In an engaging chat with Chris Wilson, Ben Tatar reflects on the profound impact of COVID-19 on the Arnold Sports Festival, underscoring the community’s shock and resilience.
The unexpected cancellation of the Arnold Expo and spectator restrictions highlighted the pandemic’s reach, sparking a swift pivot to virtual engagement.
Tatar touches on historical precedents, the community’s adaptability, and the potential future of the Arnold in a post-pandemic world, offering a glimpse into the broader effects of the crisis on sports and communal events.
What are your thoughts on the COVID-19 coronavirus impacting this year’s Arnold and the reactions by competitors and fans?
Ben Tatar: Personally, my dad was telling me for weeks before March that there was a strong possibility the Arnold Expo could get canceled. My parents are intuitive.
I watched the reaction of fans around the world after the expo was canceled and spectators were banned from the events. Fans from around the globe were freaking out! This just tells you how much the fans love the Arnold weekend!
But it wasn’t just the Arnold, for the first time ever events around the world got canceled in record number. Large and small businesses are way down.
At the time of writing this article, people are being quarantined on cruise ships and festivals around the world are canceled while they’re banning Americans from traveling to Europe.
The NBA, NHL MLS, PGA golf, and MLB have all been suspended. Individual events like track, wrestling, any Olympic sport and high school sporting events have been canceled. I just heard that March Madness has been canceled for the first time in its history.
Disney World has been canceled. I’m talking mostly sports and entertainment here, but this is affecting families in all different kind of ways. The latest news I have just heard is that many schools have been suspended for the next month. They will probably be canceled for the year.
I’m sure more updates will take place long after this interview is published!
We haven’t had an event that would have canceled expos since 1918 with the Spanish flu. The Olympia and the Arnold has never been canceled. Disasters and tragedies are a part of life and maybe we have been so fortunate to not have faced such issues before this year’s ASF. It goes to show you can’t take anything for granted and how fortunate we have been.
A few of my friends were already in Columbus before the cancelation even happened. Many had a pretty good time. How you ask? In Columbus you have some of the most hardcore gyms in the world. A lot of my weight lifting friends went to Westside Barbell, Elitefts, Lexen, The Spot, Pinnacle Performance, and Powerhouse gym.
There also were the single ticket finals. Some attended a few of the strength competitions as family members/coaches to some of the lifters.
Most of the best powerlifters would go out for meals and unite. Some of them like Ryan Kennelly knew, despite the adversities of the Arnold weekend, a good time was still the only option.
After the event was over, the Arnold had an online expo. I believe, in the future, supplement companies will have virtual expos to do business year-round as well as at LIVE events like the Arnold Expo.
Check out the new Arnold Virtual Expo: https://arnoldvirtualexpo.com
How do you see the future of the Arnold? Do you think this year’s COVID-19 Coronavirus will mostly impact it in a positive or in a negative way?
BT: As Arnold said at the end of the Arnold Sunday Showcase, “I will be back.” The Arnold is scheduled to return to Columbus Ohio on Thursday March 1st of 2021!
I hope the event will be even bigger and better. The fans will be fired up. The fact that we didn’t have a 2020 expo just adds that much more hype for next Arnold!
The Arnold friends are missing their friends that much more, and they want to see the events they missed this past year! All these questions and MORE will be answered next year!
I believe that this year’s Arnold adversity will be a storyline to make the next Arnold even better! Plus, there is that much more time to prepare to make the next Arnold amazing! I’m already excited for the next Arnold.
The Arnold USA has a contract to be in Columbus until 2023. However, I think it will last longer because of the friendships built there. There are always conventions in other places and the Arnold has become an international event at places such as: the Arnold Australia, Seville Spain, and Johannesburg South Africa.
The Arnold Australia and South America event have been postponed. They have had the Arnold in Rio Brazil. There are other fitness events such as the Fibo in Germany, the Olympia in Vegas and now American conventions happening all over the world.
However, the Columbus Arnold USA is definitely by far the most liked fitness event in the world! When it comes to the best athletes, the most competitions, the highest level of competitions, the most booths, the best booths, the most stars, models and energy, the other events don’t compete.
So, moving on from the coronavirus, what ‘ten things’ would you like to see occur at next year’s Arnold?
