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Friday, March 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Schwarzenegger has strong ties to another state capital

Los Angeles Times

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fresh from a big victory in his campaign for two budget-relief ballot measures, his political fortunes at a peak, the governor of California will spend this weekend celebrating. In Ohio. "I love it there," he says. "It's like a second home."

Californians may not know it, but their governor does not belong only to them. For more than 30 years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has cultivated personal and business ties to, of all places, Columbus.

The governor today will fly to the city, as he has for the past 16 years, to preside over a massive, three-day convention known as the Arnold Fitness Weekend.

The event brings 80,000 people to this town of 711,000. More than 11,000 are athletes.

Events include the Arnold Strongest Man Contest, the Arnold Olympic Weightlifting Championships, the Arnold Classic Arm Wrestling Challenge, the Arnold Gymnastics Challenge, the Arnold Martial Arts World Games, the Arnold Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships, and the Arnold 5K Pump and Run.

Adventures in marketing

The centerpiece is a bodybuilding tournament called the Arnold Classic. Posters advertising the weekend show California's governor in a black sleeveless shirt, his arm muscles bulging, with the slogan "More than before in 2004."

"The Arnold," as some locals call it, is not Schwarzenegger's only tie to Ohio's largest city. For a governor who sees his role as selling California, his work in Columbus provides an example of how he markets a place.

The governor over the decades quietly has made Columbus a laboratory of Schwarzeneggerian synergy. He owns a share in one of the region's largest malls, the Easton Town Center. He tracked down the tank he drove in the Austrian army and loaned it to a military museum, instantly creating a tourist attraction. He established a beachhead for his major charity effort, the After School All-Stars, and has served as grand marshal for the Columbus Day Parade.

Columbus even played a role in Schwarzenegger's introduction to politics. It was here, in 1988, that the governor was introduced to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who later appointed Schwarzenegger as chairman of the President's Council On Physical Fitness and Sports. That fueled his interest in politics. And in an echo of his emphasis on bipartisanship in California politics, the Republican Schwarzenegger long ago built a close relationship with this city's Democratic leadership.

"We view him as a citizen of Columbus," said Mayor Michael Coleman, a Democrat who befriended Schwarzenegger and has visited the governor at his home in Los Angeles. "He is truly loved in this city. It's not because he was a movie star. It's not because he is a governor. It's because he's always here, and people know his impact."

Schwarzenegger's kinship with Columbus began with a local lawyer named Jim Lorimer.

In 1970, the former FBI agent and former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee for women's athletics was asked to run the world weightlifting championships in Columbus. But he thought weightlifting alone would not be profitable.

So he decided to put together a Mr. World bodybuilding contest to coincide with Olympic weightlifting. He made a list of the top six bodybuilders in the world.

One was a young Austrian.

Schwarzenegger was scheduled to compete in London the night before the Columbus competition. But he agreed to board a plane late that night and fly to New York, where Lorimer met him. They flew to Columbus together.

Schwarzenegger not only won the competition. He also left impressed by Lorimer's attention to detail, recalling it as "the best-organized event I have ever been in." The then-23-year-old Austrian, who would begin a streak of six Mr. Olympia titles that year, told Lorimer that when he retired, he planned to go into the promotion of the sport and would return to Columbus to be his business partner.

"My reaction was, 'Yeah, right,' " said Lorimer, now 77. "I didn't realize what a goal-setting person he is." In 1975, immediately after retiring from competition, Schwarzenegger flew to Columbus and met with Lorimer. The future California governor proposed a partnership to put on bodybuilding events. Lorimer would handle details and arrangements; Schwarzenegger would raise money. They shook hands. They still do not have a written contract.

The first Arnold Classic was held in Columbus in 1989, and the partners immediately began plans to expand. While Schwarzenegger never had won more than $1,000 at an event, The Arnold's bodybuilding champions now take home $100,000 and a Hummer.

Expansive growth of event

The Arnold Fitness Weekend now fills all 1 million square feet of the convention center, which was expanded five years ago in part because of the event's growth.

"Sometimes you wonder, 'How much bigger does the thing have to get?' " said David Sandler, a Florida International University professor who was strength and conditioning coach at the University of Miami. "But Arnold wants to keep bringing something new to the table each year to show the substance behind this whole area of life. Even with all he has going on, he does still care about the industry and the people."

Sandler this weekend is hosting a new event, the Arnold Strength Training Summit, which will offer 15 hours of lectures from scientists and practitioners on fitness. Lorimer also has included for the first time international competitions in fencing and table tennis.

They join a list of 18 events, including seven Olympic sports. There's a gymnastics tournament with 3,500 competitors, a national cheerleading championship for 4,000 youngsters from first to 12th grade, a contest in the Brazilian form of jujitsu called Gracie, and a competition among the world's 40 top arm wrestlers.

The Arnold Strongest Man Contest is the final event of a five-stop world tour to select the world's strongest man. The contest includes a Hummer tire lift, and, as a finale, the Farmers Walk, in which competitors carry 865 pounds of railroad ties up an incline.

Schwarzenegger hands out awards to winners of each event each year, but he will not limit his time in Columbus to the Arnold Classic.

He will attend a fund-raiser tonight for the After-School All-Stars, which in Columbus provides after-school programs in athletics and academics.

During the weekend, Schwarzenegger, accompanied by California first lady Maria Shriver and their children, is scheduled to visit the million-square-foot Easton Town Center, the mall he owns in partnership. The mall is mostly outdoors and laid out like a small-town main street. It includes upscale shops, such as Restoration Hardware, nightclubs, restaurants and a 30-screen cinema.

"If you hang around the mall enough, you'll see Arnold once in a while," factory worker Jay White said. "People have become accustomed to seeing him around."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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