Why Kai Didn't Win (and Why It Doesn't Matter)

TAGS: Jordan Houser, politics, Phil heath, ken skip hill, Marshall Johnson, kai greene, Mr. Olympia, ifbb pro, bodybuilding

It has been four days since the Olympia. Four days since Phil Heath claimed his fourth Sandow.

The roar of the fans and the outrage of Kai Greene supporters is starting to die down. Now that it is settling in that Phil won (again) and that Kai came up short (again), there are questions that still need answered. And most of the answers to these questions are more complex than they seem.

Why did Phil win? And why are so many fans outraged by it?

Before breaking down the drama of the Olympia, it needs to be acknowledged that, according to sources educated in the matter, Phil Heath had the capability to win the Olympia based on fair judging alone. Whether or not politics swayed the result in any way, Phil had the physique to win another Sandow, with or without any under-the-scorer’s-table leniency in his favor.

“The Olympia is an overall package look. It isn’t who had better this or who had better that,” bodybuilding judge Skip Hill said to me on Tuesday. “Phil is a better bodybuilder because he has the whole package. The things I like about Kai’s physique are things I would like on me, but they aren’t things that are put together for the ideal look.

“Phil wins from his overall package. Everything from skin tone, to balanced conditioning, to how his muscles flow with each other. Everything on him is put together.”

When I walked into the gym Sunday morning, the Olympia results fresh in my mind, I asked the elitefts Senior Content Manager for his impression of the competitors. In his explanation of why he thinks the judges scored Kai below Phil, he described Kai as, "a collection of freaky bodyparts." This is precisely how most bodybuilding fans see the Olympia competitors: freaky.

“Look at Kai’s lats,” Hill said. “Those lats are the thickest lats I have ever seen. It’s like you could put your hand in there up to your third knuckle. And the feathering on the outside of his quads is otherworldly.

“He may even have smaller joints than Phil, if you were somehow able to measure. His biceps have peaked so ridiculously, but the area around his elbow has stayed relatively the same size. It’s almost like he has rounder muscle bellies. Look at Kai’s chest. I don’t think that Phil’s chest is terribly round or full or all that remarkable. He’s bigger, but he doesn’t have that look that someone put an airhose in the muscles and blew them up.”


This is where the fascination with Kai’s physique develops. He looks absolutely inhuman. His back is swallowed up by his lats and you can nearly see each muscle fiber in his outer quads. This doesn’t sway the judges quite as easily as it does the fans, though. These are judges that every single day see bodies developed to the extent of Olympia competitors. Their mentality resides so deeply embedded in the culture that the emotional response to an IFBB Pro’s extraordinary physique has long since worn off. The judges aren’t like you or me, who become so amazed that comparisons are difficult to fairly make.

So, what do the judges see that the fans don’t? According to Skip, it isn’t one specific attribute; it’s everything. It is balanced conditioning. It is uniform proportions. When you look at Phil’s physique, no singular body part stands out. That may sound like a weakness, but to these bodybuilding judges, it is a strength. Nothing is a strong point because everything is equally strong.

Phil’s champion-worthy physique acknowledged, there were some unusual competition and non-competition factors at play in Vegas this year. The most glaring of which was an ongoing conflict between Kai and Phil, a rivalry that appears to have grown into potent hatred.

The beef between Kai and Phil can be traced back further than last Thursday night, but the press conference is where it started this Olympia. The two most developed bodybuilders in the world sat on a stage next to each other, surrounded by other contestants but seemingly unaware of their presence. And the two men argued like school children. It is unlikely that anyone will remember the 2014 Olympia Press Conference for anything other than the two, 250-pound men going at each other’s throats.

At the press conference, all eyes were on Phil and Kai. Just as they would be the following night. And the night after that.

Was the conflict just for publicity? Was it a move strategically made by Kai Greene in order to set himself against the reigning champ, thereby cementing at least a runner-up finish? All eyes on Phil and Kai means fewer eyes on everyone else.

Kai has made an extensive effort to portray himself as a humble competitor, troubled by his own insecurities yet empowered by the belief that anything can happen. This mantra that he has yelled (and quite loudly) for himself may sound like marketing hype to garner followers, but consider this:

Kai really was raised in foster care and residential treatment centers in Brooklyn, New York. He really was an impoverished Brooklyn child. His entry into bodybuilding came about as a way to counteract his troublesome behavior as a young teen. Even if the details of his childhood and upbringing have been embellished to create a more interesting character, the over-arching message is (at least mostly) true. If bodybuilding has ever saved a man, it saved Kai Greene.


Why, then, would Kai tear down a persona that he spent years creating? Why would he turn heel and become the villain of the 2014 Olympia?

[For those of you who have not seen the video of press conference, Kai becomes visibly irritated during Phil Heath’s speech, obsessively reminds Phil what year it is, states that no one “is going to sing negro spiritual” with Phil, and interrupts Phil’s lamentations of his late father to yell, “I didn’t have a father.” He also awkwardly refers to himself in the third person, and imitates Phil with baby-voice.]


There are two possible answers to Kai’s anti-hero dilemma. The short answer is simple: competitive instinct and fatigue from months of dieting and training for a single competition (combined with an excess of competition-week drug use) simply eroded Kai’s ability to maintain self-control. He lost it.

The long answer is not so simple.

