By Brian Pearson
A Review by a Fan for the Fans
As every fan of fitness, bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and almost every other sport imaginable already knows, the 2013 Arnold Sports Festival was held in Columbus, Ohio last weekend. Like years past, the Festival grew; more events were added, more athletes participated, and more fans flocked to Columbus to witness it all. This year, though, was special. 2013 celebrated the 25th anniversary of this mecca of fitness created by bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger and FBI agent-turned-businessman Jim Lorimer. Using their combined talents, Schwarzenegger and Lorimer have managed to create, sustain, and grow an event that attracts almost 200,000 attendees from all over the world (literally) and generates an unbelievable amount of revenue for restaurants, hotels, and small businesses in Columbus and the surrounding areas. Hosting more events than the Olympics, the Arnold Sports Festival is quite the spectacle. The epicenter of this event is, of course, the Fitness Expo, which takes place at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. This is one fan's perspective of that unique event.
The Expo- An Overview
The Greater Columbus Convention Convention Center is a sight to behold. With 1.7 million square feet of space packed into one gargantuan building (imagine dozens of airplane hangars lined up side-by-side), the Convention Center overflows with everything related to heath and fitness during the first weekend of March. Broken into three primary areas, the main Expo area offers a place for vendors of every variety, an area for gymnastics, and an area for various forms of martial arts. Outside of the main Expo 'room' (a term used loosely due to its immense size) are areas for other sporting events and a second floor for press conferences, awards ceremonies, and warm up practices. Food vendors line the main corridor to ensure everyone is well-hydrated and well-fed before entering the facility. And there are the people….people EVERYWHERE!
The fan favorite though, is the center stage. Located smack-dab in the middle of the Expo, the main stage hosts continuous displays of strength for the duration of the weekend. From the strongman contest to arm wrestling to the bikini contest, the stage becomes the focal point for many attendees and provides an excellent source of entertainment for people wanting to watch individuals who are the best in their respective fields duke it out for a coveted Arnold Classic trophy. Areas right outside of the main room play host to other sports that include fencing and powerlifting, and even sports like table tennis and pole dancing (which, by the way, takes more skill than one might imagine). The Expo has something for everyone and it is impossible to see it all in just one day; three days is barely enough!
Wall-to-wall vendors pack themselves into the Expo to show off the latest and greatest in health and fitness. Large companies like GNC (the main sponsor of the event), Monster Energy Drinks, and Muscle Milk utilize large amounts of space to offer attendees free samples, shirts, stickers, and other promotional items. Smaller vendors also set up their booths in an effort to boost their name and promote their products. The diversity of the vendors is what makes this gathering so unique. One booth will have fans lining up for an hour to meet their favorite bodybuilder (Jay Cutler, Branch Warren and Frank Zane, just to name a few), while others will just hand out items as passerby's wander around. Even restaurants set up shop to give away free stuff. Subway, for example, had a booth where participants could spin a wheel and win a whole range of prizes. There are even some very popular booths that offer challenges in the form of pull-ups and sit-ups in order to win cool prizes.
One of the busiest and most popular booths, though, belongs to the Schwarzenegger Collection. Offering a wide array of Arnold-related items for sale that includes t-shirts, signed prints, Daniel Marshall humidors made specially for Schwarzenegger, and jackets worn by the Governor during his time in office, the Schwarzenegger booth has something for everyone. The greatest part about it is that all money raised at his booth goes to the After School All Stars program, a charity founded by Schwarzenegger to benefit underprivileged youth. It's a win-win for anyone who wants a piece of Arnold to take home with them.
A Family-Friendly Environment
Given the intense focus on health, one might think the Fitness Expo is only suited for gym junkies and muscle fanatics. That is definitely not the case. Entire families attend with children in tow to witness the fun. Because the Expo offers amateur and youth competitions, there are plenty of things for the youngins to do. Maybe a free-throw contest? Or a chance to sit in a real Marine Humvee? Or how about, if you're really lucky, a chance to meet Schwarzenegger himself? The excitement and energy inside the Expo is palpable and the kids definitely pick up on that. I witnessed one young lady from New York sitting on her dad's shoulders holding a professionally-made circular cutout of the Terminator that was bigger than she was. When I asked her why she had it, she told me emphatically that she really wanted to meet the Terminator in person (I'm happy to report that she eventually did). Another young man got the chance of a lifetime when he presented Arnold with a challenge coin emblazoned with the Seal of California. Arnold was so grateful that he took a picture with the young man and his father, then commented that seeing fathers and sons at this event meant a lot to him and he will do everything he can to continue that tradition. I know these two young people had as much fun and created as many memories attending the Expo with their parents as the competitors who left with an Arnold Classic trophy.
