I have to pee. My vision is somewhat blurred, I'm starving, and I have no appetite. The tip of my tongue has a burn to it, but it's also sort of salty. My head is spinning. I might throw up. I could use a shower. A cold one. My palms are sweaty. I'm pretty sure I'm a writer who's in Columbus, Ohio, to cover the expo at the Arnold Sports Festival for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. But I might also be Billy Jo Robidoux, former Brewers first baseman. Or Zayn from One Direction. Or ALF. I'm not 100% certain at the moment. My head is reeling. My body is addled. ¬∂ In the name of power, over the course of the last eight hours I've ingested, popped and applied almost everything I received as a freebie at the expo. This is what my body has been subjected to: Nineteen miniature protein bars. / Four unidentifiably coated crispy wafers. / Five glasses of red liquid. / Six glasses of orange liquid. / Four glasses of brown liquid. / Two glasses of milky white liquid. / Three glasses of yellow liquid. / Two Glutamine 2500 Power Chews. / One packet of something called Beast Mode (fruit punch flavor). / One packet of Black Powder Ultra (blue raspberry flavor). / Two creatine tablets. / Two small applications of Liquid Grip. / Two packets of Better Stevia zero calorie sweetener. / One packet of Tribulus Maca Fenugreek (a.k.a. male performance cream). I also had my right arm spray-tanned, which means I look like one of those delicious black-and-white cookies, while smelling, refreshingly, of apricot.
Founded in 1989 by Arnold Schwarzenegger and muscle-sports impresario Jim Lorimer as an elite bodybuilding competition, the Arnold has morphed over its 25 years into a four-day multisport jamboree that draws 175,000 attendees and 18,000 athletes from 81 nations. For many of those on hand, the highlight is the expo, a massive commercial venture in which 700 vendors pitch tent and (with the help of extraordinarily large muscles, extraordinarily large breasts and extraordinarily plentiful free samples) try to persuade the masses that their special product offers the gateway to power.
At first I viewed the myriad giveaways at the Arnold skeptically. I mean, is the world really better served by free samples of horny goat weed? But then, fortunately, I met Phillip, a wrinkled little man who sat behind a table and gave out the creatine tablets as if they were Mentos. "Is this healthy for you?" I asked.
Phillip explained that, really, most drugs are fine, as long as they're not injected anally. (I didn't ask what he meant by this.) He added, triumphantly, "I'm 60! Can you believe that!" (I could.) "Steroids are O.K., too," Phillip added. "People say they're bad, but they don't know."
As I walked away from Phillip's table, creatine in hand, I realized that here, inside the jam-packed Greater Columbus Convention Center, may well be the strangest assembly in the history of human assembly. Think Disney World parade meets Monster Truck show meets Gold's Gym meets gentlemen's club—then quadruple the number of people. So many people that it made me wonder if maybe they understood something I did not about power.
Arnold attendees are not interested in the types of power that move markets and mold the masses. Their pursuits are more personal, and the rewards they seek more tangible. According to seemingly every salesperson at every table, physical perfection is merely a beverage, a cream, a power bar, a pill away. You can get bigger and stronger and faster and fiercer. Women will crave you. Men will envy you. Just take Uncut—"the pure and truly concentrated pre-workout fuel." Just take Defy Black—the "underground performance and recovery booster."
"You'll love Emerge's Watermelon Splash drink mix!" a young blonde in a revealing tank top tells me. (Nearly every woman working the expo is young and blonde, in a revealing tank top.)
"Um, really?" I say.
"Guaranteed," she replies.
I take a sip. It tastes like sugar water with a splash of bottom-of-the-can tuna juice.
"We have other flavors!" she shouts as I walk off. "If you like fruit punch...."
The expo is a land that smells of skin tanner, mint body lotion, regrettable body odor and intestinal gas; a land where a tub of metabolic whey is akin to a pan of gold nuggets; a land where people wait in winding 2½-hour lines to receive a free Guatemalan-knit 20% cotton T-shirt, a small bundle of pills and a coupon for GNC. Here, bejeweled bikinis sell for $450 and official Arnold robes are a mere $250. Every other table features "fitness celebrities" signing autographed pictures. I received photographs and/or posters from such luminaries as Karla Marie, Anthony Pasquale and Holly Barker.
While interviewing an Incredible Hulk--like figure named Andrew Wright, the 2010 NABBA Keystone Classic overall winner in the Mens' Novice division, who stood at a table pitching some sort of egg-white-and-chocolate beverage, I paused for a moment to flip a page in my notebook. "You want me to sign a picture for you?" asked Wright. "Uh," I said, "I gu—"
"Who should I make it out to?"
I'm sure my six-year-old son, Emmett, will take the inscription—train hard, diet harder!—to heart.
I also met David Schachterle, a veteran bodybuilder whose upper chest was covered by two enormous tattoos that, he said, took more than 50 excruciating hours to fill in. "I can admit," he said, "there have been times I thought it might not have been the best decision." There was Samantha Santiago, a 21-year-old woman who was paid by T-Mobile to walk the expo in what looked to be a gigantic green condom but is actually the Android mascot. "Everybody wants to do this job!" she said, a hint of sarcasm escaping the two tons of fabric.
