For four days every year, Columbus becomes the North Korea of Sports — a nation that lives separate from the reality beyond its borders. One reporter went inside its weird world of professional bodybuilding.

Please be advised. This story contains graphic and possibly disturbing images including: Men rubbing oil on each other’s virtually naked bodies; women clad in four square inches of fabric lubricating counterparts likewise clad; Caucasians walking around with skin as dark as obsidian in what resembles a blackface performance; athletes expectorating into the crowd; fans paying hundreds of dollars welcoming the aforementioned spittle like Dust Bowl farmers would a July drizzle; dietary regimens clinically constituting eating disorders; champions using cocktails of performance-enhancing drugs; body-image psychosis; disfigurements from surgeries and implantations; shameless product placement; crimes against film; philandering; vomiting; racism; the liquefaction of internal organs; and death.

For four days every March, Columbus becomes the North Korea of Sports. The erstwhile capital of the Buckeye State, home of Ohio State University and HQ for the Nationwide insurance company, Columbus becomes, for a very long weekend, a nation that lives separate from the reality of the world beyond its well-fortified borders.

Overrun with creatures great and only previously small, Columbus, Ohio, becomes the temporary homeland of people we can try to communicate with but will never fully understand: professional bodybuilders. The man- and woman-mountains congregate to strut the stage and seek the blessing of the most powerful man in Columbus. At other times during the year that would be the governor, but for these four days, the North Korea of Sports has not a leader so much as a superman-in-chief, a legend to be worshipped as much as obeyed, even though he is a laughingstock elsewhere. We speak of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger is in the unusual position of being referred to by mononym (Arnold), nickname (Austrian Oak) and honorific (Governor Schwarzenegger). This is just one unusual position he has taken. Others include: a Republican environmentalist; a man passed off as Danny DeVito’s twin brother; an admitted former steroid user appointed to head up the President’s Council on Physical Fitness; an actor whose reputation was founded on playing a machine; and a self-styled paragon of family values who professes enduring love for his ex-wife, Kennedy scion Maria Shriver, while managing to throw her under the wheels of Team Arnold’s bus in his 2102 autobiography, hastily penned when the celebrity media were breaking news of his love child with the Schwarzeneggers’ long-time maid.

“Columbus becomes the temporary homeland of people we can try to communicate with but will never fully understand.”

How did it come to pass that the Arnold Classic, the second-most prestigious bodybuilding event extant, landed in Columbus nearly 30 years ago? Some cite an early trip that the Great Man made to C-bus soon after he left Austria and landed on American shores back in 1968 at the age of 21. That has the whiff of the apocryphal, but no matter. Columbus is something akin to the capital of fly-over America: large enough to host the pilgrims to the Arnold Sports Festival, 200,000 strong annually, but still out of range of the mainstream media’s radar.

Thus, those who look at a squat rack as their altar and have taken vows of extreme muscularity can come to Ohio without fear of persecution by the scrawny elites. They pose for pictures with the 10-foot-tall statue of Arnold outside the auditorium and give their love to a man who finds tons of it from myriad sources, starting with Governor Schwarzenegger, the Austrian Oak himself.

In high school in Toronto, Pakulski was a pudgy kid, but that began to change when he first saw photos of Schwarzenegger in muscle mags.

Ben “Pak-Man” Pakulski is a regular guy by most measures, other than tape measures. He goes at life straight ahead. He has buzzed his hair down to the wood — one less thing to maintain, more time to devote to the more important things. He’s never at a loss for words, never a hem nor a haw, because he has thought through what he is, what he wants to be and how he’s going to get there. His Twitter bio captures his relentless positivism: “Passion For Life! In constant pursuit of my best self. Bodybuilding and Health are my life.” So does any random tweet: “Woke up in a GREAT mood today. Can’t be anything but positive on Sundays! Let’s crush it.”

If you ask him his worst flaw, he’ll say that he is “too unselfish… always helping others and putting aside what I should be focusing on.” He recognizes his strengths: “My legs are some of the best in the business.” He’ll own up to what he perceives as his weaknesses: “My upper body, shoulders, back and arms need to catch up to my legs,” though to the untrained eye, it’s hard to imagine them bigger or more ripped.

Self-improvement as a theme runs through Pak-Man’s life story. In high school in Toronto, he was just a pudgy kid, just another face in the yearbook. A kid with few friends, none who were “athletic or success oriented.” Then he read Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder and other classic works in The Man Who Would Be Conan’s canon. When he first saw photos of Arnold in muscle mags, he heard the siren call, and his aspirations transformed, with his body to follow. “I took control of what was supposed to be my fate and turned it into something else,” he says.

