COLUMBUS, Ohio — After a tattered year in California politics, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made his way Saturday through the Arnold Classic, the sprawling temple of testosterone he helped create, guaranteed of adoration.
When he entered the cavernous convention hall here, thousands of young men and women lined up to shake his hand, a few simply saying breathlessly: "He looked at me."
"Make a hole! Make a hole!" Ohio highway patrol officers yelled as Schwarzenegger walked through the crowd, occasionally stopping for pictures with the makers of food supplements promising massive muscles, ripped energy and great sex.
The Arnold Classic, which began in 1989 under his name, has become a showcase for the multibillion-dollar supplements industry, sculptured bodybuilding, assorted feats of strength, even ballroom dancing, cheerleading and fencing. It attracted an estimated 125,000 people from throughout the world, including 15,000 athletes.
"He has given a lot to the sport, so it's a big ego boost to come here and have people want to see him," said Larry Scott, 67, the first Mr. Olympia and a longtime Schwarzenegger acquaintance.
For the governor, the event is more about classic Arnold than the new version. Back home, Schwarzenegger is at one of his lowest points politically -- after losing all four initiatives he sponsored on a November special election ballot and with some polls showing him with 35% approval among those surveyed.
Even his link with the Arnold Classic caused him woe. Amid complaints about a conflict of interest with an industry that California is regulating -- supplement makers -- Schwarzenegger severed his years-long financial relationship with the event last year. He also canceled an $8 million contract with the publisher of two bodybuilding magazines that receive a large portion of their revenue from supplement companies.
Democratic lawmakers have called on him to completely divorce himself from the bodybuilding industry. State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), author of legislation Schwarzenegger signed banning the use of dietary supplements by high school athletes, said the governor "should be ashamed of himself" for attending the eponymous event.
Here, though, Arnold is still king.
At a weightlifting demonstration Saturday in which a 13-year-old girl hoisted 165 pounds over her head, an animated Schwarzenegger became nostalgic with the crowd. He talked about the great Soviet weightlifters from the early 1960s, and about having to learn Olympic-style lifting when he was 16 at a time when bodybuilding was not yet an accepted sport in Austria.
"In those days we still had a two-armed press, I don't know if you remember that, where you kind of leaned back and hurt your back a little bit," Schwarzenegger told the crowd, chuckling at the memory. "But it was fun.... Now, a lot of guys are just working out on machines, but this is where the action is."
In a hotel restaurant the night before he greeted the crowds, Schwarzenegger relaxed with friends and an unlighted cigar.
Bodybuilding legend Frank Zane sang a reporter a rap song dedicated to the governor, his old rival and buddy. He planned to sing it to him late Saturday over drinks and music.
It went, in part: "As governor of California, he's the leader of the show / knows what he wants, goes where he wants to go."
The Arnold Classic is a ritual for the governor, something he was unlikely to miss despite legislative negotiations in Sacramento over his $222-billion infrastructure plan. In any case, all sides agreed to take the weekend off.
Schwarzenegger brought his two young sons to Columbus, and a large retinue of security guards.
The Arnold Classic features some of the world's best bodybuilders oiled up (sometimes with the cooking spray Pam) and posing in arena stages. And it includes a Fitness Expo spread over several acres -- the largest event in the world devoted to worshiping the body.
One sign at a bodybuilding supplements booth lamented the burdens of a dedicated bodybuilder: constant eating.
"I'm not gonna puke," it reads. "I chew on these words, force them through my head. In the kitchen, eating another meal alone, it's just those words and another plate of chicken and rice."
The stuff that goes into people's bodies is the biggest focus of the Arnold Classic exposition. Tens of thousands of young men and women shuttled from booth to booth grabbing free samples of "Xtreme thermogenic" energy drinks, "hemodilators" and other potions.
Many of the new bodybuilding heroes are far larger and beefier than Schwarzenegger and his compatriots were in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, bodybuilders frequently weigh more than 250 pounds and, judging by a few of the specimens at the Classic, can barely move their arms because their muscles are so huge.