The Arnold Sports Festival: From its Bodybuilding Beginnings to International Sporting Acclaim

As more than 18,000 premier athletes from a diversity of sports prepare to test their mettle at the 25th annual Arnold Sports Festival (formally known as the Arnold Classic), we at ALLMAX Nutrition would like to reflect upon how ‘the Arnold’ has become the ultimate sports spectacle, and the influence it has had on the increasing popularity of physique competition.

Arnold Classic 2013

A Short History

From arm wrestling to archery, CrossFit to cheerleading, the Arnold Sports Festival, scheduled annually in late-February or early-March in Columbus, Ohio, attracts athletes from around the globe, all wanting to carve their names in the annals of sporting history by winning their respective disciplines at this most prestigious event.

The Arnold Strongman Classic, for example, is hailed as one of the most important events of its kind, while emerging sports such as CrossFit and, formerly, MMA, receive valuable publicity via the massive media exposure the Arnold receives.

While the world’s best athletes prepare to make their annual Arnold pilgrimage, it is humbling to note that this extravaganza which plays host to most major sports, features its own fitness expo, and crowns multiple new champions each year, began with just two events: The Arnold Classic men’s and Ms. International women’s bodybuilding categories. But considering the legendary work ethic and tireless pursuit of excellence its co-founder and the man with whom its name is most readily associated, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has throughout his career exhibited, we could not expect anything less.

A Bodybuilding Showcase Rivaling the Olympia

Much like the man himself, the Arnold Sports Festival began its steady climb to excellence through the art and sport of bodybuilding. And like its namesake, the Arnold has continued to evolve as it conquers new fitness frontiers to solidify its name as today’s premier multi-sport event (based upon sheer scale). But as with all great endeavors, a solid partnership of mutual trust and respect first needed to be established before the Arnold could begin its ascent.

When ex FBI special agent, accomplished athlete, former Mayor of Worthington, Ohio, and bodybuilding contest promoter extraordinaire Jim Lorimer first met Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1970 AAU Mr. World competition, of which Lorimer was promoting (and which he had convinced the young Olympia champion and four-time Mr. Universe winner Arnold to attend), so impressed with the event was Arnold (who won the contest) that he vowed to make the promoter his business partner. Five years later their winning partnership began, and, in 1989, the Arnold Classic was born.

After more than a decade spent promoting Mr. World and Mr. Olympia contests, Arnold and Lorimer had perfected their approach to running shows. In launching the Arnold they envisaged a contest that would attract the world’s best pro bodybuilding athletes on a stage that would, by comparison to many other pro events, provide excellent financial rewards for its winners (today the Arnold is considered one of the most lucrative competitions in all of bodybuilding; in 2012 the men’s pro bodybuilding winner, Branch Warren, claimed $130,000).

In its present-day manifestation, the Arnold Sports Festival, complete with its bodybuilding attractions, hosts tens of thousands of athletes and fans. But its beginnings were comparatively humble.

Past Champions

Since its inception in 1989, the Arnold Classic men’s bodybuilding event has routinely attracted the best of the best within the IFBB pro ranks. In winning the first annual Arnold, impossibly shredded and ultra thick Rich Gaspari recorded his ninth, and last, pro win. Following on from big Rich was arguably the greatest bodybuilder never to win an Olympia title, Shawn Ray. However, six days after his Arnold win, Ray’s title was stripped, the result of a failed drugs test. The coveted crown was duly passed on to 1990 second place finisher, and professed all-natural competitor, Mike Ashley.

In 1991 Ray was back, looking to reclaim the crown, which he did with relative ease. In 1992, multi pro show winner and master poser Vince Taylor took his turn to win in Columbus. Ninety-ninety-three proved a monumental one for pro bodybuilding with the emergence of Flex Wheeler, regarded by many as the most genetically blessed bodybuilder of his era, if not of all time: though Wheeler flexed his way to victory in ‘93, he was however pushed hard by a career-best Lee Labrada who, ironically given his lofty status, never won an Arnold of his own.

Another ‘90s pro bodybuilding legend, Kevin Levrone, took the title in 1994 with triceps, shoulders and thighs that would inspire a generation of future pros. Hometown hero and mass monster Mike Francois, with the thickest back onstage and shredded beyond belief, claimed gold in 1995, though he was forced to retire three years later due to the debilitating health condition colitis. Returning with a vengeance in ’96 was Kevin Levrone, who narrowly beat an on-point Flex Wheeler to earn (some would say steal) his second Arnold victory. In 1997 it was again Flex’s turn to claim his second win, in the process beating out an immense challenge in the form of 280lb-plus Nasser El Sonbaty. A competitor by the name of Ronnie Coleman landed in fourth at this event. Flex and El Sonbaty battled again in 1998 and, again, David overcame Goliath as Wheeler took top honors.