There were the two scantily clad women, Megan Stagg, 22, and Vanessa Blouin, 28, hired to pose in front of a giant MuscleMag cover, arms wrapped around one convention goer after another. "Except for standing for nine hours a day," said Stagg, "it's actually fantastic and fun."
There was Kathy Amazon, a muscular 6'2" woman who had people gawking and pointing at her outrageous physique. Appearing on behalf of a bodybuilding website, Amazon gawked and pointed right back, gleefully noting that she was 1) happy, 2) secure and confident in her womanhood, and 3) selling nude photos.
Perhaps most notably, there was Schwarzenegger, who annually flies in from California for the festival. At least once per day the Terminator walks the expo floor, a sight that must be seen to be fully appreciated. In these parts Schwarzenegger isn't the former California governor who left office with a 22% approval rating. He isn't the thespian whose most recent film, The Last Stand, was viewed by 12 people. He isn't the celebrity husband who impregnated the housekeeper. No, in Columbus, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the five-time Mr. Universe and seven-time Mr. Olympia, the man who put bodybuilding on the map. "Arnold is a god here," said Ron Waterman, a former WWE wrestler who was peddling product at the OhYeah! stand. "Everyone knows he's a politician and a movie star. But to us he's an icon who can do no wrong."
Therefore, everyone stopped what they were doing as approximately 70 yellow-and-black-clad security guards parted the suffocating crowds so that Schwarzenegger could march from sponsor booth to sponsor booth. Decked out in a gray jacket and white dress shirt, his facial expression frozen in a plastic campaign smile, Schwarzenegger awkwardly repeated the phrase "Good to see you" at least 753 times, staring blankly as exuberant screams of "Hasta la vista, baby!" and "It's not a tumor!" rose from the masses.
A couple of years ago Schwarzenegger admitted that he dabbled in steroids during his bodybuilding career. Inside the Convention Center, however, talk of PEDs was nearly nonexistent. As neckless men and women with zit-coated backs and 28 levels of bulge on their shoulders peacocked about like cartoons brought to life, they received not a glare or negative look. It's not that people didn't have their suspicions. ("All the top guys are juiced up," said Michael Lockett, a not ludicrously large bodybuilder who was promoting workout gear. "We know it, everyone knows it.") It's that they genuinely didn't seem to care. Here, mass was only to be admired. The big kids were cool; the little kids sought approval and love.
As a recreational jogger with nary an iota of muscle, I began to question this worship of pure brawn. What's so great about being big, anyhow? Who needs bulk? Before the day was complete I marched back toward the OhYeah! stand, where Schachterle was surrounded by customers. The winner of the men's super heavyweight class at the 2010 NPC Junior USA, Schachterle measures roughly six feet and 305 pounds. He is also friendly, engaging and handsome. "You know, muscle isn't everything," I said to him.
"I never actually said it was," he replied. "There are a lot of...."
Enough of that. "Let's thumb wrestle!" I demanded.
I reached out my right hand. Schachterle looked at me, confused, before agreeing and reaching out his. For a solid seven seconds, we sparred back and forth—two tough guys; two equals. No, I don't have magnificent blue tattoos covering my unmagnificent pale body. No, I can't bend a fork. But I have pride, dammit. I have honor. I have....
Schachterle dropped his thumb and I pounced. One, two, three....
"I was too tough for you?" I said.
"No," Schachterle replied. "Your hand is pretty sweaty. It's kind of gross."
I wanted to respond. I tried to respond. Alas, it was too late. By the time a thought entered my mind, Schachterle had picked up his Sharpie and moved toward the side.
A couple of his fans wanted autographs.
PHYSICAL PERFECTION IS MERELY A BEVERAGE, A CREAM, A POWER BAR, A PILL AWAY. YOU CAN GET BIGGER AND STRONGER AND FIERCER. WOMEN WILL CRAVE YOU. MEN WILL ENVY YOU.
ARNOLD HAS ADMITTED TO DABBLING IN STEROIDS DURING HIS BODYBUILDING DAYS, BUT NO ONE SEEMS TO CARE. "TO US," SAID ONE EXHIBITOR, "HE'S AN ICON WHO CAN DO NO WRONG."
Even the most ripped competitors are outdone by the Arnold's mix of characters, including Kathy Amazon (directly above), and by the supply of free goodies, which the author (below right) sampled generously. For more photos, go to SI.com/mag.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
THE JOY OF FLEX In Columbus last weekend bodybuilders vied with hundreds of exhibitors for the attention of the crowd.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
AB FAB Johnnie Jackson (left), fourth in this year's Classic, modeled a medal bearing the image of Arnold, whose walk-throughs (right) are the highlight of the weekend.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
[See caption above]
GEORGE LONG (SCHWARZENEGGER POSING)
[See caption above]
BRETT HANSBAUER (BOTTOM LEFT AND MAN WITH DUMBBELL)
Photographs by SIMON BRUTY
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
SAY CHEESE Schwarzenegger put muscle on the map in the '70s, and now his event is the biggest of its kind in the world.