In early 1980, Marvel Comics published ‘Marvel Treasury Edition – Spider-Man vs. The Hulk at the Winter Olympics,’ set in Lake Placid, New York, the actual site of that year’s games. The two heroes found themselves in the middle of an all-out war between two subterranean races. The last page featured an ad for an even more ambitious project ‘Marvel Super Heroes at the Summer Olympics’ which would have featured appearances by nearly every one of the publisher’s heroes. However, real-world politics wound up thwarting Marvel’s plans. The games were being held in Moscow, but after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. boycotted the games. It wasn’t until years later, that the storyline, heavily altered, finally saw the light of day as Marvel’s first ever miniseries. With the Summer Olympics coming up this year, what better time is there to look back at the behind the scenes shuffling that resulted in this fan favorite story?
Writers Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant wrote the original Spider-Man and Hulk story, but began plotting something much more elaborate for the follow up, bringing together all of Marvel’s heroes under one roof, the Olympic Dome in Moscow. Realizing that Marvel’s Universe was very American-centric, they set about creating several new international characters: The Peregrine from France; Talisman from Australia; Defensor from Argentina; Shamrock from Ireland; Sabra from Israel; Collective Man from China; The Arabian Knight from Saudi Arabia; and Blitzkrieg from Germany. Added to the mix were various pre-existing Soviet characters like Vanguard and Darkstar, the newly introduced Canadian team Alpha Flight, Black Panther from the fictitious African nation of Wakanda and several of the X-Men.
One by one, the heroes of Earth find themselves engulfed in red energy and vanish. Originally, due to the Olympic tie-in, the heroes were replaced by bewildered athletes who suddenly found themselves, for instance, ensnared in Gypsy Moth’s net, instead of Spider-Woman.
The story centered on a contest between the immortal cosmic being The Grandmaster and a mysterious cloaked entity. Both beings promised the heroes valuable gifts for humanity should they play along. They each select twelve champions, a mixture of fan favorites like Captain America and Wolverine, along with the new International heroes. The heroes are teleported in teams of three to various locations on Earth to find four quarters of a golden sphere. (The rest of Earth is in suspended animation.)
After the book was shelved, no one bothered telling inker Pablo Marcos who completed over forty pages of the book. (After the book had been shelved, Mantlo utilized some of the International heroes in ‘The Incredible Hulk.’) Greunwald immediately started making plans to salvage their story and suggested releasing a miniseries. This wasn’t a brand new idea, as DC had already employed the format, but it was still rare and it would be the first time a company threw all of their characters together in one epic tale, years before ‘Secret Wars’ and ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths.’
Of course years had passed. The original story was put together in 1979 but wouldn’t see the light of day until 1982. A lot had changed within the Marvel Universe. Ms. Marvel was one of the original competitors in the original story. She had lost her powers at this point, so the She-Hulk was selected to replace her, so she had to be drawn over Ms. Marvel in all of her panels. (Ms. Marvel could fly, so She-Hulk was said to be leaping around a lot.) Obviously all references to the Olympics had to be cut. The double page spread of all of the heroes in the Olympic Dome had to be completely redrawn, instead placing them in a space-based dome. (In the original drawing, several of the heroes are holding sports equipment. Ms. Marvel is holding a javelin and The Thing has a shotput.) All of the athletes materializing in the heroes’ places were cut.
On page nine of the published book, only two small panels remain from the original art and in one, Giant Man had to be replaced by Jack of Hearts, since the character Giant Man had retired due to radiation poisoning. The Beast is shown with The Avengers, when he had left that team to join The Defenders. He makes a comment that he is just “visiting” them. Once more, Ms. Marvel had to be replaced, this time by the Scarlet Witch.
Once in the dome, there are several fun interactions between the heroes. The hirsute Beast and Sasquatch chat. Iceman and Darkstar are awkwardly reintroduced following the end of their romance in ‘The Champions.’ Sub-Mariner talks with fellow underwater-dwellers Stingray and Triton. They would never do this today, but the majority of the black super heroes, Luke Cage, Black Panther, The Falcon, Talisman and Brother Voodoo convene. Perhaps most amusingly, the telepathic and bald Professor X confers with the fellow telepathic and bald Moondragon.
The interesting interactions continue once the various heroes are deployed on their missions. Saudi Arabian, The Arabian Knight and the Israeli Sabra are placed on the same team, despite their nations’ war, for example. What comes next, though, is an epic blunder. The Grandmaster wins two rounds and The Entity wins one. Then in the final contest, Shamrock grabs the last gold piece just ahead of Captain America. The final score reads The Grandmaster – 3, The Entity – 1. Except… Shamrock was on The Entity’s team. No one caught the mistake and the book was published with that finale. The Entity is revealed to be Death, who double crosses The Grandmaster. She agrees to restore his brother, The Collector to life as they agreed, but informs him that in order to restore one life, she must claim another and The Grandmaster crumbles into a pile of dust.
Of course the story didn’t end there, as eagle-eyed readers flooded Marvel with letters regarding the gaffe. Editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter was unhappy, but writer Gruenwald quickly replied that he had ended the story that way, to set up a sequel. An actual follow-up miniseries never materialized, but eventually, in two’ Avengers’ annuals, we learned that The Grandmaster had secretly had an even bigger scheme in mind and forfeited the game to Death. This tale pitted the East Coast and West Coast branches of Avengers against one another, this time representing The Grandmaster (in the realm of the death) and The Collector. Some of the pairings are real head-scratchers– Dr. Druid versus Tigra? Both teams must then battle the Legion of the Unliving, heroes and villains that were (at the time) dead in the comics. Many got better and one, Bucky, was actually alive, per the current continuity. (But there was a second, replacement Bucky, so they can always say it was him.) Ultimately, it all comes down to Hawkeye, trumping The Grandmaster by trickery, which horrifies the always-honest Captain America.
So, the ever fondly remembered, first ever, massive crossover miniseries almost never saw the light of day. Would ‘Secret Wars’ or ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ have even have happened without this book? It began as an Olympic tie-in, but even without that basis, ended up being a fun, though flawed story. Many of the original heroes created for the book have gone on to continue appearing in Marvel comics over the years. Marvel even published a second miniseries called ‘Contest of Champions II’ but the storyline did not tie in to the original.
Even after all these many years, the original series remains fondly remembered and its place in comic history is significant.
The bulk of information for this article came from Back Issue Magazine #41, published by TwoMorrows. Back Issue is a fantastic resource for fans of Silver and Bronze Age comics. To order a copy click here.
Marvel has just re-released ‘Contest of Champions’ along with the two Avengers annuals in ‘Avengers: The Contest.’ Amazon has it available. Click here!