COLUMBUS, Ohio – Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), seven-time Mr. Olympia and first-term governor of California, pays his annual visit this weekend to the bodybuilding contest that bears his name.
But this year, his embrace of pumping iron has become politically problematic because of the unfolding steroid scandal in sports.
Bodybuilding "by virtually everyone's account is totally saturated, immersed with illegal drug use," said Charles Yesalis, a Pennsylvania State University professor who has written books on steroids (search). "His standing up there with them, I think, delivers a very, very inappropriate message."
Schwarzenegger was scheduled to arrive in Columbus on Friday for the Arnold Classic (search) to reconnect with adoring fans of the sport that made him famous. Instead of politics, the weekend is devoted to athletes and big muscles. But the issue of steroids is just below the surface.
The cavernous hall at Columbus' convention center included a booth that hawked protein supplements with the taunting slogan "Ban This." Nearby, a pair of lawyers advertised their expertise in steroid law while selling copies of a book titled "Legal Muscle."
At least one bodybuilder in this year's competition has admitted using steroids; another spent time in jail for a steroid-related offense. Last year, federal agents investigating steroids served grand jury subpoenas at the Arnold Classic.
California's governor acknowledges taking steroids as a competitor. Last weekend, Schwarzenegger said in an ABC interview that he opposes steroids now and dislikes the "huge monsters" they produce, but does not regret using the bodybuilding substances when they were still legal.
"It was a new thing," he said, "so you can't roll the clock back and say, `No, I would change my mind,' or anything, because for those days that's what we did."
California state Sen. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who wrote a bill Schwarzenegger vetoed last year that would have created a list of banned substances for school sports, said those comments amount to "a very unclear message and one that suggests, 'Do as I say, not as I do."'
"I would expect that he would be making much stronger statements than he's made," Speier said.
Schwarzenegger, undeterred by the critics as usual, remains the weekend's headliner, and has plenty of defenders here.
"In my book, at least he's being honest, he's being upfront," said fitness photographer Amir Marandi, whose booth displayed photos of bikini-clad women flexing their muscles. "I've got to respect that because politicians lie all the time."
A few yards away, New York lawyer Marc Gann, who was preparing his booth on steroid law, said: "He's trying to take a responsible approach to all of this and he's being criticized for a community that he was involved in many years ago, at a time when steroids were not criminal."
Federal officials are prosecuting an alleged steroid distribution ring in the San Francisco Bay area. Sluggers Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi have been implicated in the investigation in recent months, and major league baseball has taken a harder line on steroid use as a result.
In Columbus, Schwarzenegger fans and critics alike will be waiting to see whether he addresses bodybuilding's worst-kept secret. The governor planned to watch the women's finals Friday night and the awarding of the top men's prizes -- $100,000 and a Hummer -- on Saturday.
The fitness contest began as a much smaller bodybuilding competition that Schwarzenegger entered, and won, in 1970. He was so impressed with the event he promised organizer Jim Lorimer a partnership after he retired from competing.
He kept his promise, and the first Arnold Classic was held in Columbus in 1989. This year, 14,000 athletes will compete in 20 events. About 100,000 spectators are expected.
"It's where he came from," said Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson, "and he's proud of it."