It Started with a Handshake: Arnold Classic History 101

By John Hansen

Promoters Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer are gearing up once again for their Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio for the 29th year. Starting in the Spring of 1989, Schwarzenegger and Lorimer began promoting one of the premier bodybuilding events.  After years of promoting the Mr. Olympia, Mr. Universe (World Bodybuilding Championships) and the Pro Mr. World events, among others, Arnold and Jim decided to start their very own contest named, of course, after the most popular name in the history of bodybuilding.  The rest, as they say, is history.

For those who don’t understand why an event as big as the Arnold Classic is held in the Midwestern town of Columbus, you have to go back to the beginning. The genesis of the partnership between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer began 47 years ago, all the way back in 1970.

Jim Lorimer is one of the most prominent figures in Western Ohio. Throughout his life, Jim was an attorney, an FBI agent, an executive at Nationwide Mutual Insurance, as well as the mayor of Worthington, Ohio – his hometown.

In 1967, Lorimer had great success in promoting the AAU National Weightlifting Championships in addition to that year’s AAU Mr. America contest. Due to his great promotional success three years earlier, Lorimer was asked to hold the 1970 World Weightlifting Championships at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Columbus.  Although the celebrated Olympic Weightlifting Champion, Vasily Alekseyev, was planning to compete, Lorimer felt he needed something more to draw a large crowd. He decided to add a large bodybuilding competition to the event as well.

Lorimer began inviting the top names in the bodybuilding world to compete at his event. He was going to hold the AAU Mr. World competition in conjunction with the World Weightlifting Championship and offer a cash prize to the winner of $500.00. At that time, professional bodybuilding, with the exception of the IFBB Mr. Olympia contest, was non-existent. The Mr. Olympia, which began in 1965, offered a purse of $1000 in 1966 and that cash prize had remained consistent up until 1970.

Lorimer invited the top bodybuilders to his competition. The current Mr. Olympia, three-time champ Sergio Oliva, was a definite must. The “Blonde Bomber”, Dave Draper, was also invited. Boyer Coe, the 1969 AAU Mr. America and the NABBA Mr. Universe winner, was on the list. Finally, Lorimer knew that he had to invite one of the biggest rising stars in the sport, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold was already a four time Mr. Universe winner at only 23 years old and he was the hottest name in bodybuilding. Lorimer called up the celebrated Golds Gym in Venice, California to speak to the man they called The Austrian Oak. As the legend goes, Arnold was in the middle of an intense workout when the front desk manager called Schwarzenegger to the phone. As Lorimer began his pitch to invite Arnold to compete in the Mr. World, he quickly mentioned that he was offering a cash prize of $500.00 to the winner. Arnold reportedly cut off the ambitious promoter, telling him, “I don’t care if it’s five hundred dollars or five thousand, I’m in the middle of a workout. Let me call you back.” Arnold returned the call later that day and Jim told Arnold that he was inviting the best bodybuilders in the world to compete at the AAU Mr. World contest in Columbus for a $500.00 cash prize.  In addition to the money, Lorimer also offered the chance to appear on national television as ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports was going to be on hand to capture the event on film.

When Schwarzenegger learned the date of the contest, he unfortunately had to decline. Arnold was already committed to compete in the 1970 NABBA Mr. Universe in London that same weekend. Arnold had won the NABBA Mr. Universe for the last three years and he was planning on winning it again for another year. Since the Mr. Universe contest was going to be held on Saturday in London, there was no way he could make it to Columbus in time to compete in the Mr. World event the next day.

Lorimer told Arnold to go to Heathrow Airport in London immediately after the contest on Saturday night and he would arrange a flight to have the Austrian Oak in Columbus in time to compete for the Mr. World contest the following day. True to his word, Arnold headed to the airport immediately after beating Reg Park and Dave Draper for the NABBA Professional Mr. Universe contest and found a plane waiting for him.  He was joined by Draper, Franco Columbu and Boyer Coe where they boarded a red-eye commercial flight out of London to New York. When the four bodybuilders landed in New York, Lorimer arranged for a private jet to transport them to Columbus.  Coe remembers how amazed he was as they were quickly whisked from their commercial flight to the private jet with a total by-pass of customs.

