How Arnold Schwarzenegger Brought Bodybuilding’s Biggest Event to Columbus, Ohio

Every year, Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives in Columbus, Ohio, to host an annual multi-sport event bearing his name: the Arnold Sports Festival. The massive festival is a linchpin in the year of several sports, but none more than Schwarzenegger’s claim to fame: bodybuilding. This is the story of how the event came to be hosted in Columbus and why the average person should care about the weird and wonderful world of bodybuilding. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

Over 100,000 people from around the world file into the Greater Columbus Convention Center every year for a massive multi-sport event, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else. In comparison, just over 61,000 people attended the 2024 Super Bowl

The Arnold Sports Festival is a veritable carnival of athletes competing in events ranging from powerlifting to foosball and cheerleading to medieval combat sport; hundreds of vendors peddling their fitness-related wares in a sea of booths; and, last but not least, an annual appearance by the event’s namesake: Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.

“The Arnold Sports Festival, which [began in] 1989, is this multi-sport circus/sporting extravaganza,” Conor Heffernan, lecturer in the sociology of sport at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, said. “In a number of different sports, it’s one of the — if not the — most important date in the calendar or of the sporting year.” 

Bodybuilding is now a worldwide phenomenon, but it only started to gain mainstream popularity in the late 20th century, largely due to Schwarzenegger’s rise to fame.

“When Arnold was finishing his bodybuilding career in the late 1970s, he had come across Jim Lorimer, who had organized a bodybuilding show,” Heffernan said. “Arnold had effectively struck a deal with Jim Lorimer, that, ‘Once I’m finished competing as a bodybuilder, let’s the two of us begin hosting bodybuilding shows.’”

Columbus ended up being a natural ally to the bodybuilding community through Schwarzenegger’s partnership and friendship with Lorimer, attorney, FBI agent and both mayor and vice mayor of Worthington, Ohio.

In the 1970s, Schwarzenegger was at the peak of his bodybuilding career, winning five Mr. Universe titles (and setting a record as the youngest to do so at 20) and seven Mr. Olympias — two of the biggest titles in bodybuilding. Lorimer, meanwhile, was building a foundation for the Columbus area as a major player in bodybuilding by booking and promoting events for the sport.

Schwarzenegger fondly remembers his first major victory in Columbus at the 1970 Mr. World competition, as well as the good impression Lorimer left on him there. In 1975, Schwarzenegger retired following his sixth straight Mr. Olympia win (he would later briefly come out of retirement for his seventh), and the following year, he began working with Lorimer on promoting Columbus as the place to be for bodybuilding competitions.

In 1976, Lorimer and Schwarzenegger hosted the first of six Mr. Olympia competitions to be held in Columbus, including a run of four years in a row.

Mr. Olympia has always been a major part of Schwarzenegger’s career. The 1977 film “Pumping Iron” followed the lives of several Mr. Olympia hopefuls and launched bodybuilding from an emerging subculture directly into the mainstream. Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu and, of course, Schwarzenegger all got their big break in Hollywood appearing in the film as subjects.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger presents himself as incredibly disciplined, cold-blooded, win-at-all-costs, this Machiavellian figure who’s incredibly charismatic. And I think the thing that really helps push ‘Pumping Iron’ into the mainstream is actually the charisma of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Heffernan said.

Arnold Schwarzenegger being filmed for “Pumping Iron.” Image by Harry Chase for the Los Angeles Times, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even after “Pumping Iron” and its cultural fallout, competitive bodybuilding is seen by many Americans as something of a freakshow, with overly muscled men (and women, although these athletes tend to be in the mainstream spotlight less) not doing much more than posing on stage.

“It’s a unique community that understands that it’s not really accepted or understood by the mainstream society. So, it is very supportive to itself,” Eric Helms, bodybuilder, chief science officer to 3D Muscle Journey and senior research fellow at the Sports Research Institute in New Zealand, said.

Although the physiques of competitive bodybuilders may seem extreme, fitness culture continues to permeate mainstream culture. Echoing the films of Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, Columbu and Rachel McLish (featured in 1985’s “Pumping Iron II: The Women”), ripped actors and actresses continue to headline billion-dollar pictures ranging from “The Avengers” to “Top Gun: Maverick” to “Barbie.”

“What ‘Pumping Iron’ did is it made it acceptable for everyone,” Heffernan said. “It’s the match that lights the flames of the American love of gym culture and fitness culture … because people didn’t really know what bodybuilding was — they thought it was strange, they thought it was deviant.”

The Arnold Schwarzenegger statue at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Image courtesy of Columbus Metropolitan Library via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s why when Schwarzenegger and Lorimer started the Arnold Classic, they wanted to emphasize public availability.

“So, they spent a huge amount of time when they’re recording the first Arnold Classic explaining the rules to people, trying to get the general public involved,” Heffernan said.

