Arnold: Bigger Than Ever

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In early March, with football season over and baseball yet to begin, fitness and sports fans alike can count on one thing to get them through the last of the cold weather: The Arnold Sports Festival, held in Columbus, Ohio.

Every year, “The Arnold” — its namesake obviously spawned from bodybuilding immortal Arnold Schwarzenegger — is accurately advertised as the largest multi-sport festival in the country, and every year, it gets even bigger. In 2011, the weekend will host 18,000 athletes, competing in 45 sports and events (12 of them Olympic sports), up from 40 sports a year ago. As long as the weekend’s itinerary is, it’s equally diverse, with sports ranging from gymnastics and archery to powerlifting and cheerleading to martial arts and everything in between.

Event planners are expecting 175,000 people to attend, due in large part to the three-day Arnold Fitness Expo, the enormous collection of sports and fitness product booths and athletic competitions that forms the centerpiece of The Arnold. The Expo alone, where for a mere $10 fitness enthusiasts can grab free supplement samples worth considerably more than that, will keep many a spectator and consumer occupied for hours.

It’s big, it’s getting bigger and if you’re anywhere near Columbus in March, the festival is a must-attend event. If you’re lucky, you might just see Gov. Schwarzenegger himself, the most famous, and regular, Arnold attendee of all.

New and Improved

At its current rate of expansion, The Arnold Sports Festival might very well include every sport known to man by 2020 (curling or synchronized swimming, anyone?). This year’s new events include the following, giving you five more reasons to join the festivities:

>>Bikini International In addition to its other physique sports, the IFBB is introducing a new professional bikini competition at this year’s Arnold. But if you think these women are just pretty faces in limited attire, think again; countless hours in the gym, salon and on the practice stage will pay off for the lucky winners.

>>Arnold Sports Film Festival This departure from traditional athletic competition is garnering much buzz this year. It is what it sounds like: a collection of documentaries, narratives, animated and broadcast films of 15 minutes or less that pertain to athletic pursuits. As an added treat for those who made the cut, Schwarzenegger will help pick the winning films.

>>Arnold Track and Field Championships Saturday, March 5 will see the debut of this Ohio state high-school indoor qualifying meet. A full array of running, jumping and throwing events will take place starting at 9 a.m.

>>Arnold Hockey Challenge Up to 48 high-level teenage ice hockey teams will compete in this first-ever tournament, held at the home of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The event will also include a skills competition a la the NHL’s All-Star festivities. For its inaugural year, Schwarzenegger is expected to make an appearance at the ice arena.

>>Kurt Angle Teen Challenge Wrestling icon Kurt Angle will host this three-day event for teens that will include strongman and strongwoman competitions, an athlete combine, and a coaching and training clinic. More than $5,000 in scholarship money will be given out by Angle over the weekend.

>>Bonus: New VIP package features The all-inclusive Arnold VIP ticket has always provided a great experience for bodybuilding fans in Columbus, and this year it gets even better because the price remains the same ($350 each) while the perks increase. Additions to the package include a meet-and-greet with IFBB pro bodybuilders, a chance to win a lunch and photo with Schwarzenegger, and entry into a raffle to win free VIP tickets for 2012.

Muscle Still Matters

Long before it was called The Arnold Sports Festival, it was the Arnold Classic, and it consisted of little more than a bodybuilding competition. Today, bodybuilders make up a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of athletes competing in Columbus, but the Arnold Classic, Fitness International, Figure International and Ms. International (female bodybuilding) competitions remain the highlight of the weekend for many.

Kai Greene will seek to defend his 2010 Arnold Classic title over the likes of Phil Heath, Victor Martinez and the rest of the world’s top bodybuilders. Adela Garcia, Nicole Wilkins-Lee and Iris Kyle are also hoping for repeat winning performances from last year in the Fitness, Figure and Ms. International events, respectively. Also included at The Arnold are amateur bodybuilding, fitness and figure competitions, where the country’s hottest young physique stars will give fans a glimpse of the sport’s future.

So whatever your reason for coming to Columbus for the 2011 Arnold Sports Festival — be it the bodybuilding, the Expo or to watch a friend or family member compete — you’re sure to find a host of other activities to enjoy. The only downside to a weekend offering so many options? There are way too many sports to see them all.

The Arnold Sports Festival

Dates: March 3-6, 2011

Location: Columbus, Ohio; Greater Columbus Convention Center (400 North High St.); Veterans Memorial (300 West Broad St.); Nationwide Arena and Dispatch Ice Haus (200 West Nationwide Blvd.); and The LC Pavilion (405 Neil Ave.)

Hours: Thursday, 7-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Expo hours: Friday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission: A $10 Expo ticket provides admission to most events and the Expo.

For more information: arnoldsportsfestival.com

Tickets: ticketmaster.com/arnold or (800) 745-3000