The Birth and Growth of the Arnold Sports Festival

What began as a joint bodybuilding venture between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer in 1989 has evolved into an elite multi-sport competition space and expo. The Arnold Sports Festival (ASF) is well-known to fans of bodybuilding and strongman — but it arguably transformed the face of the entire fitness industry

For over 30 years, the ASF has been a multi-sporting festival that welcomes everything from baton twirling to slap fighting. It’s grown from a singular bodybuilding show to a multi-day sporting phenomenon featuring about 20,000 athletes competing in over 60 events, representing 80 countries. While people associate the Arnold with its birthplace in Columbus, Ohio, it lends its name to contests in Spain, South America, Africa, and the UK.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Given its significance, many people don’t know about the in-depth history of the Arnold Sports Festival. What began as a young bodybuilder’s wishful thinking in the 1970s became an international industry-shaping phenomenon. While Schwarzenegger lays claim to many legacies and achievements, the ASF is arguably one of the most impactful in how it transcends generations. 

Índice
  1. Arnold, Meet Jim Lorimer
  2. The Arnold Began with Bodybuilding
  3. Expansion of the Arnold Classic
    1. The Arnold Fitness Expo
    2. Arnold Strongman Classic
  4. Doping and the Arnold
    1. Drug Tests at the Arnold
  5. The Arnold’s International Growth
  6. The Arnold in Recent Years
  7. Evaluating the Arnold
  8. References

Arnold, Meet Jim Lorimer

The first ASF was held in 1989, but its origins date further back to the 1970s. This was a time when the name Arnold was synonymous with winning bodybuilding competitions, rather than hosting them. From 1970 to 1975, Schwarzenegger won six consecutive Mr. Olympia titles. It was in this capacity that Schwarzenegger first met his future business partner and ASF co-organizer, Jim Lorimer. (1)

Lorimer’s own biography is as varied as Schwarzenegger’s. The former FBI special agent was the mayor and vice mayor of Worthington, Ohio for 52 years and served as Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Athletics in the 1960s. (2) From the late 1960s, Lorimer had been involved with local sports events and organizations in Columbus. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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In 1970, he oversaw the World Weightlifting Championships and the Mr. World bodybuilding contest, both held in Columbus. Lorimor invited Schwarzenegger to compete in the Mr. World, which he duly won. Initially, Schwarzenegger had declined the invitation because he was due to compete in the Mr. Universe in London, England the day before the event. 

Lorimer personally arranged a flight to take Schwarzenegger to Columbus the following day. At a time when bodybuilding contests were often poorly run, Lorimer seemed a class apart to the young Austrian. As well as collecting the $500 prize money, Schwarzenegger made a promise to Lorimer that when Schwarzenegger retired, the two would promote bodybuilding events together. As some histories of the ASF note, "it started with a handshake." (3)

The Arnold Began with Bodybuilding

When Schwarzenegger retired from competitive bodybuilding after the 1975 Mr. Olympia, he joined forces with Lorimer to promote a series of contests. From 1976 to 1986, the duo promoted the Mr. Olympia contest six times. These events were so successful that the Olympia was held four years in a row at Columbus (1976 to 1979). 

The pair worked well together. It was perhaps unsurprising that they joined forces once more to create the Arnold Classic, a bodybuilding show. According to Schwarzenegger, part of the impetus for this was the duo realizing that with all the success of their Mr. Olympia promotions, it made more sense to begin hosting their own contests. (4)

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of great flux for bodybuilders. Prize monies were a constant source of criticism for athletes who felt they were being underpaid. Outsiders were beginning to criticize steroid use within the sport and some, like Vince McMahon of the WWE, even tried to create their own bodybuilding federations.

The Classic was born at a time when the sport was ready for change. Recordings from the first competition exist, which marks a big difference in the Arnold Classic from other competitions. Schwarzenegger and the organizers wanted to make bodybuilding accessible to the general public. Since they wanted people to understand how bodybuilding contests worked, they spent a great deal of time explaining everything. 