According to Heffernan, the first competition also aired nationally on NBC and featured a sketch by “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey as the SNL regular characters Hans and Franz, parodies of Schwarzenegger himself. This was all in the name of making bodybuilding more familiar and friendly to American audiences.

While most people will not be bodybuilding at a competitive level, Heffernan said that bodybuilding culture has suffused our everyday lives.

“Something that I think we often take for granted is just how mainstream so many bodybuilding practices have become. I mean, the obsession with protein — if you go into any gas station in the U.S., you can get a protein bar of some descript,” Heffernan said. “If you look at the availability of gyms … hotels come with gyms now, airports have gyms in them, college campuses have gyms and you have outdoor gyms and public municipal parks.”

Still, for many Americans, bodybuilding is an alien art form — a sport that could not be more different from the big four team sports that the U.S. regularly tunes into if it tried. The rules of cornhole are probably more familiar to many Ohioans than the rules of competitive bodybuilding.

Although “bodybuilding” is a term that can refer to a number of diet and exercise practices designed to shape the human body in a certain way, the word often refers to competitive bodybuilding. (Picture an athlete, like Schwarzenegger, on stage, wearing little clothing and flexing enormous and almost inhuman-looking muscles for a crowd.)

“Bodybuilding has always been something that straddles both art and sport,” Helms said. “You’re intended to be as muscular as possible, as lean as possible to display that muscularity, and then also as proportionate as possible.”

Competitive bodybuilding has its roots in weightlifting and similar strength-related events, where competitors are judged on both strength and appearance.

Portrait of early bodybuilder Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). Image by Benjamin J. Falk via Wikimedia Commons.

“Originally, when competitive bodybuilding first started in something approximating its modern form in the early 1900s, it was always a part of these vaudeville-style strength exhibitions, which eventually became organized competitions,” Helms said. 

With time, the two disciplines split and became their own sports. Now, there may be some overlap, but athletes competing in strength competitions will often need very different training regimens than those building muscle for competitive bodybuilding.

“[International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation founders] Ben and Joe Weider, they started in the 1960s this push to separate bodybuilding from strength sport, to not require people to compete in a weightlifting competition a day prior,” Helms said. “It became less about physical culture and holism and more about meeting the criteria and competing at the highest level.”

On stage, bodybuilders show off their work with a series of poses designed to display their muscles to the judges. Judges are looking for not just sheer muscle size, but also symmetry and definition, although different divisions and events emphasize different criteria for physique and performance.

Competitive bodybuilders go through training cycles like most professional athletes, according to Helms, with a cycle consisting of offseason, contest prep and a recovery phase. The contest prep period is the most intense, as it involves losing as much weight as possible to develop muscle definition. As such, it requires especially strict diet and exercise routines and major changes that put stress on both the body and the mind.

“It’s biologically unhealthy for the body to have such low body fat, which is why bodybuilders only have low body fat for competition, and then they join us mere mortals again, when they’re not competing,” Heffernan said.

Like any athletic pursuit, bodybuilding involves risk. Bodybuilders’ regimented diet and exercise may turn into or enhance an existing eating disorder. According to Helms, who is a natural (or drug-free) bodybuilder, the use of anabolic steroids in high doses is another major concern for those participating at high levels of untested bodybuilding.

The exterior of the Greater Columbus Convention Center in 2013. Image by Lance L. Lowry via Wikimedia Commons.

The Arnold Sports Festival, however, isn’t just about bodybuilding; over the years, it’s grown to include a number of other sports, including strength events similar to those that bodybuilding originally spun out of. Other events at the 2024 expo included muay thai (new as of 2024), foosball, medieval combat and baton. Previous festivals also featured other events like arm wrestling and World Chase Tag.

In addition to becoming a locus for a diverse array of athletes, the Arnold has also developed relationships with sponsors over the years as the exposition portion of the show has grown. Beginning with 200 exhibitors in 1989, the Arnold Expo now has over 500 booths with exhibitors and sponsors selling products and reaching an audience of thousands of sports fans.

What this means for Columbus is not just pride in hosting an event with Schwarzenegger’s name attached, but also a genuine cultural and economic impact. Every year, the Arnold draws thousands of athletes and spectators from around the world to Columbus. According to the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the 2023 event was expected to produce $15.6 million in direct spending by visitors in the area. In 2022, they reported that the event produced $53 million in annual economic impact.

There are versions of the Arnold in Australia, Brazil, Spain, South Africa, Hong Kong and the UK, but the original is and will remain in Columbus, Ohio. And this is not a meaningless feat, either. Bodybuilders take themselves and their work seriously, and the Arnold is a chance to share that passion with a wider audience.

“A lot of bodybuilders do associate their love of that sport with the struggle that it entails,” Heffernan said. “An underlying motivation for a lot of people is the testing of themselves, mind, body and spirit.”

Helms agreed.

“They get a sense of empowerment, pretty universally, that you can do really hard things. And you build a sense of identity, based upon your ability to push yourself further than you knew you could and reach new levels of commitment and discipline,” he said.

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