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Black Jack: Arnold Classic Hits 21

It’s hard to dispute the magnitude of the Mr. Olympia contest. In the world of professional bodybuilding, the annual contest that is now held in Las Vegas is called the Super Bowl of its sport. The top ranked competitors in the world meet to decide who is the best of the best. That much is clear.

Even during its auspicious early days in the mid-1960s when some of the big names in the industry decided to stay away, winning the silver plate – the precursor of the Sandow trophy – held an air of prestige. That has continued to this day.

While the Olympia is surely the zenith of bodybuilding contests, it is hardly the only one held in high esteem. The ‘next best’ one, if you will, has been held in Columbus, Ohio every year since 1989 when Rich Gaspari was named the first winner of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.

The man most associated with bodybuilding brought a marquee event to a place that he was very impressed with after retiring from competition and began his career as a promoter. Schwarzenegger started working behind the scenes starting with the 1976 Mr. Olympia, which was the first time it was ever held in Columbus. It stayed put for three more years before going to Sydney, Australia in 1980, which was a show won by the returning Schwarzenegger for his seventh championship before hanging up the posing trunks for good.

Since then, Columbus has been the sight of two more Olympias. In 1981, Franco Columbu won his second and five years later, Lee Haney won his third of a record eight consecutive titles.

Some of the improvements that Schwarzenegger brought included the purse for the winners and the contest becoming even more of an event. The Austrian Oak also created the two different weight classes for the Olympia – one for 200 pounds and over and another for under. It was no coincidence that the trend started in Ohio.

According to the “Mr. Olympia” by the great Joe Weider (1983, St. Martin’s press), “In each of the Zane years, the contest was staged at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio, by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his partner, Jim Lorimer. Some wonderful things happened during that period. Television (CBS) came in as a regular observing eye. The prize money rose from a modest $1,000 to some $50,000. (We anticipate further increases in the future. Each year the contest is put up for bids at the IFBB Congress in an attempt to secure bigger purses for the competitors.)

“The Columbus venue has always suited the contest ideally,” Weider wrote. “To begin with, that region of the Midwest has a tremendous concentration of dedicated bodybuilding fans. And the competition site is among the best as a facility for the staged event. Veterans Memorial Auditorium seats 4,500. It boasts 10 first-class dressing rooms. The stage measures 135 feet wall to wall. The lighting is excellent, and there’s an amplification system that would serve even the most fastidious rock concertizer satisfactorily.”

Weider further described the contests during that time as the “superb Columbus shows” and their “always enthusiastic audience.”

When it came time to begin a contest of his own, Schwarzenegger didn’t hesitate to find a home, one that seemed like a natural for him.

1980s

The line-up in that inaugural contest was full with veterans holding many impressive credentials. This was not a group with many names that you could look past. Some of the them included:

•    Samir Bannout – 1983 Mr. Olympia
•    Robby Robinson – 1975 Mr. World, 1975, 1976 Mr. Universe, 1975 Mr. America, 1977, 1978 Mr. Olympia (under 200 pounds), 1978, 1979 Night of the Champions
•    Gary Strydom – 1987 Night of the Champions
•    Albert Beckles – 1971, 1973 Mr. Universe, 1982, 1985 Night of the Champions

In addition, the show also Bertil Fox, Bob Paris and Ron Love in the field of 15. The list also included Gaspari, the young man from New Jersey who was coming off four consecutive top three Olympia finishes.

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