What Does It Take To Be A Real American Strongman?

When the bodybuilder Kai Greene wants you to hear what he’s saying, he doesn’t resort to volume; he punctuates his speech with a face as flexible as the rest of him isn’t. Kai Greene has the voice of a baritone kitten, low but precious — a 300-pound slab of igneous rock channeling Marilyn Monroe. The world’s tiniest double bass playing the world’s saddest song, just for you. In this voice, Kai Greene is telling the story of David and Goliath, and he’s making the giant the hero.

“Here was this big, slow-moving target with an X on his back,” Greene says, lifting one massive arm and reaching to touch his own back — a gesture impeded by at least seven kinds of preposterous bulk (pecs, lats, delts both anterior and posterior, etc.) The story is Kai Greene’s answer to my question: “What does it feel like to be stronger than other people?” He’s describing a man vulnerable in his bigness, fallen at the hand of an enemy who seems like a weakling but is really “this stealth, capable, ready, confident warrior armed with the power of God.” Kai Greene pops one eye at me like an emoji, and I’m convinced. I feel for the giant.

Kai Greene

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I’m talking to Greene in a makeshift publicity hub at the back of a cavernous convention center ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. It’s Day One of the 2017 Arnold Sports Festival, in early March — a four-day, multi-sport extravaganza that outranks the Olympics in its scope, according to the organizer’s estimates: 20,000 athletes, 80 countries, 70 events. The Arnold, as the festival’s name is colloquially shortened, has such an improbably wide scope that the only way to capture it is to say it’s a celebration of stuff done by bodies. Also just bodies. Also just stuff.

The weekend’s capstone event is the Arnold Classic, one of the world’s most prestigious professional bodybuilding competitions (up there with the longer-standing Mr. Olympia, where Schwarzenegger himself made his name almost 50 years ago). Kai Greene was the Arnold Classic champion in 2016, but this year, the 41-year old (his nemesis claims he’s older) isn’t competing. He’s here as a commentator for the festival’s official broadcast partner, the Generation Iron Fitness Network, and to do promo for the documentary Generation Iron 2, a sequel to 2013’s Generation Iron, which was itself the spiritual sequel to Pumping Iron, the 1977 doc that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name.

In a classic scene from Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger describes a feeling he calls “the pump”: a muscle bloating after lifting weight, flooded by a rush of blood, skin tightening as the body’s insides strain outward. Young Arnold compares the feeling to “having sex with a woman and coming,” and everywhere he goes — the gym, on stage, the gym again — “I am getting the feeling of coming … I am coming day and night.” Under this voiceover, Arnold does curls, drops the weight, and surveys himself, gazing at his biceps as they wax, making his pecs — large enough to obscure any view of his lower half — dance in alternating winks.

At some point, you get big enough that you stop believing the world is your cum rag and begin to just feel exposed.

But bodybuilding has changed since Schwarzenegger’s day. The swole have swelled; bodies and muscles that were impressive have become implausible. And if Kai Greene is any indication, hugeness comes with diminishing returns in terms of actual power. At some point, you get big enough that you stop believing the world is your cum rag and begin to just feel exposed — like a body taking up too much space for comfort. Like all you have is a lot to lose.

While there have always been women at The Arnold, the main stage at the Classic belongs to men. It’s about highlighting the male body as a piece of craft, a surface bearing evidence of physical labor. It’s a global competition, and as of next summer’s inaugural Arnold Classic Asia in Hong Kong, there will be six separate Arnold Classics held on six continents each year, but there is something purely, spectacularly American about all this. The Arnold is so explicit, so superlative, so shameless — licensing such glorious, unmitigated excess. It’s amazing to watch. It’s a lot to take.

