VIENNA, Austria – Officials in Arnold Schwarzenegger's hometown of Graz quietly and under cover of darkness removed giant metal letters spelling out his name on a soccer stadium.
The California governor had asked for his name to be stricken from the 15,300-seat arena after critics in his birthplace, where opposition to capital punishment runs high, scorned him for refusing to block this month's execution of convicted killer Stanley Tookie Williams.
Late Sunday night or early Monday, authorities in the southern Austrian city unbolted the 20 letters spelling out the action star-turned-politician's name from Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium. They timed the work to take advantage of the Christmas lull to avoid attracting attention "and keep the media from taking photos," a local city hall official who declined to be named told Austrian television.
Capital punishment is illegal in Schwarzenegger's native Austria, where many people consider it barbaric. Opposition had run especially high in Graz, whose official slogan is "City of Human Rights."
After Williams' Dec. 13 execution triggered a firestorm in Europe and reignited calls for Graz's stadium to be stripped of Schwarzenegger's name, the governor opted for a pre-emptive strike: A week ago, he dashed off a letter to local officials ordering his name to be removed and said he was returning an ornate ring of honor that Graz officials gave him in 1999.
With the Hollywood star's name gone, the sign atop the main entrance to the stadium in Graz, about 120 miles south of Vienna, read simply, "Stadium Graz Liebenau," as it was known before it was renamed in Schwarzenegger's honor in 1997.
The overnight removal caught locals by surprise.
"Arnie banished from the stadium's name," the Graz daily Kleine Zeitung headlined Monday.
Calls to the city hall in Graz went unanswered on Monday, a national holiday.
Last week, Graz Mayor Siegfried Nagl wrote to Schwarzenegger urging him to reconsider his decision to cut ties to the city and to keep the ring. Nagl said he reassured Schwarzenegger that most local residents still admire him despite fierce opposition to his pro-death penalty stance.
Nagl said he was worried that severing ties to Schwarzenegger, one of Austria's most famous sons, potentially could cost the city millions in tourist revenue.
But the movement to scrap Schwarzenegger's name from the stadium, led by local officials of the pacifist Green Party, had gained momentum in recent weeks, and a majority of the city council in Graz was said to support the idea.
The ring arrived at Graz's city hall late last week, and officials were considering putting it on display at a local museum, Nagl told the weekly newspaper Die Woche.
Many Europeans have scorned the United States' use of capital punishment in general, and Schwarzenegger's refusal to grant clemency to convicts on California's death row in particular. They are now waiting to see how Schwarzenegger deals with the scheduled Jan. 17 execution of a 75-year-old inmate.
Schwarzenegger was born in 1947 in the village of Thal just outside Graz, where he began his bodybuilding career. He emigrated to the United States in 1968 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1984, but has retained his Austrian citizenship.
He remained quite popular in Austria, where he is known simply as "Arnie," and enjoyed a surge of celebrity after his 2003 election as governor. In July 2004, when Austria's post office issued a special postage stamp in his honor to coincide with his 57th birthday, the 600,000 stamps bearing his likeness sold out within a few days.
But many Austrians began to sour on him last January after he allowed California's first execution in three years to go forward.
Donald Beardslee, 61, was given a lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco. His Jan. 19 execution triggered protests in front of the U.S. Embassy in Vienna.