Rich Gaspari won the inaugural contest for men, a feat he contends is one of his career highlights. Tonya Knight won the women’s event. (5) Even this first contest made waves with the general public — it was aired on NBC and featured a sketch from Saturday Night Live characters Hans and Franz, played by Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon.

Expansion of the Arnold Classic

What began as a one-day bodybuilding contest started to grow in the early 1990s. This was in line with Schwarzenegger’s own public profile. From 1990 to 1993, Schwarzenegger served as the chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. (6) Originating in the 1940s under a different name, the President’s Council is typically a mixture of well-known athletes, physicians, and academics. In his role as chairman, Schwarzenegger oversaw public health programs and initiatives.

Slowly, new sports, events, and commercial opportunities cropped up in the Arnold as Schwarzenegger’s reach grew in the public eye. In 1993, the event was renamed the Arnold Fitness Expo to reflect its sporting diversity. (4) The next year, in 1994 the Arnold became a three-day event, featuring a multitude of sports and competitions.

The Arnold Fitness Expo

Speaking to the Columbus Dispatch in 2012, Jim Lorimer explained the origins of the fitness exhibition — the name given to the large commercial area where independent traders seek to sell products to the Arnold attendees.

"We were in the basement at Veterans Memorial the first few years, and people kept coming up to us and saying they had products to market…So we started a small exposition, maybe six vendors the first year — and it took off." (4)

The expo’s first year featured 200 exhibitors selling a variety of supplements, clothes, and equipment. Later reports estimated the number of visitors at roughly 15,000 people over the course of the event. (7) Nowadays, the expo features 1,000 individual booths and is a highlight of the calendar for many sellers.

The Arnold was an indelible mixture of fitness, commerce, and even Hollywood. For a brief period in the early 1990s, attendees to the Arnold were often treated to advanced trailers of Schwarzenegger’s films. (8

As is perhaps clear, Schwarzenegger and Lorimer’s co-promotion was their eye for opportunity. In a 1998 article on Lorimer, weightlifting coach and writer Jim Murray praised the duo for their inclusion of new sports and pastimes into the Arnold. (9) This included martial arts and other sports the duo deemed worthy of inclusion. This has been a constant since the 1990s, as the Arnold has become a festival that celebrates everything from medieval fighting to pickleball. 

Arnold Strongman Classic

Perhaps the most foundational addition to the original Arnold was the creation of what is now known as the Arnold Strongman Classic in 2002. The strongman competition highlighted the festival’s desire for creativity and featuring different kinds of strength. Overseen by former powerlifting champions and physical culture historians, Jan and Terry Todd, the Strongman Classic was the result of a conversation between the Todds, Lorimer, and Schwarzenegger.

The World Strongest Man competition had, in Terry’s view, too strong an emphasis on endurance rather than raw strength. (10) What he proposed was an event that featured a great focus on static strength or explosive strength over a short period of time.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Ideas eventually led to actions and, in 2002, the Arnold Strength Submit was added to the festival. It was not the first sport to be added but, in the context of the fitness industry, it is arguably the most significant addition. In a relatively short period of time, the Arnold has become the second most — if not the most — prestigious event in the strongman calendar. Indeed, many strongman purists see the winner of the Arnold as the strongest man in the world. 

Doping and the Arnold

The rise of Schwarzenegger’s own political profile brought with it some unforeseen difficulties for the ASF. From 2003 to 2011, Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California. A consistent, and persistent, issue for Schwarzenegger during this time was his steroid use during the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2004, the Anabolic Steroid Control Act was passed to further restrictions on what was and was not an illegal substance. In the debates leading up to the Act’s passing, lawmakers in the United States lasered in on the illegality of drugs in sport. (11) Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding past presented a problem, as he had used anabolic steroids. This was controversial for many despite the fact that the laws on steroids were very loose during the heyday of his bodybuilding career.