Kai is an icon as much as anyone who ever became champion [excluding Arnold, and maybe Lee Haney if you subscribe to the belief that he was significantly responsible for ushering in the Mass Monster Era. I do not; although I do believe that Haney is often forgotten, I believe he should be remembered for his eight consecutive Sandows rather than for his cultural impact on the sport]. Kai has a larger online following than even the current Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath. He built this following mostly through YouTube videos and his gone-viral social monologues.

He encourages an astounding number of his followers. Simply look as his social media and you’ll see a flood of thankful fans claiming to have experienced life-changing revelations from his work and his message. Whether this all is genuine or not, Kai has a lasting impact on the people he touches.

And this doesn’t apply only to insecure high school boys fighting Adonis Complexes. Even Marshall Johnson has had a life-changing interaction with Kai’s persona — and Marshall is one of the best lifters in the world right now. So good, in fact, that he was invited to compete at the deadlift competition at Mr. Olympia 2014.

“I started following Kai after a really bad meet I had four or five years ago,” Marshall said yesterday. “I thought I had screwed up my chances with some things that were really important to me and I was just really down and depressed.

“I felt that I had failed so horribly. And that was about the time that I found some videos of Kai Greene. I heard about his story and things that he’s been through and it gave me the drive to get keep going.”


Marshall is very open about Kai Greene being his personal hero — a title with which many of Kai’s followers agree.

“What I like about Kai is that he came from nothing,” Marshall said. “In his teens he declared that he would be the best bodybuilder in the world and with no support system, no money, he’s arguably made it there.”

The reasons people admire Kai have nothing to do with his five top-five Olympia records.

Characters are defined by one aspect; human beings are not. The difference between a real human being and an unreal character is that we, as humans, are multi-dimensional, and the imaginary personas that we create are one-dimensional. This is why it is so easy to fall in love with television characters or the protagonist of your favorite novel; not only do they not exist, but they never could exist. That’s what makes them appealing. If Kai chose to make his troubled upbringing the singular aspect that defines him as a character, it does not mean that his troubled upbringing also defines him as a person. And this is why we should not be outraged by his efforts to capitalize on something that helps him as a businessman and a bodybuilder. It is no different than Phil Heath’s embrace with his “Gift” persona.

Our desire to root for Kai Greene is our desire to root for every underdog. It is the culmination of our own insecurities that scream, “I’ve been forgotten.” We see that you’re forgotten, Kai, and we feel your pain. We sympathize.

But often during this sympathy we forget that the scorecards don’t care. They are not concerned with the story of a competitor or the shortcomings of his fans. And when it comes down to it, Kai didn’t have what it took to win the O.

A lot of fans will have a hard time accepting that. And, admittedly, they may have a good case. Bodybuilding is a subjectively coached sport that aims to be governed by objective criteria. Even that sentence takes a while to digest — but imagine trying to apply it as a judge. Many fans see Kai as the better bodybuilder because they admire him as a person, and because of this they become biased when evaluating his physique. Others? Well, some fans may make a decent case that Kai deserved the win. These fans aren’t the judges.


We (at least most of us) have untrained eyes. This is the reason that I asked Skip Hill to weigh in. His eyes, trained through many years of competing, coaching, and judging in bodybuilding, are more trustworthy than mine (and likely yours, too). Even with his personal connection to Phil (Skip, too, lives in Colorado and both train at Armbrust Pro Gym), Skip has enough experience to rid him of the biases that affect others.

Before judging the competitors, we might first want to make sure that we’re qualified to do so. Those qualifications come with many years of attention, and the ability to not be affected by other critics’ evaluations of the competitors.

“When commentators or other pros or prep guys make initial judgments at prejudging and put them out on social media, everyone grabs ahold of them,” Skip said. “The Kai fans jumped all over the initial assessment that Phil was watery and he was off. These comments become regurgitated almost verbatim, whether they’re accurate or not.

“It’s hard to tell how someone looked without being there. Pictures capture a brief moment when maybe the competitor wasn’t paying attention and didn’t have as good of control of his abs as he should have. Then he poses and he looks great.

“I saw absolutely no reason for Phil to be unseated.”

Even if Phil isn’t ever unseated, it won’t make a difference for Kai. When it comes to Kai’s legacy, it won’t matter if he never wins an Olympia. His underdog story might resonate more strongly if he never does, in fact.

“If Kai never wins an Olympia, he will still be remembered as someone who inspired people, who motivated people, who changed lives,” Marshall said. “He has had a huge impact on society. If you turn the tables, switch spots with him and Phil, you could not say the same about Phil whatsoever.

This is why Kai was able to fall into the emotionally volatile challenger role that he played so well at this Olympia. He is a man that has climbed his way out of poverty and childhood homelessness, vying for recognition on the biggest bodybuilding stage of them all. In the eyes of his fans, he has earned the right to be angry and unpredictable. They’re willing to overlook transgressions because of the other work that he has done in his life. The character Kai Greene won again.


But hanging in the balance of all this is the person Kai Greene. The man that just lost to Phil Heath, again. The man who finished in second place, just not good enough, for the third time in his life.

We feel your loss, Kai. But the right man won the Olympia.

In ten years, it won’t matter to you or anyone else. Nothing on the bodybuilding stage is going to take away from your legacy.

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