At this festival of strength, brought to us by an American-dreaming immigrant turned pageant king turned movie star turned politician, there are so many sensational things on display, so much to be distracted and dazzled by, and yet I find I’m looking for something that isn’t there. I’m at The Arnold, and I’m thinking about The Donald. Here in the flyover, in the middle of a swing state committed to the delusion that it’s shaped like a heart, I’m looking at men. I’m trying to understand something about the difference between looking powerful and feeling it, between having strength and using it.

Mascot Arnold roams the convention center.

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At The Arnold, even simple, five-W’s facts are less like answers and more like gateway drugs to harder questions. Take “where,” for instance. For nearly 30 years, since its inception, The Arnold has been rooted in Columbus, Ohio — a city damned by the faint praise of being America’s favorite corporate test market, a reward for its dogged embodiment of neutrality. Columbus is the state capital you flub more than once at trivia night; a medium-sized dog in a medium-sized dog’s body. That it plays host to a massive, spangled convention of aggressively show-offy largeness feels, at best, off-brand.

But Schwarzenegger co-founded the festival with Jim Lorimer, a Columbus insurance man and sports promoter to whom he is loyal. (Back in 1970, Lorimer flew Schwarzenegger to Ohio for a competition on his own dime, leading the 23-year-old unknown Austrian to make a promise for which he’d one day become famous: He’d be back.) So Columbus, Ohio, it is.

Also confusing: what to even call this thing. The word “Arnold” is shuttled freely from adjective to noun and back again, between events, federations, and sponsors with confoundingly similar names. Arnolds within Arnolds, like Russian nesting dolls. Officially, this is the IFBB Arnold Sports Festival (IFBB stands for International Federation of Bodybuilding, which is actually the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, but don’t ask about the missing F), sometimes called the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival, and sometimes just The Arnold.

The festival in turn plays host to the IFBB Arnold Classic, and the Arnold Strongman Classic (no relationship to bodybuilding, hence no IFBB), and also the Arnold Fitness Expo, a relatively recent addition in the form of a dense hive of fitness industry booths offering pretty much anything you might spend money on to fuel, train, and adorn your body.

The crowd files through the Greater Columbus Convention Center on March 5.

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Wandering through the expo, you might try sticking yourself with contact jelly patches that jolt your muscles with fierce, staticky spasms of electricity (allegedly healing). You could face off against an opponent across a fitness obstacle course for a chance to win a free T-shirt. You might — in fact probably will — ingest a whole day’s nutritional requirements in sample-sized bites, shots, and licks of bars, powders, and elixirs from companies with names like Protein2o, Nutrabolics, Muscle Egg, and Buff Bake.

And then there’s the original Arnold — the man himself — with whom all 200,000-plus festival attendees seem to be on a first-name basis. In case you were thinking all this was merely in homage to Schwarzenegger, or a Midwestern outcropping ruled in absentia by its namesake, you’d be wrong. Schwarzenegger is definitely here, and he seems to be loving this.

Schwarzenegger is definitely here, and he seems to be loving this.

The 69-year-old Governator (a name by which he is freely introduced, even in an official capacity) roams the Greater Columbus Convention Center with a low-key security detail, pausing to let fans bob and cluster around him as he grins his flat, gap-corrected grin and posts to Snapchat (username @arnoldschnitzel). At one point, passing a warmup area, he walks up and stretches a competitor’s hamstring, cradling the man’s calf in his armpit and bearing his weight lightly, expertly down. I’m pretty sure I see Schwarzenegger wearing the same camo jacket for several days straight.

At The Arnold, you always know when the real Arnold is near. You know it before you know it. There’s a ripple in the room — a contagious urge to follow something. It’s weird and decidedly primal. When Schwarzenegger steps out among the assembled throng, for just a moment the basic repulsiveness of so many human beings contained in close quarters seems to transform, the crowd revealing an ability to conduct preverbal knowledge with the involuntary ease of a shudder. All it takes is a little celebrity to set us off.

