Steve Burnett competed extensively for Trinidad and Tobago in bodybuilding in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was Trinidad’s first Mr World, winning the competition in 1971, while the United States had their first black Mr World in 1974.
Steve competed with the world’s best, who at the time included Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno of The Incredible Hulk fame. He placed in the top three of the Mr World competition every year from 1968-1974 with the exception of 1969 when he did not compete.
Below, Steve tells Wired868 guest contributor Michelle John about his early days in the sport:
Tell me about life in Trinidad for you growing up and how you started bodybuilding.
I was born in St. James on 18 November 1937. I went to Mucurapo AC School and then the family moved to Cocorite. After leaving school I used to beat pan for St James Crossfire.
I started backyard bodybuilding around age 18. I was employed at the Emperor Valley Zoo at the time and was doing bodybuilding and beating pan. Bodybuilding promotors saw my physique and encouraged me to compete. I don’t like to lose so I really had a decision to make. I used to train with Mike Hercules, the former commissioner of prison in Trinidad. This was between 1966 and 1969.
What made you choose bodybuilding?
I always admired bodybuilders and I had some friends who lifted for the fun of it, so I decided to give it a try. We called it weight lifting back then. I started seeing improvement in my weight lifting and was encouraged to compete by bodybuilding promotors. So I was forced to make a choice between bodybuilding and pan.
How long did it take before you began competing?
My first competition in Trinidad was around 1965 so it took a long time before I started competing—about 8 or 9 years.
Which was your first international competition?
My first competition outside of Trinidad was in 1966 in the United States. But I am not sure of the name.
How did you end up in the Mr World competition?
I won several competitions in Trinidad and the local IFBB selected me to compete in the US. I won Mr Trinidad, Mr West Indies and Mr Caribbean. Trinidad felt that I was the only one who qualified to compete in a world bodybuilding competition.
How did you prepare for it?
My preparation was in Trinidad. I had some friends who were policemen who invited me to come and work out at the police barracks. I worked out at the police barracks with former Mr Universe, Mike Hercules. I had a strict diet consisting mainly of protein and supplements.
No one advised you on what to do. You were on your own. In those days we read foreign magazines and saw how those men prepared for competitions and used their regime as a template. We just copied what they did. Mike’s ideas helped me a lot too.
What was your daily regime?
I was employed at the time at the Emperor Valley Zoo. I would leave work at four or five in the evening and I would work out for an hour to an hour and a half or so. On Sundays and Mondays, I would work out at my backyard gym.
Did you feel disadvantaged in any way coming from Trinidad to compete in the United States?
No, I did not feel disadvantaged. I felt that if I could win in the Caribbean then I could compete internationally.
In the 1971 Mr World competition there were a few of you from the Caribbean: Hollis Keller placed third in the tall category and in the medium category, you and Franklyn Greene placed first and second respectively. All three of you were from Trinidad. Elliot Gilchrist of Grenada placed third in the medium category, while Courtney Brown placed third in the short category, and he was also from Trinidad.
Can you describe your relationship with these men?
These men were living in the United States. I knew them in Trinidad but then they migrated to the US so I did not compete with them in Trinidad. I would compete against them in the United States.
There were two bodybuilding organizations in Trinidad back then. George Springer ran one bodybuilding organization and Aldwyn Harris was in charge of the IFBB. Some of the other Trinidadians who lived in the US were sent by the other bodybuilding organization, not the IFBB as the IFBB only sent the winner from Trinidad.
What type of support did you receive from Trinidad? Friends/Family?
I did not receive any support from the government. The IFBB got sponsorship for competitions, but preparation was my responsibility. I had a lot of support from friends and family.
You were described by one writer as a ‘consistent internationalist’. What kept you motivated?
I loved to win. I was always trying to improve so that I could win. I was impressed with Sergio Olivia, a Cuban bodybuilder that I saw in the US while competing and I said to myself, “Steve, you have some work to do.” He really motivated me when I saw him.
What were some of the changes you observed or experienced in the Mr World competition during the period 1968 – 1972?
I did not see any changes then. I see changes now. For example, back then, we did not receive any prize money, only trophies. Today, bodybuilders receive large sums of prize money.
Also, about five years ago, I visited Trinidad and some of the gyms there. The gyms in Trinidad can rival any gym in the United States. The equipment is far more superior to what we had back in the 60s and 70s. I felt that if I had had access to that type of equipment I would have been further along in my career as a bodybuilder.
What was your overall experience at the competition itself in 1971?
My overall experience was a positive one. It was stiff competition. The men I competed against every year were much improved, but I always tried to be ahead of them. There would always be favourites going into every show and that would affect one’s confidence, but I always tried to be confident.
When you won, how did you feel?
I always went with confidence that I could win. When you would warm up backstage you would see the competition so I knew who I was competing against and I knew that I would be hard to beat. I was well prepared, and I expected to win or at least be in the top three. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I was very happy.
What was it like competing on the world stage in general, not just Mr World? I saw that you competed in the same competition as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was a great experience leaving a small country like Trinidad to compete with the world’s best. I only visited the States. I competed in the same competitions as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno [best known for playing the Incredible Hulk in the 1978 television series]. They were in the tall category. We knew each other, but we weren’t friends.
How were you received in Trinidad after winning in 1971? Were you honored in any way?
No, I was not honored. Articles were written about me in the newspapers but there wasn’t any celebration. I was nominated for sportsman of the year and I attended the function at the Queens Park hotel, but I don’t remember the year that I was nominated.
How were you received in the USA by your fellow competitors?
I was well received by the organizers and competitors in the United States.
What have you been doing since you won in 1971?
I migrated to the United States after 1971. I believe that I stopped competing in 1972, but I remained working out. I opened a gym with friends called ‘Muscle Power’ in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and I also did interior decorating.
If you had to do it all over again is there anything that you would do differently?
No, I enjoyed what I was doing.