy was presented to second-place winner D. Cooper. The bronze Sandow trophy — now the most famous of all — was presented to third-place winner A.C. Smythe. In 1950, this same bronze trophy was presented to Steve Reeves for winning the inaugural NABBA Mr. Universe contest. It would not resurface again until 1977 when the winner of the IFBB Mr. Olympia contest, Frank Zane, was presented with a replica of the bronze trophy. Since then, Mr. Olympia winners have been consistently awarded a replica of the bronze Sandow.
In 1990, professional wrestling promoter Vince McMahon announced that he was forming a new bodybuilding organization named the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF). McMahon wanted to bring WWF-style showmanship and bigger prize money to the sport of bodybuilding. A number of IFBB stars were recruited but the roster was never very large and featured the same athletes competing; the most notable winner and first WBF champion was Gary Strydom. McMahon formally dissolved the WBF in July 1992. Reasons for this reportedly included lack of income from the pay-per-view broadcasts of the contests, slow sales of the WBF's magazine Bodybuilding Lifestyles (later WBF Magazine), and the expense of paying multiple six-figure contracts while producing two TV shows and a monthly magazine.

The winner of the annual IFBB Mr. Olympia contest is generally recognized as the world's top male professional bodybuilder. Since 1950, the NABBA Universe Championships have been considered the top amateur bodybuilding contests, with notable winners such as Reg Park, Lee Priest, Steve Reeves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Winners generally go on to become professional athletes.

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