Written by Peter McGough
07 August 2013


As Seen Live on ESPN

With discussion about the possible demisebevs-last-stand of women’s bodybuilding being sparked by the Arnold Sports Festival dropping the ultimate flexing ladies division from their 2014 schedule its sobering to recall that no other contest in the sport’s history received more mainstream exposure than the staging of the 1991 Ms. Olympia. This by virtue of the finals of the event being broadcast live on ESPN. Thus it was that the largest audience ever witnessing a Ms. Olympia contest saw the most controversial result in the event’s history.

Lenda Murray had won the first of her eight Ms. Olympia titles a year earlier and as she prepared to defend her crown at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1991 against the world’s hardest ladies (ex-wives excepted) we and the rest of the bodybuilding community were not aware that her main challenger was about to unveil the most densely muscled physique we had seen on a female up to that point. Cue Bev Francis.


Australian born Bev had enjoyed a singular career.bevs-last-standins2 A shot-put champion in her own country and winner of six world powerlifting titles she, by the early ‘80s, was declared History's Strongest Woman. That accolade led to her being invited by producer George Butler to take part in Pumping Iron II: The Women being shot around the Cesar’s World Cup being held in Las Vegas in December 1983. Bev was cast as the bugle girl for muscle mass against more streamlined physique ideals; a debate that was – the more things change? – raging at the time. As Bev herself said, at that contest she should have been, “First or last.” In fact compromise reigned as she finished slap bang in the middle as eighth among 15 competitors.

From that impromptu start Bev fell in love with the sport and with Steve Weinberger (now one of the stalwarts of the NPC/IFBB hierarchy) and eventually they married and she relocated to New York. The newcomer attempted to re-invent her physique along the lines of what was being rewarded, and after finishing 10th in her Olympia debut of 1987, she reeled of two third places in 1988 and ’89 and then moved into second in 1990. She had overhauled her physique radically from that 1983 Cesar’s Palace outing when she was told she was “too muscular”. Imagine her consternation after that 1990 runner-up spot to Lenda when she was told she was “not muscular enough.” Okay the gauntlet has been thrown in the face of the feisty Aussie. (Actually there was no need for the prefix, “feisty”.) If they wanted muscle she’s give them bloody muscle – the most ever seen on a woman.


To facilitate ESPN’s needs the 1991 Ms. Olympia was held over two days. Round one (symmetry) and two (muscularity) were held on Saturday evening, October 12th whilst rounds three (posing) and four (posedown) were conducted 24 hours later: the Sunday night proceedings being broadcast live.

At the prejudging Bev walked out with 160 dense andbevs-last-standins3 conditioned muscular pounds stacked on her 5’5” frame. The audience gasped – no one has seen that much muscle on a female form. At the end of that night’s judging the woman who had re-written the bounds of female muscularity handbook was leading – four points ahead of Lenda Murray. Just prior to the commencement of the Sunday night’s finals ESPN (in an unprecedented move for pro bodybuilding) flashed up the half-time scores for a national audience and those inside the Shrine to see that Bev was in the lead. Apropos the posing round having never been recognized as a come-from-behind-means in which to vault a place or two, most insiders – and Bev as well – figured she only had to avoid falling over to take the title.

Thus it was at 7.57 pm on the evening of Sunday October 13, Bev stood onstage holding hands with Lenda awaiting the defending champ’s name being called in second. Then the roof fell in as the announcement boomed around the auditorium, “In second place Bev Francis." Bev's hand rose halfway to her face in shock before she regained her composure, smiled and congratulated Lenda, and following the final award left the competitive bodybuilding stage for the last time.

For all those in attendance what was difficult to digest was that Bev was leading after two rounds only to be overtaken in the concluding rounds. Of course it was said, that the powers-that-be and ESPN didn’t want a woman who would have beaten most middleweight men to be recognized as the planet’s premier female bodybuilder. A few months later an edict went out warning that overt muscularity would be marked down and the “How much is too much?” argument has persisted ever since.


Sixteen months after that contest Bev told me: “After being in the lead with only the posing and posedown to go I still can’t believe I lost that contest. In my heart and in my mind I can’t motivate myself to compete in another bodybuilding contest. The fire for competition is no longer there. I have no bitterness. Bodybuilding gave me a great life and I’m thankful for that.”

She added, “You know when I came in as the most muscular competitor at that 1983 Caesar’s Palace contest I said I should have been first or last. The same should have applied at the 1991 Ms. Olympia.”

Bev Francis may not have ever won the Ms. Olympia title, but a greater reward is that she is universally loved by fans, fellow competitors, press and all she comes into contact with for her honesty, infectious personality and good fun-loving nature. She and Steve went on to have two adorable children and open the now legendary Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym, in Syosset, New York known throughout the bodybuilding world as the East Coast Mecca. To check it out click on: bevfrancis.com