Arnold takes a selfie while Hafþór Björnsson prepares to press the Austrian Oak during the Arnold Strongman Classic.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger has worn plenty of hats: movie star, mogul, capitalist, governor. This year he took on and quickly, after just one season, gave back the job of hosting The Celebrity Apprentice. It was a role he inherited, of course, from Donald J. Trump, and the Schwarzenegger version of the show was officially billed as The New Celebrity Apprentice, marking a new era after the original host’s long run.

As it turned out, you can take The Donald out of reality TV, but not so easily the reverse. Even days away from being inaugurated to the world’s most powerful political office, Trump appeared to be brooding over the fact that Schwarzenegger — someone who might have seemed like a kindred spirit, but instead turned out to be a never-Trumping hater — would now be the one to sit on the boardroom throne and dramatically, pointlessly fire wealthy people from fake jobs on TV.

And so began what may well be the pettiest and most psychically revealing of all the Twitter feuds of Donald J. — who upgraded mid-spat to become President — Trump. Trump began a campaign of monitoring the Nielsen ratings of Apprentice’s Schwarzenegger reboot (failing!) and taking to Twitter roughly once a month to publicize the results. Look, he cried, how even that movie star made famous as a specimen of physical dominance, of embodied bigness, couldn’t follow in the footsteps of “the ratings machine, DJT.”

Once in office, Trump even made time for Schwarzenegger outside his usual dawn tweet sessions, calling at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2 for us to cast our thoughts heavenward for Arnold, for his ratings.

Schwarzenegger, for his part, has gone tweet-for-tweet with the president. When Trump sneered at his Apprentice numbers, Schwarzenegger wished him luck with his new job doing “the people’s work.” In response to the prayers for his ratings salvation, Schwarzenegger offered to job swap. And in March, on the first day of The Arnold, while Schwarzenegger was surrounded by an adoring crowd of fans, followers, and wannabes in Columbus, his team issued a statement saying that he wouldn’t return for a second season of Celebrity Apprentice, citing the show’s “baggage.”

The following day (March 4, 2017) Donald Trump awoke at his Floridian resort encampment of Mar-a-Lago and performed his morning rites of (seemingly unsupervised) tweeting. First up: a volley of fantastic, paranoiac, and since universally unconfirmed claims about the Obama administration wiretapping Trump Tower phones. After covering McCarthyism and spying and Obama (that “Bad (or sick) guy!”), it seemed like Trump’s daily airing of grievances had wound down, until he logged back in for one last tweet setting the record straight: “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show,” the president wrote, plopping a petty little maraschino atop his day’s work.

In a convention center packed with human megafauna, the only elephant in the room is politics.

Back in Columbus, Schwarzenegger takes a break from playing host to his 200,000 closest pals to fire back at the president, tweeting: “You should think about hiring a new joke writer and a fact checker.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the middle of a Twitter fight — a Twitter fight — with the US president, while standing in a Midwestern convention center guarded by a bronze, just-slightly larger-than-life statue of his likeness. This spat is a reminder of the status these men share, of the fact that the crossover from celebrity to political office is slowly becoming the norm. It’s also a warning about what can come from those trained to seek attention rather than command power.

Trump’s tweets reveal something fundamental about vision and values: what he prioritizes, how he thinks. Grammatical slip though it may be — “fired by his ratings” — there’s a reminder here that the president of the United States thinks of ratings as personified. He ascribes to this narrow metric of tuned-in screens, of eyes glued to a spectacle, the ability to give and take power. To tell someone what a loser they are, or to show them love.

How many of the strongmen and bodybuilders taking the stage at the festival — or the people watching them — feel, on some level, the same? And what portion of the 200,000 spectators here in Columbus voted for that president? Is their loyalty with Arnold? Do they feel like they have to choose? These questions feel taboo. In a convention center packed with human megafauna, the only elephant in the room is politics.

Jerry Pritchett (left) and Dimitar Savanitov competing in the Arnold Strongman Classic

Suzannah Showler / BuzzFeed News

Source: buzzfeed health