When Arnold arrived in Columbus, he was surprised to see the great Sergio Oliva in the line-up. Arnold faced Sergio in competition a year earlier and he was defeated by the amazing Cuban born champion.  Sergio was the reigning King of Bodybuilding, having won the coveted Olympia title each of the last three years. Schwarzenegger had trained relentlessly for a full year and was planning on beating Oliva in three weeks at the Mr. Olympia contest in New York. He didn’t expect to see him in Columbus, however.

In Columbus, Oliva made the mistake of applying too much baby oil to his physique before he stepped onstage. The bright stage lights, necessary for the television cameras from ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports, made Sergio appear overly glossy and the excess oil created the impression that he was big but smooth. When Arnold walked to the posing platform, the 23 year old Austrian was brimming with confidence.  After a year of heavy, intense training with his best friend Franco, Schwarzenegger was bigger than ever before but he appeared cut and defined where Sergio appeared too smooth.

In the posedown, the 6’2” Arnold posed majestically and dominated the shorter Oliva in front of the sold out crowd at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium as well as the National television audience. When the emcee announced the final placings, Schwarzenegger was overjoyed as he heard his name in the first place position. He had done it, he had beaten The Myth!

Arnold was in his glory as Bob Beattie from Wide World of Sports interviewed him in front of the television cameras. This was the first time a major television network had covered an international bodybuilding contest and it was Schwarzenegger who was being introduced to the American audience as the champ. After the contest, Schwarzenegger approached Lorimer, the promoter, and expressed his admiration for putting on such a professional event. From the airline accommodations to the sold out auditorium to the unprecedented television coverage, not to mention this was the event where he beat the great Sergio Oliva, Arnold couldn’t have been happier.

The smiling champ told Lorimer that when he retires from the sport of bodybuilding in the future, he would like to start promoting professional bodybuilding events. His goal was to raise the prize money for bodybuilding and he wanted to have Lorimer as his partner. He knew that the combination of his promotional skills and Lorimer’s planning and professionalism would make for an unbeatable team.

Even though Arnold had yet to win the Mr. Olympia contest, he was already planning for years down the road when he would retire as the King of Bodybuilding. It’s hard to say if Lorimer took Schwarzenegger seriously or if he quickly forgot the wild proclamations of his newly crowned Mr. World.

Five years later, Arnold defeated the great Serge Nubret and the hulking Lou Ferrigno as well as his best friend Franco to win his sixth Mr. Olympia title in Pretoria, South Africa. The event was recorded by George Butler and his crew for a little movie about bodybuilding called “Pumping Iron”. On his trip back to California, Arnold made a stop in Columbus to talk business with Lorimer. Now that he was retired from bodybuilding competition, Schwarzenegger was ready to make good on his promise to begin promoting the Mr. Olympia with his new partner. Beginning in 1976, Arnold and Lorimer would start their promotional partnership with the Mr. Olympia contest and it would be held in Columbus.

Also See: A Classic Visit with the Lorimers – By Dan Solomon

They sealed the deal with a handshake.

Now in its 29th year, the Arnold Sports Festival is the largest multi-sport event in the nation. According to its official website, the event welcomes more than 18,000 athletes who compete in more than 45 sports, including 12 Olympic events. More than 175,000 people attend the Festival, including the 700 booth Arnold Fitness Expo, held in the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

As you walk through the crowded expo, cheer on the Strongmen and the professional bodybuilders, fitness, figure and bikini competitors, remember where all this magic began. 47 years ago, on a night when Arnold Schwarzenegger won the Professional Mr. World title, fate brought together an epic partnership.  And our sport has been the better for it.

Related:  Watch’s Webcast of the 2016 Arnold Classic