Drug Tests at the Arnold

As governor, Schwarzenegger had a reputation to protect. Bodybuilding at the Arnold Classic seemed to celebrate bodies which used anabolic steroids. In 1990, a failed drug test cost Shawn Ray his Arnold title. In the build up to the 2004 Classic, many of Schwarzenegger’s critics demanded he remove either himself or bodybuilding from the Classic. (12)

While neither of these things happened, politics did come to the 2004 Arnold when federal agents served subpoenas to several pro bodybuilders to uncover their relationship with Milos Sarcev. Sarcev was a champion bodybuilder in his own right but was then in the midst of a federal investigation into doping in sport — which included Tim Montgomery’s 100-meter world record — and several bodybuilders. (13

The presence of federal agents at the Arnold was a sign that Schwarzenegger’s political and sporting lives could not be separated. Indeed, it was telling that Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding shows came under much greater scrutiny than the Weider’s Mr. Olympia contest. Everything about Schwarzenegger’s presence caused controversy, as many criticized his decision to travel to the Arnold using taxpayer money during his time as governor. (14)

The Arnold’s International Growth

Despite the heightened, and at times unwelcome, attention given to the Arnold, it continued to grow as a sporting event. In 2006, the three-day event drew 120,000 fans for thirty different events — 15 of which were Olympic sports. While it is tempting to view the Arnold just in the context of bodybuilding, strongman, or strength sports, by the mid-2000s, it had become an all-encompassing sporting event. (14)

Sports in 2006 included cheerleading, dancesport, fencing, speed skating, wrestling, and table tennis. The Rotary Club of Columbus offered student athletes opportunities to win $1,000 college scholarships. The event also hosted a 650-booth fitness expo, which ensured that money came in at a rapid pace.

As the Arnold continued to expand, its borders moved beyond the United States. In 2011, the Arnold Classic Europe was created in Spain. Two years later, the Arnold Classic South America debuted (originally known as the Arnold Classic Brazil, its first host country). The Arnold Classic Australia was first held in 2014. The Arnold Classic Africa came to Johannesburg in 2015, and the Arnold Classic Asia came to Hong Kong in 2016. Expansion did not stop there, as Eddie Hall and Stephen Olexy brought the Arnold Sports Festival to the UK in 2021.

The Arnold in Recent Years

Perhaps the most impactful partnership in recent years has been the Arnold’s relationship with Rogue Fitness. Rogue became the official equipment provided for the Strongman Classic in 2017 and has sponsored it ever since. This has ultimately led to some of the most spectacular moments in the history of strongman and of the Arnold.

Notable moments were the introduction of the Rogue Record Breakers series, the Arnold Strongwoman, the Rogue elephant barbell and, of course, the Wheel of Pain spectacle Rogue invented for the 2019 Arnold.

The Arnold has become a behemoth whose importance in the sporting calendar cannot be understated. When it became clear that the 2020 festival would have to take place without fans, reports emerged saying that the 2019 Arnold generated a local economic impact of $53 million. (15) This is to say nothing of its wider impact on the world of strength sports.

In 2022, when the Arnold welcomed live crowds once more, the Festival featured over 20,000 athletes from over 80 nations, competing in over 60 events. The Expo featured nearly 1,000 booths. There is little to suggest that the Arnold will not remain a central part of the fitness calendar.

Evaluating the Arnold

Since its inception in 1989, the growth of the Arnold Sports Festival has been nothing short of extraordinary. What began as a bodybuilding contest has evolved into a sporting mega-event that has helped promote, and even improve, certain sports. Few fitness festivals in recent memory can claim a similar impact.

Over the decades, the ASF has been bombarded by hurdles, both logistical and political in nature. But the original intention behind it — to increase the general public’s understanding of and interest in bodybuilding — has remained constant. This mission has expanded to include a multitude of sports, especially strongman. Despite its obstacles, the Festival continues to draw the public eye — and passion — to previously niche sports.

References

  1. Jim Murray, ‘Jim Lorimer: The Iron Game’s Greatest Promoter’, Iron Game History, 5 no. 3 (1998), 6. https://starkcenter.org/igh_article/igh0503d/ 
  2. ‘James L. Lorimer.’ City of Columbus Mayor’s Of

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