He made himself into Pak-Man, a testament to Better Living Through Arnold. Yet with less than an hour to go before the Arnold Classic, Pak-Man had never felt worse. He was in his hotel room with his horrified and very pregnant partner. He was sweating bullets, kneeling over a toilet bowl, losing breakfast, lunch and dinner, drying out and dropping from 310 pounds to 270 pounds.

“Pak-Man was buck naked save for a patch of polyester that would barely have concealed a freckle.”

Months of preparation, tons of iron pressed, squatted and curled — all seemed wasted by a bout of food poisoning. Pak-Man had hoped to build on last year’s fourth-place finish at the Arnold Classic, but with every heave he was becoming more resigned to the fact that he had flown up from his home base of Tampa only to have to scratch out of the contest. Pak-Man’s cell hummed, almost drowned out by full-body retching as his digestive system volcanically erupted. It was his friend Vic, a Toronto cop. Vic had planned to come to the Arnold, but had an appointment with a specialist who gave him bad news: Vic had testicular cancer. He was going in for surgery. He called to wish Pak-Man luck.

An ice-water bath couldn’t have chilled Pak-Man as much as the call. Vic is a massive and massively strong guy who had taken Pakulski under his wing at Mack’s Gym in Toronto back in the day, had showed him the way when he seemed on track for a most ordinary life. At different junctures, Pakulski was a vegetarian, a runner, a baseball player. Vic had showed him how to get strong and look strong. Pak-Man couldn’t tell Vic that he thought he’d have to drop out. When he got off the phone, he got off his knees and made up his mind to look as strong as humanly possible. He couldn’t let himself cave in to something so trivial as tainted chicken.

Competitors prepare for the Arnold Classic for months in advance — pumping iron, dropping weight and, eventually, dehydrating.

In this sport or art or whatever bodybuilding might be, the ultimate honour is Mr. Olympia, handed out in Las Vegas at the climax of the Joe Weider Olympia Weekend, recognizing the stars in the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. Alas, this year they’ll ripple on sans Joe “The Master Blaster” Weider, who shuffled off this mortal curl this spring at the age of 93.

Weider and his brother Ben founded the IFBB in 1946 and, though rarely credited or blamed, they invented modern bodybuilding even more than Abner Doubleday did the game of baseball. And to promote their spinoff empires in magazine publishing and nutritional supplements, the brothers Weider invented Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There had been bodybuilders in the ’50s and ’60s, but they were names only to the cult and those who saw the Weiders’ ads on the backs of 12-cent comic books. The Weiders, who started out lifting in Montreal gyms and producing bodybuilding fanzines, founded Mr. Olympia in ’65 but realized they needed a champion with a profile and a personality. A couple of years later, they spotted Arnold Schwarzenegger, a prodigy barely out of his teens. Arnold had made himself a bodybuilder; the Weiders set about making him a crossover star. They even gave him his start in movies, one that he somehow managed to survive.

“Arnold is why we’re here. He is the man. He was the game-changer. He still is. Nothin’ but respect for him.”

The best you can say about Hercules in New York is that it might not be the worst film Arnold ever appeared in. (See Red Sonja if you dare, a film Arnold claims he made his children watch when they misbehaved.) Arnold’s debut is laughably low-rent and the premise ludicrous: The fabled if somewhat dopey strongman enrages Zeus, who lobs a lightning bolt at him and casts him from Mount Olympus to the Big Apple. The producers decided that Schwarzenegger was too foreign a name for American audiences, so their star appeared in the credits as Arnold Strong. Arnold’s accent was so overpowering that his lines were unintelligible and had to be dubbed. (In later video editions, his voice was restored, effectively supersizing the farce.)

While inarguably craptastic, this B-movie today serves as Arnold’s Rosetta Stone, the key to unlock his thick ambition-filled chest. That he would be governor of the most populous state in the Union, that his films would make billions of dollars, that he would marry into what passes for American royalty. His destiny is foreshadowed by one dreadful line in Hercules in New York.

In the fateful scene, Mercury (who is a figure of Roman mythology, not Greek lore, but whatever) pleads with Hercules to go back to Mount Olympus because there is no life to be had alone in a strange land. But Hercules has seen that a sword-and-sandals flick set in ancient Greece is showing a few blocks away. “Ha!” Hercules says. “I know a theatre on a shtreets names Broadway. There is a man. He plays me so well dey shower money on him. Is proves dey know me.”

Just as Hercules had come down from Olympus, so too had young Arnold come to America and realized that the shortest route to fortune goes through celebrity, and that everyone is a sucker for the twinned virtues of strength and self-improvement.

Many competitors are painted with a skin dye that helps show their muscles on stage.