The Arnold Effect
While health, fitness, and competition are the main focus of the Expo, there are people who come long distances solely because they love Arnold. I asked one gentleman, an Army veteran who was injured in Iraq, why he was there and his response was very specific, "I admire Arnold. I always have. And I drove 8 hours last night so that I can hopefully shake his hand and get him to sign a photograph for me". He, like the children, did get to briefly meet Arnold, who happily signed his 11x14 Predator still shot.
If you have never witnessed Arnold Schwarzenegger walk into a room packed with tens of thousands of people, you're really missing out. The place goes NUTS. And to show his appreciation, Arnold makes it a point to walk through the Expo each of the three days it's going on. Thankfully, members of the Columbus Police Department and the Ohio State Police volunteer to travel with him to ensure no one gets trampled. If you ever want to see the definition of organized chaos up close and personal, attend the Expo as Arnold is walking through. But, more on that later.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Expo that I observed was the various types of people wandering around the building, bumping into one another, in an attempt to get through the crowd. Sure, you have the muscular guys and the aforementioned family units. But you also have a large segment of relatively 'normal' folks who attend out of sheer curiosity. One gentleman I spoke with was named David and lives right outside Columbus. He was a middle-aged guy, average build, and didn't seem to be there for any particular purpose. So I asked him what he was doing. His answer? He wanted to know what it was all about. David told me that he had lived outside Columbus for over 4 years and had always wondered what made the Fitness Expo so special. Since this was on the second day of the Expo, I asked him if he had figured it out yet. "Yeah", he said. "It's about having fun, meeting new people, and following the mantra of healthy living". I was blown away, as David managed to sum-up the Expo is a few short words. And believe me, David represents only one instance of a growing number of attendees; 'normal' folks, like you and me. See, when the Sports Festival first began, it was geared towards the bodybuilders and fitness folks. Now, it has grown and serves as a melting pot for all kind of people that come together to do exactly what David said; have fun, make new friends, and learn how to better your life through healthy living.
Another growing segment of Expo attendees is the female segment. For many years, bodybuilding and weight lifting was viewed as a male-dominated pastime. As the years have gone by, that's changed. Woman represent a large population of Expo attendees. Some are there to compete, some are there with their boyfriends, and some come just be there and take it all in. That's an impressive leap from the way things were done 25 years ago!
From Arnold's View
One of the greatest things I was able to do this year was travel with Arnold through the Expo on Day 2 of the event. In year's past, I've always been one of the fans who line up 10-people deep just to catch a glimpse of him. But this year, thanks to his stellar staff, I was able to walk inside his security perimeter as he greeted fans, stopped at booths, and did interviews. And let me tell ya', it was quite an experience.
Imagine walking into a convention center with an event bearing your name. Then imagine being THE greatest bodybuilder of all time, one of the most successful action stars in history, and the former Governor of California. Now surround yourself with 50,000 people. Like I said, organized chaos. I'd imagine it's a big deal anytime Arnold Schwarzenegger enters a room but at the Classic, his name is spoken with reverence.
One of the first things Arnold did on Day 2 was an interview with Weider Productions. By the time the interview had ended, people has enveloped the booth (the entire aisle, actually) just to see the man himself. It was incredible. As Arnold began to leave to visit other booths, fans began screaming. "Arnold! Arnold! Arnold!" As security cleared a path for him, thousands of arms were outstretched looking for a handshake. Countless pictures, DVD's, and magazine were in the air waiting to be signed. And the Sharpie business…..well, judging by this event, they're doing alright, too.
What I really took away from this experience with him was just how much Arnold genuinely cares for his fans and the attendees at this event. No, it's not possible to meet every single person at the Expo. But Arnold shook every hand he could reach as he walked around (one woman, upon receiving a hug, let loose the battle cry, "I touched him!"). He also took time to stop and sign autographs for people on numerous occasions. This may not sound like a big deal but when Arnold stops walking, the crowd starts to engulf him, making it nearly impossible to move. That, in turn, makes security nervous. But Arnold didn't care. He was there for the people. He was there to meet the exhibitors and the fans. And many, many people left with giant smiles on their faces that day, having seen the man that started it all.
