Arnold Schwarzenegger still a star in Columbus, Ohio

  • Fri Mar 2nd, 2012 9:35pm
  • News

Los Angeles Times

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Forget political unpopularity and marital dalliance. Columbus still loves Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Fans walk around wearing buttons of his face, hop on buses that bear his name, check into hotels with posters of Arnold in the lobby that proclaim “I’m back.”

On Friday, the city unveiled a 600-pound, 8-foot tall bronze statue of a flexing Arnold in front of the event center where Schwarzenegger won the Mr. World Contest in 1970. The real Arnold did the honors, whipping off a sheet covering his likeness.

The fandom makes some sense: Columbus, not exactly a tourist hot spot, is flooded with 175,000 visitors and $42 million in spending each March thanks to Schwarzenegger’s Arnold Sports Festival, an event featuring weightlifting, bodybuilding and 43 other sports events. The grand prize? A bundle of cash and a miniature statue of Arnold.

“He’s a legend,” said Mikhail Koklyaev, a Siberian strongman who was among the bulky athletes who lined up to shake Schwarzenegger’s hand.

Bodybuilding fans are more forgiving than California residents, whose approval rating of their former governor slipped to 20 percent after it was revealed last year that he’d had an extramarital affair that produced a child.

At the Arnold Festival on Friday, security men in Arnold bowling jackets escorted the ex-governor through thick crowds as photographers from Flex Magazine, MUSL TV and BodyBuildingBrazil.com jostled for the best shot. At a breakfast with Columbus business leaders, where protein bars were placed on the table near the butter patties, the governor got a standing ovation — just for showing up. One active duty soldier is such a fan that he told the governor he’d decided to attend the Arnold Festival on his leave rather than visit loved ones.

“He’s the definition of the American Dream. He’s the highest paid actor of all time. He married a Kennedy, he’s a huge movie star and a bodybuilding champion,” said Brian Pearson, a writer behind fan site TheArnoldFans.com, who was wearing a Terminator Salvation T-shirt and holding a glossy photo of a flexing Arnold. Pearson says he neither condemns nor condones the governor’s marital troubles.

So dedicated are fans that when a heckler started shouting about the governor’s wife and children during the statue unveiling, a burly man shoved him to the ground to stop him. Both were taken away for questioning.

Schwarzenegger’s visit to Columbus came as Republican politicians looped through the state in advance of Tuesday’s primary, during which 66 delegates are up for grabs. The two events could hardly be more different: one features pale guys talking policy, the other showcases unnaturally tan people lifting heavy things.

Few tourists at the Arnold Festival expressed any interest in politics, which could be a tip for politicians: muscles, not politics, make for faithful fans.

“Maybe they’d get more of a following if they lifted weights,” said Darin Voorhies, 42, an Indiana resident waiting in a long line for a bodybuilder’s autograph.

Schwarzenegger arrived in Columbus Thursday and stopped by the Arnold Festival to catch a few amateur performers showing off dance, bikini and bodybuilding routines in sparkling outfits. Upon his arrival at the evening bodybuilding show, seats were vacated to make room for his entourage, which included his two sons, Christopher and Patrick.

Walking through the event center, packed with muscular women in bikinis and high heels and sinewy bodybuilders in thongs, the governor also drew a few comparisons between bodybuilding and politics.

“For both of them, you need one thing, and that is discipline,” he said. “And you can’t let setbacks interfere with your own wishes.”

On Friday, Schwarzenegger attended a breakfast at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, unveiled the statue in front of Columbus’ Veterans Memorial, and spoke to a gymnasium full of children to promote the funding of after-school programs.

During the breakfast, Schwarzenegger spoke frankly about his family, a rare occurrence since his separation from Maria Shriver.

“Most importantly, I want to work on my personal life,” he said, when asked about his goals for the next five years. “I want to make sure that we have a family that really loves each other.”

Even during his frankest moments, through, Schwarzenegger was treated with kid gloves. When a People magazine reporter stood to ask a question, the audience collectively cringed, waiting for an inquiry about the affair. But the reporter threw the governor a softball, asking about his pride in his children. The audience gathered in Columbus relaxed, and settled back into their protein-heavy frittatas.