Arnold walked down the hallway of the convention centre, past rooms assigned to powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting competitions, past men and women, young and old. He walked right by the promotion offering T-shirts to anyone who could dead-lift two tractor tires filled with sand. He made his way into the main hall, where the makers of protein powder and supplements, the forgers of weights and equipment and the designers of gym garb had paid significant money for the chance to showcase their wares. He stopped at some for a handshake and a photo op, the soft endorsement of best wishes. Bystanders tried to get a glimpse of him, but he was well-shielded from view by a phalanx of three dozen uniformed bodyguards.

Ronnie Coleman could see Arnold from his spot in a back corner of the hall. Experts consider Coleman no worse than the second-greatest bodybuilder in history. Heretics in the muscle media maintain that he was even better than Arnold. Coleman sat at a table bookended by larger-than-lifesized cut-outs of his former self and worked his way through a lineup of 100 gym habitués and amateur bodybuilders who were waiting for autographs. There was a tithe to pay for the honour: the purchase of a photo or T-shirt or, better, a vat of his signature series of whey protein. And if you waited your turn, you only had time enough to ask him one question: What does Arnold mean to bodybuilding?

“Arnold is why we’re here,” Coleman said. “Arnold is Arnold. He is the man. He was the game-changer. He still is. Nothin’ but respect for him.”

It would have been tempting to read envy or bitterness into Coleman’s words. After all, Coleman had to have a day job in his prime, working as a police of officer. Now retired from the force and from the stage, he has taken his place in the business of strength: endorser, spokesmuscle. He never became a movie star, never a mythic figure, cyborg or garden-variety badass. Some of it has to do with personality, but much more with marketability, i.e. race.

When the Weiders tapped Arnold, they passed over black champions, most notably the engaging Cuban expat Sergio Oliva, whose build was seemingly a mathematical impossibility: 32-inch thighs connecting to a 27-inch waist. Yet Coleman can’t resent Arnold. If it weren’t for the phenomenon that is Arnold, Coleman would have had to walk the beat until he made his pension.

“Arnold is why we’re here.” He was the catalyst that turned a cult into popular culture and an immense business: $3 billion in weightlifting equipment sold in the U.S. annually and seven times that amount in supplements. Pak-Man himself is tapping into it with his endorsement of Allmax, his online coaching service and products out of his website’s store.

Those bodybuilders and salesmen on the convention centre floor are indebted to Arnold. Arnold, himself, is indebted to film. Schwarzenegger achieved his Arnold-dom not as the Terminator, Conan or any other action hero, but in a role he was uniquely qualified for: himself.

Whether professional or amateur, the Arnold Classic hardware is some of the hardest to come by in the world.

Pumping Iron, a documentary, followed Arnold at the Mr. Olympia in South Africa, in 1975. Among a lifetime of lucky breaks, this was the luckiest of all, providing a 90-minute slice of his semi-real life that served as an audition tape for every role that awaited him. His accent wasn’t quite as thick as it had been in Hercules in New York, and without silly lines to read, Arnold showed wit and intellect, a likeability that was undamaged by outrageous confidence. He evoked Muhammad Ali in the way that he got inside the heads of opponents. In poor Lou Ferrigno, Arnold found a foil, a six-foot-five goliath who dwarfed the competition, yet suffered socially in small part because of deafness, but mostly because his father had stage-mothered him into near neurosis. Beside him and all others on the stage, Arnold looked cool, a winner you could root for. You didn’t laugh at him, but rather laughed at the world along with him.

The scene backstage at the Arnold this year resembled Pumping Iron somewhat. Like the rest of the field in the men’s division, Pak-Man was buck naked save for a patch of polyester that would barely have concealed a freckle. The women’s suits were even smaller, making the room a sea of sausage and silicone. There were African-American bodybuilders, but Caucasians and Asians ended up darker, their skin a hue not found on God’s palette, thanks to Team Liquid Sun Rayz.

Like the other naturally light-skinned competitors, Pak-Man was painted from head to foot with a skin dye that turned him a deeply varnished mahogany, the finish that shows muscle to the best effect under the spotlights. Against this, Pak-Man’s eyes looked like two blue marbles. For the duration of the competition, he and the rest of the field weren’t able to bathe or shower, or else the dye would streak. Thus the backstage, crowded with massive, sweating bodies of men and women alike, took on a rank odour.

“Munzer was using $6,000 worth of PEDs a month. A post-mortem revealed that his liver had practically dissolved.”

Ordinarily, Pak-Man would have been talking, like Arnold had in Pumping Iron, taking jabs at other competitors, asking if they were feeling all right or if they were injured, or remarking offhandedly about different looks that they had. Ordinarily, he would’ve been trying to plant seeds of doubt. Ordinarily, he would’ve been trying to get them just a fraction of a percent off their game and make them sag just enough that he might pass them in the standings. Not now, though, not in his weakened state. He wasn’t mingling. He stayed off to the side. He said not a word while lifting to get his pump on. When done, he lay down alone and closed his eyes.

