Editorial: Mr Olympia at the Opera House

29 June 2015 Alan Attwood

Editorial: Mr Olympia at the Opera House

Arnie and I go way back. In 1979, as a young
 reporter based in Sydney, I wrote about a big 
bodybuilding event being staged at the Opera
House. Yes, the Opera House. Guest of honour
 was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the biggest star 
in the bodybuilding galaxy, the man who in
 1970 had become (aged 23) the youngest-ever 
Mr Olympia. Arnie did not compete in Sydney, 
which meant that Opera House patrons never 
got to admire his much-applauded pectorals, but he was definitely a drawcard for
 those marketing the event. I found it all a bit of a hoot, even if I hadn’t then heard the Clive James line likening Arnie’s big body to a condom stuffed with walnuts. Armed with a notebook and pen, I later covered another muscle-fest. It wasn’t as much fun, mainly because all the participants were taking it dreadfully seriously.

Backstage, watching all the primping and preening and oiling and strutting that preceded competitors going on stage, it hit me that this was the ultimate in narcissism. Any pursuit that involves so much time posing in front of mirrors is highly dubious. I still see them occasionally – men, and sometimes also women, wearing T-shirts with cut-off sleeves showing off their out-sized arms. They’re probably the ones buying those huge tins of protein powders and assorted ‘supplements’ in ‘health’ and sports stores. Bodies like Arnie’s in his Mr Olympia days (he won his seventh and last title in 1980) simply aren’t natural. He has acknowledged the use of steroids in his ‘sport’ while he was competing; he has also pointed out that their use was only just beginning and was not then illegal. Still, given the tangled web of drugs in sport these days and the known side effects of steroid abuse, that long-gone Opera House event no longer seems like innocent and decidedly silly entertainment.

In 1980, Arnie had already swaggered onto the screen – though not in a big way. His second credit, in a 1973 film, was “hood in Augustine’s office”. His debut as Conan (the Barbarian, not O’Brien) came in 1982; the first Terminator movie appeared in 1984 – the latest, of course, is out now. Later, and perhaps most remarkably, he reinvented himself again – this time as a politician. He served two terms as Governor of California, from 2003 to 2011, giving the lie to 
F Scott Fitzgerald’s line about there being “no second acts in American lives”. And Arnie’s is an American story, even though he was born in Austria. In the interview we publish in this edition, he says he ran for governor because 
“it gave me a chance to honour a debt to my adopted home country... I had lived way beyond my dreams, and all because
 of America.” His celebrity status was undoubtedly a factor in 
his election, just as it was for Ronald Reagan – another former actor who was also California’s governor and later US President. Only in America? Perhaps not. Another ex-actor, Oscar-winner Glenda Jackson, spent almost 23 years in Britain’s House of Commons. Closer to home, one-time rock star Peter Garrett became a minister in the Australian Government.

The rise and rise of Arnie (one name is enough for most people to know who you mean) confounds logic. He has survived personal scandal and a string of dud movies, and his bodybuilding days are sufficiently far enough in the past for him to be blissfully unaffected by its tarnished image. He even regards negative press as a positive: “It’s a compliment when you get knocked because that means you’re at the top. You just have to deal with it. And stop complaining.” Thirty-six years after that Opera House muscle-fest, Arnie can still pull a crowd. He’ll be back? Nonsense. He never really went away.