He was known as “The Myth.” His name was Sergio Oliva, a Cuban-born bodybuilder by way of Chicago, and in 1967, he won the third annual Mr. Olympia contest after accumulating the Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles. His nickname was perfect—Oliva was a legend in the making, his massive frame taut and polished like it was cut from a gigantic lacquered slab of walnut. In 1968, he defended his Olympia crown unopposed.
When a young Arnold Schwarzenegger met him before the 1969 Mr. Olympia competition, the two-time champ floored him. “It was as jarring as if I’d walked into a wall,” Schwarzenegger wrote in Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. “He destroyed me.” Oliva won his third consecutive Olympia title and was considered by most to be unbeatable.
Then, in 1970, a man named Jim Lorimer—a World War II veteran, ex-FBI agent, former Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the mayor of Worthington—took the reins of that year’s Mr. World competition in Columbus at Veteran’s Memorial. He invited the six best bodybuilders on the planet to compete, which included Oliva and Schwarzenegger. This time Schwarzenegger edged out Oliva and took the title of Mr. World.
“It broke his rhythm of victories, so to speak, and it really threw him off, and then two weeks later when we got to the Mr. Olympia, I beat him again,” Schwarzenegger said. “That turned everything around and made me, from that point on, the leading bodybuilder in the world, and no one could beat me after that for the next 10 years.”
Schwarzenegger was so impressed by the management of the Mr. World event, he promised Lorimer that once he retired from bodybuilding, the two would form a partnership to host the world championships in Columbus every year. After racking up five more Mr. Olympia titles—six consecutive—he retired and kept his word to Lorimer.
The duo organized and promoted the Mr. Olympia competition in Columbus from 1976 to 1979. In 1980, it was held in Sydney, Australia, and Schwarzenegger came out of retirement to win again. The event was back in Columbus the following year with him and Lorimer in their promotional roles. The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) told the pair they couldn’t hold the competition only here, so after a few years of hosting the events under various affiliations, in 1989 they created their own brand—the Arnold Classic, which achieved a world-championship-level title.
From its origins as primarily a championship bodybuilding event, the Classic grew organically in subsequent years, adding events that were often associated with bodybuilding, like weightlifting, power lifting and martial arts. Eventually, more Olympic sports like fencing and boxing became part of the program as well.
The Arnold Classic took another leap forward in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush appointed Schwarzenegger to be the chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, a cabinet-level advisory committee focusing on health and fitness that encourages citizens, especially youth, to maintain a physically active lifestyle. Schwarzenegger emphasized the need to use his own festival to promote this goal, and each year the organizers added sports aimed at involving families and kids.
In 1993, Lorimer and Schwarzenegger created the Arnold EXPO—the country’s largest health and fitness exhibition, which showcases fitness industry trends and businesses—and in 2008, the Classic morphed into its current incarnation, the Arnold Sports Festival.
Today, the Festival is a behemoth, attracting approximately 175,000 attendees to watch 18,000 athletes contend and participate in more than a dozen Olympic sports and 50 festival athletic competitions, which now include everything from archery to armwrestling, from cheerleading to CrossFit. The economic impact on the city is massive; more than $40 million in estimated revenue for Central Ohio, and hotels within a 15-mile radius routinely sell out.
Despite the sheer scale—the myriad activities, sports, competitions, events and world-class pageantry—the Festival’s message remains simple: “If you exercise every day, your quality of life and everything will improve,” Schwarzenegger said. “You will enjoy life much more if you’re fit.”