Being well-read on all things Schwarzenegger, I expected things to be a little different than they were. Arnold is notorious for being a larger-than-life figure with a stogie in his mouth and a joke on the tip of his tongue. I'm sure that is all true to some degree, but to another it does him a great injustice. Arnold is just a man with an unyielding drive for success and the brains to back it up. He's chased every goal he has ever had. Having spent some time with him, I'd imagine a personal slogan for his life would be 'Keep it simple and never give up". He was quiet and always smiling. He was humble even when in the presence of those that consider him royalty. He was kind to every person he spoke with. He wasn't the Terminator or Conan, he was Arnold; fun, happy, and REAL. Don't misunderstand; talking with him face-to-face is a bit intimidating because he IS Arnold Schwarzenegger but his approach immediately makes you feel more comfortable. Arnold is so at ease with himself, so true to his own nature, and it rubs off on the people around him. I think there's something we can all learn from that.
An Intimate Chat
Each year, on the last day of the Classic, Arnold Schwarzenegger sits down in front of fans and answer questions from a moderator. The best part about this event is that it's not held in a giant auditorium or on a large stage. It's held in a ballroom; quiet, intimate, and full of information. Many Expo attendees who were out drinking the night before manage to arrive long before the 9am start time to get a seat close to the front. They want to hear what Arnold has to say. They want to learn from him and hear his stories. And, true again to himself, Arnold doesn't disappoint.
This year's chat with Arnold was part of a larger event, the 'Arnold, Champions and Legends Sunday Showcase' which featured sit-downs with some of the world's top bodybuilders. Arnold kicked it off for the first hour before heading to the 5K Pump & Run and people turned out in droves to see him. The topic of conversation is usually bodybuilding and fitness but Arnold always manages to sneak in some fan-favorite one-liners and legendary stories.
Arnold spoke about how much the Sports Festival means to him and how grateful he was to be celebrating it's 25th anniversary. He thanked Jim Lorimer for all he has done to keep the event's momentum going and assured everyone that the moment the 2013 Classic ended, planning for the 2014 Classic would begin. He also shared some great details about his own days in bodybuilding, including stories about he and Franco Columbo as they rose through the IFBB ranks and made the big-time. He expressed his sadness at the loss of Sergio "The Myth" Oliva, who passed away last November. Sergio was one of the few men to ever beat Arnold in competition and Arnold reflected on the times they had trained together. He also spoke about bodybuilders today, saying that they carry to much bulk and have moved away from the 'thin waist, broad shoulders' mentality, and touched on the filming of 'Pumping Iron', saying it was done at a time when he wasn't even planning to compete. It's always fascinating to watch Arnold recall events that took place before his international fame, events that shaped his personality and nature. He looks upon them fondly and genuinely appreciates the lessons he learned along the way.
Towards the end of the conversation, the topic switched to film. Arnold touched on a few of his upcoming projects including "Ten" and "The Tomb". He discussed how the infamous "I'll be back" line came into existence and how he wanted it changed to "I will be back". And for the die-hard fans, he even put on his best Terminator voice and recited a few lines from the first film. Cheers could be heard from around the room.
Hearing Arnold recount his own life in his own words was a fitting end to the weekend. He's not shy about his past, always eager to share a story or laugh at his own expense. It was the cherry on top of a very large sundae and I know I speak for everyone who was there when I say that I can't wait to hear what he has to share next year.
The 2013 Arnold Sports Festival was a definite success. And as vendors and exhibitors began to pack up their goods, I remember concisely wondering to myself what they will do next year to make it bigger and better. Coming off of a 3-day high, I couldn't think of a way that it could have been any more fun, any more engaging, or any more energetic. But somehow, like in years past, they always manage to raise the bar. I guess that's just one more difference between being a fitness fan from Illinois and being a visionary like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Pearson graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a degree in Business Finance. He has been a lifelong supporter of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Arnold Sports Festival. In his spare time, he covers special events for TheArnoldFans.com and enjoys film, music, and traveling with his wife, Brynne.