It’s common knowledge that bodybuilders entering into competition go to great lengths to achieve the desired look. For all their body mass and definition, they are almost always their weakest on stage and often in physical distress. That said, there’s no imagining how Andreas Munzer felt before his last Arnold Classic in 1996.

They still talk about Munzer. Flex, a bodybuilding magazine, named Munzer one of the 10 most defined bodybuilders of all time and rhapsodized about his look. “His chest and delts divided into so many strands they resembled piles of cocktail straws. [His] quads were like rows of stacked dominoes. His triceps had more lines than Hamlet.”

Munzer felt particularly bad before that Arnold Classic. It wasn’t just weight loss brought on by a pre-competition starvation diet and dehydration. He was using $6,000 worth of PEDs a month: injecting two ampoules of testosterone a day; ingesting the oral steroids Halotestin and Anabol; and using between four and 24 units of the growth hormone STH.

Munzer finished sixth. Two weeks later, he was dead. A post-mortem revealed that his liver had practically dissolved, prompting massive organ failure. Arnold sent a wreath to Munzer’s grave. He attached a message: “A last greeting to a friend.”

Each competition ends with an epic final act that is part athletic feat and part exhausting ritual.

Pak-Man walked out on the stage where Andreas Munzer, all but dead, posed for the last time. Pak-Man had made it through the qualifying rounds and into the final six, the headline show. Some well-known names didn’t make the cut and turned backstage into a vipers’ nest of recriminations. “I’m sick of this shit with the judges,” said a seemingly perfectly proportioned bodybuilder name Ed “Second to” Nunn, who suggested the standings were determined before the show.

The posedown, a free-for-all with the finalists trying to steal each other’s thunder, wrapped up the competition. It resembled a mating ritual you’d see on the Discovery Channel, rhinoceroses or hippopotami preening and dancing and showcasing their manhood for the affections of all the pretty girls in heat. Pak-Man cut in front of Dexter Jackson like he was trying to push ahead to the teller. Jackson responded in kind. To Pak-Man, Jackson served as the made-to-order nemesis. Pak-Man was the emerging and admired star, while Jackson was the veteran, a three-time winner of the Arnold Classic. Pak-Man is, as he describes himself, “not genetically gifted, a guy who has to work for everything,” while Jackson has been criticized for under-training and even envied because he gets more out of less gym toil than anyone else.

“Everyone in the audience, who had paid $100 to see this, knew how it was going to turn out. Likewise those on stage.”

Pak-Man looked unsteady, 270 dense pounds going up on the ball of his foot for a side pose. The strain creased and bulged his face. He drew a breath so hard and deep and his chest swelled so much that when he finally exhaled, he accidentally projected a loogie at bullet speed a dozen rows into the seats. The crowd roared. He forced an expression of confidence when facing the judges, but he didn’t try to hide the effort and fatigue in the back poses when his face was out of their view.

The competition ended with two simple words from the announcer: “Thank you.” A couple of minutes later, Arnold walked on stage and the hardware was rolled out. Pak-Man didn’t look nervous about the outcome, just relieved that this ordeal was at an end. One by one, ascending, the placings were announced. He survived sixth place, fifth, fourth and then third, applauding each. It came down to Dexter Jackson on a quest for a record-tying fourth Arnold Classic, and Pak-Man.

Everyone in the audience, who had paid $100 to see this, knew how it was going to turn out. Likewise those on stage.

Pak-Man was announced as the second place finisher. He shook Jackson’s hand and then walked over to Arnold to do the same and accept a cheque for $80,000. Later, Pak-Man was handed the Most Muscular Trophy, a clear signal that victory at next year’s Classic looms out there. Backstage, Pak-Man pulled off grace in defeat, but those who are in political favour never complain about politics. “I’m not coming in without a pro win and beating Dexter, so I’m satisfied with the result,” Pak-Man said as he drank some water, ate some chicken and rice, and, against recent form, managed to keep it down.

Before the show officially closed, Arnold had an announcement to make. He told the crowd that he had assumed the position he held before he moved into the governor’s mansion. He was reinstalled as chief executive editor of the Weiders’ magazine empire. Many thought he was going to tell them that, as hotly rumoured, he had signed on for Terminator 5. That deal wasn’t quite finalized, but it would be by early summer. Arnold will “be back” in front of cameras in his famous role when shooting starts in January, but he’ll need to get away from the set for four days next March to publicize the film and host the next Arnold Classic in the People’s Republic of Weightlifting.

This story was originally published in 2013.

Photo Credits

Photography by Mark Peckmezian; Design by Drew Lesiuczok