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He Will Indeed Be Back

Each year, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to Columbus, Ohio, for a fitness convention that bears his name. His ties there go back 30 years.

March 04, 2004|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fresh from a big victory in his campaign for Propositions 57 and 58, his political fortunes at a peak, the governor of California will spend this weekend celebrating. In Ohio. "I love it there," he says. "It's like a second home."

Californians may not know it, but their governor does not belong just to them. For more than 30 years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has cultivated personal and business ties to, of all places, Columbus.

On Friday, the governor will fly to the city, as he has for the last 16 years, to preside over a massive three-day convention now known as the Arnold Fitness Weekend.

It brings 80,000 people to this town of 711,000. More than 11,000 are athletes, topping the number of competitors at the Summer Olympics.

Events include the Arnold Strongest Man Contest, the Arnold Olympic Weightlifting Championships, the Arnold Classic Arm Wrestling Challenge, the Arnold Gymnastics Challenge, the Arnold Martial Arts World Games, the Arnold Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships, and the Arnold 5K Pump and Run.

The centerpiece is a bodybuilding tournament called the Arnold Classic. Posters advertising the weekend show California's governor in a black sleeveless shirt, his arm muscles bulging, with the slogan "More than before in 2004."

"The Arnold," as some locals call the weekend, is not Schwarzenegger's only tie to Ohio's largest city. For a governor who sees his role as selling California, his work in Columbus provides an example of how he markets a place.

Over the decades, the governor has quietly made Columbus a laboratory of Schwarzeneggerian synergy.

He owns a share in one of the region's largest malls, the Easton Town Center. He tracked down the tank he drove in the Austrian army and loaned it to a nearby military museum, instantly creating a tourist attraction. He established a beachhead for his major charity effort, the After School All-Stars, and has served as grand marshal for the Columbus Day Parade.

Columbus even played a role in Schwarzenegger's introduction to politics. It was here, in 1988, that the governor was first introduced to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who later appointed Schwarzenegger chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

That fueled his interest in politics. And in an echo of his emphasis on bipartisanship in California politics, the Republican Schwarzenegger long ago built a close relationship with this city's Democratic leadership.

"We view him as a citizen of Columbus," says Mayor Michael Coleman, a Democrat who befriended Schwarzenegger and has visited the governor at his home in Los Angeles. "He is truly loved in this city. It's not because he was a movie star. It's not because he is a governor. It's because he's always here, and people know his impact."

Dan Schnur, a California-based GOP consultant, notes that no Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio. "If he set up a bodybuilding competition in the nation's most important swing state almost 30 years before running, then he's a better advance planner than we knew," Schnur says with a laugh.

Friends say that for Schwarzenegger, Columbus represents not a political or business opportunity but a tangible connection to his bodybuilding past. His strong feeling for the place is a reminder that for all his success in movies and politics, the seven-time Mr. Olympia still considers himself an athlete at heart.

"I go every year, and I see Arnold every year," says John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health Racquet & Sports Assn. "The event is a national mecca for everyone, men and women, who are serious about bodybuilding and fitness. But a significant part to Arnold is his coming together with the guys he started working out with. It's sort of like a family reunion."


Schwarzenegger's kinship with Columbus began with a local lawyer named Jim Lorimer.

In 1970, the former FBI agent and former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee for women's athletics was asked to run the world weightlifting championships in Columbus at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. But he thought weightlifting alone would not draw a large enough crowd to pay for the event.

So he decided to put together a Mr. World bodybuilding contest to coincide with Olympic weightlifting. He made a list of the top six bodybuilders in the world.

One was a young Austrian.

Schwarzenegger was already scheduled to compete in London the night before the Columbus competition. But the bodybuilder agreed to board a plane late that night and fly to New York, where Lorimer met him. They flew to Columbus together.

Schwarzenegger not only won the competition. He also left impressed by Lorimer's attention to detail, recalling it as "the best organized event I have ever been in." The then-23-year-old Austrian told Lorimer that when he retired, he planned to go into the promotion of the sport and would return to Columbus to be his business partner.

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