Luck plays a large role in bodybuilding. From the second we are conceived our genetics determine whether we are capable of becoming a bodybuilding champion. If the proper genes are possessed and a bodybuilding path is traversed, proper exercise and diet must be identified through a long process of trial and error. What produces results for one bodybuilder might not work for another. If the proper genetics, exercise, and diet are in sync, bodybuilding competitions will be entered where subjective judging determines your fate. The stars must align perfectly to produce a bodybuilding champion.
Harold Poole developed all of these bodybuilding attributes at an early age. In 1960, at the age of 16, he became the youngest competitor in the AAU Mr. America contest where he placed a respectable 18th out of 25 contestants. During the next year he improved greatly, and at only 17 went from 18th to 4th in the 1961 AAU Mr. America contest. At the age of 18 he placed second in the 1962 AAU Mr. America while winning the Most Muscular award. Despite losing a close contest to Joe Abbenda, this was understandable as Abbenda had placed above Poole in the previous two AAU Mr. America contests. The major muscle magazines of the day had no problem with this outcome and Poole appeared happy with the outcome based on pictures of the contest after the awards were given.
With Abbenda unable to compete again, Poole was the sure favorite to win the 1963 AAU Mr. America contest. When the awards for the 1963 AAU Mr. America were given, Poole would again win the Most Muscular award but finish second to Vern Weaver whom he had had beaten in placement the year before. Two weeks later insult would turn to injury as Poole, still being only 19 years of age, entered the AAU Teenage Mr. America contest and placed second to Jerry Daniels. This is incredibly hard to fathom that Poole was good enough to place second two years in a row against the top amateurs in the AAU Mr. America contest but could not win the teenage version of it.
Many have theorized that the AAU was a racist organization and was against having a black Mr. America at the time. Racism would be difficult to prove as they had allowed black competitors in the contest since the early 1940s at a time when black athletes could not compete in most sports organizations. It should be noted that the AAU Mr. America contest was not judged primarily on muscularity (as Poole won the Most Muscular award two years in a row but finished second each year). Education, personality, and character were also judged to determine who would represent America best. Poole had a speech impediment which caused him to stutter. Many believe this issue held him back from winning the Mr. America contest with the AAU. Poole was aware this was an issue that held him back from winning the 1962 contest and attended a special speech school for a year to help him before the 1963 contest.
Believing he could not win an AAU Mr. America contest, Poole defected to the up and coming IFBB and quickly defeated Larry Scott in the 1963 IFBB Mr. Universe contest while still a teenager at 19 years old. The following year he won the 1964 IFBB Mr. America contest over Chet Yorton, Don Howorth, and Freddy Ortiz amongst others. Typically, after winning the Mr. America and Mr. Universe contests there were no more prestigious titles to compete for and retirement from competition would quickly follow. However, Joe Weider announced the formation of the Mr. Olympia contest that would begin in 1965. Champion bodybuilders could compete without having to retire after winning it.
The first Mr. Olympia contest in 1965 saw a dramatically improved Larry Scott defeat Poole in a unanimous decision. Poole had no objections to this as Scott was flat out better that night. The 1966 Mr. Olympia saw Poole come into the contest in the best shape of his life. It was a close contest and the eight judges scored it a tie with four votes for Scott and four for Poole. It was up to Lud Shusterich as the head judge to break the tie. He cast his vote for Scott whom won his second Mr. Olympia title. Everything seemed legitimate. A little while after the contest, judges Tom Minichiello, Ed Jubinville, and Kimon Voyages were backstage with Poole. Minichiello recalls:
“Poole, was taking his defeat like a good sport until the head judge (Lud Shusterich) came over and grabbed his hand, telling him how great he looked. Harold looked a bit puzzled and said to him, “If I looked so good to you, why didn’t I win?” I was stunned when I heard the head judge say, “I contracted with Scott a few months ago to take him on a tour of exhibitions in Europe, and I’ve got to take a winner with me.” Poole looked at me. I looked at both Jubinville and Voyages and again at Harold. I didn’t know if he was going to cry or punch this guy out. I felt horrible, especially after his Mr. America loss in the AAU some years back. To my surprise and relief, Harold controlled himself. He looked at me and said, “Tommy, I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” After the competition, I went over to Ben Weider and told him what had been said. Ben was genuinely disturbed. I told him I would never use this person for any competitions of mine.”
Again, the judging seemed to be against Poole. Scott would retire after this contest and Poole would compete in one more Mr. Olympia in 1967 placing third behind Sergio Oliva and Chuck Sipes. He would compete sporadically after that until retiring from competition in 1982.
Harold Poole is a name not many in the current bodybuilding game know but should. He probably accomplished more than any bodybuilder before the age of 20. He most likely should have been the first African-American AAU Mr. America winner in 1963 and also Mr. Olympia winner in 1966. He had incredible potential but was ultimately relegated to the shadows of bodybuilding history instead of its peak.