Finally, in 1999, Nasser delivered the goods to secure victory over former two-time champion Kevin Levrone. In taking a record fourth Arnold title in 2000, Flex Wheeler cemented his position as arguably the greatest pro champ of his era, and sent a message to his competition that he was far from finished. In 2001, the Arnold Classic hosted what many fans and insiders feel was the greatest single physical display in the history of the game when future eight-time Olympia champ Ronnie Coleman took the title in probably the best shape of his illustrious career. In choosing to sit out the 2002 Arnold Classic, Coleman spared the field the inevitable fight for second place. Especially grateful was emerging star and future four-time Olympia winner Jay Cutler, who took the title. Cutler, with his unrivalled size, was again victorious in 2003, prevailing over second place finisher Chris Cormier (the unfortunately unprecedented six-time runner up in this event). Cormier it appeared was in luck in 2004: however, in a controversial decision the former perennial bridesmaid, in his best shape ever, was beaten by a slightly soft Cutler. Cormier was again bested in 2005 by top talent and future Mr. O Dexter ‘the Blade’ Jackson, who, with his perfect conditioning and proportions, won again in 2006.

Another rising star, Victor Martinez, took his place among a legion of former Arnold Classic winners in 2007. Later that year he placed controversial second the Jay Cutler at the Olympia. The Blade was back in 2008 as Jackson took home his third Arnold title, narrowly edging out current two-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath. In the two years to follow, the Arnold would be won by current top contender Kai Green who, with his freakish physique and unique posing style, captivated the judges’ attention to best the opposition. With Green focusing on Olympia duties in ’11 and ’12, the door was bashed off its hinges by the tank-like Branch Warren, whose grainy conditioning, monolithic legs and mass appeal secured for him two back-to-back Arnold titles.

As the 2013 Arnold approaches, and with top contenders Warren, Green, Cutler, and Heath out of the picture, it is anyone’s guess as to who will reign supreme. As it stands, Dexter Jackson, emerging threat Ben Pakulski, a reported career-best Toney Freeman, German master of symmetry Ronnie Rockel, 2012’s breakthrough athlete Cedric McMillan, ever-improving Johnnie Jackson, Japanese sensation Hidetada Yamagishi and Canadian colossus Fouad Abiad all appear to be in contention for the coveted top-six spot, with Jackson, Freeman and Pakulski each looking to secure their first major pro win of 2013.

The Champion

Lending more than his name and promotional expertise to his and business partner Jim Lorimer’s annual event, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his seven Mr. Olympia wins, five Mr. Universe victories, one of a kind charisma and energy, and unrivaled fitness marketing and self-promotional aptitude, helped build an entire industry perfectly tailored to accommodate his own unique physique competition offering.

Born in the small village of Thal, Austria, a young Arnold dreamed of making it big in America. At age 14 he began bodybuilding and, after learning of the success iron game legend Reg Park, who used bodybuilding as a vehicle to greatness, had had in movies and as a physique competitor, decided that he, too, would become a household name. In 1969, at age 21, Arnold – carrying 230-plus pounds of muscle and having won his first Universe contest – with the assistance of bodybuilding godfather Joe Weider arrived in the US, ready to do battle with the world’s best bodybuilders. By 1970 he had won his first Mr. Olympia title and by 1976, as a promising actor and indisputably the world’s greatest physique champion, had begun living his boyhood dream.

Arnold’s life story has been related countless times and his image is as recognizable as that of any man in recorded human history. As well as being the most bankable action movie actor of his generation, a marketing genius and self-made millionaire while still in his 20’s, a former two-time Governor of California (winning in 2003 and again in 2006), and a fitness industry pioneer, Arnold provided the competitive bodybuilding movement with the worldwide attention it needed to become both a viable force in sports entertainment and a career-option for genetically gifted gym junkies the world over.

Without Arnold’s heavyweight credentials, name recognition and pulling power, the bodybuilding industry would not be what it is today. He helped revolutionize the iron industry, then, with his own event, took the sport higher still while further broadening the competitive options for the very athletes he first inspired to begin lifting. Arguably having done more for physique competition than any other living human, Arnold’s name will forever be synonymous with bodybuilding excellence.

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

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