BT: With all the adversity going on around the world with the coronavirus, I really hope and can’t wait to see everything return to next year’s usual awesomeness at the Arnold. These events include:
The Fitness EXPO, The Kids Expo, Pro fitness/Figure/Classic Physique/ Wellness, 5K Pump and Run, Arm Lifting, Arm Wrestling, Arnold Education, Art, Bodypainting, Crossfit, Lifestyle Fitness& Yoga, Fencing, Foosball, Grappling, Jump Rope, Kettlebell, Fitness, Rogue Record Breakers, Strongman/woman (Pro& Am,) Scottish Highland Games, Spartan, Sunday Showcase, Ultimate Teen Challenge, World’s Strongest Teen, USA Powerlifting, Weightlifting, WPO Powerlifting, XPC Powerlifting, XPC Sling Shot show, Youth DanceSport, Arnold SportsWorld Kids& Teen EXPO, Baton Twirling, Cheerleading& Dance, Fustal, Gymnastics, Martial Arts Festival, IFBB Meet& Greet, Table Tennis, Wolf Pack Train Run, Ninja Warrior, Model Search, Art at the Arnold, Mas Wrestling, Pickleball, Swimming, 50+ DanceSport, Soccer, Fencing, Yoga, experience Arnold, The Arnold Hall of Fame, NFL Hall of Fame, Axe Throwing, Foosball, Disco Golf, Express LIVE, every sport/ competition at the Kids& Teens Expo, and the constant entertainment extravaganza’s surrounding around Arnold Weekend.
As you can see, there are more events going on during Arnold weekend than there are at the Olympics. I would also like to see the following ‘ten things’ occur:
- The return of Athletes from over 80 different Nations, 22,000 athletes, 250,000 fans and over 1000 booths. Of course, without COVID-19 or any new pandemics.
- The return of the Arnold Pop Culture. (One on one time and photos with Arnold, plus various stars.) Also, the debut of the Arnold’s Legend Experience.
- I would like to see the current world records get broken. I would also like to see the debut of the World’s Strongest Teen, the return of the Animal Cage, the NFL Hall of Fame, or a new record set in any of the strength competitions.
- This year was the much-anticipated debut of medieval fighting. I would like to see medieval fighting and other new events enter the Arnold Experience.
- I would like to see The Phil Heath MakeItFit event for Autism comeback. If Phil can’t make it, I would like to see other charity events occur.
- I would like to see the return of something like the old MegaBash party.
- I also like the Kids Expo on Saturday as all the stars are there and it’s a great event for kids/ families of all ages.
- I can’t wait to see the lifters with disabilities go at it again. They are so inspiring! What does Miles Davis (the deadlift World Record Holder with cerebral palsy,) and new inspirations have for us next year?
- I can’t wait to see all my friends who have been in the industry since day one! Also, the new friends who enter the Arnold Sports Festival family.
- I can’t wait to see all the new entertainment and strength challenges the booths bring. Sometimes it’s a surprise, but it’s always a blast.
What were you most excited about leading up to this year’s Arnold?
BT: I was excited about so many things but I’ll zero on my personal top 5 features:
It was a year for the freaks. All my former “king of freak champions” were going to attend this year’s Arnold. If there was a year that was about “the king of monsters,” the 2020 Arnold was it. It would have been the first time they all have mingled with each other all at the same time. Some examples of these individuals include Ed Russ, Frank Budelewski, Ryan Kennelly, Julius Maddox, Tiny Meeker and others.
The Arnold pop culture. I was excited to take professional photos with Arnold Schwarzenegger for my Report.
All my friends from GLC2000 and all the booths as we party together! I was looking forward to seeing friends from all around the world.
The new company and Arnold Sponsor, Reigns. The Arnold was definitely going to have a new feel this year! All my friends were also pumped for Reigns.
-Obviously, the main expo with over one thousand vendors and the kids expo.
What are your three favorite ASF Events?
BT: My three favorite events are:
- When it comes to competitions, the Strongman competition is usually the best. So many new world records are broken and they always put on the best events.
- The Powerlifting because of all the World Records and the intensity.
- Finally, the Expo is my favorite, but that’s where so many things take place!
The Expo is huge and has the best of the best. You can have anything from Jerry Rice with the GOAT energy booth, to the best models/ lifters/ athletes from around the world.
There are a lot of “out of this world” entertainment that the expo provides. Childhood heroes of mine attend like Mark Coleman to new and old friends. The Expo is definitely the most popular.
What do you think was the most impressive performance of the weekend?
BT: The most impressive performance was when Julius Maddox bench pressed 770lbs raw! That was so insane!
When the Arnold became the Arnold Sports Festival back in 2006, the raw bench press world record was 711lbs by James Henderson. Maddox is benching more today RAW than what the top bench pressers were benching with the assistance of a bench press shirt back in the 90s.
Now let’s compare today, 2020 to the year 2000! In 2000, Glen Chabot won the Arnold with a 722lbs bench press with a bench press shirt. In 2020 (twenty years later,) we have Julius Maddox bench pressing 770lbs raw. Isn’t that amazing? It’s also great seeing older greats like Tiny Meeker and Ryan Kennelly becoming friends of the new greats.
Some other honorable mentions:
Mateusz Kieliszwoski had an incredible strongman feat. He tore his biceps last fall and made history with the stones in 53 seconds.
Tom Stoltman was the first man to ever load a 600lbs atlas stone!
During the strategic dumbbell press, Kiliszkowski set a world record with 320lbs!
I remember Mark Henry did 173lbs with one arm with a much thicker dumbbell back in 2002 called Thomas inch dumbbell. The dumbbell was two and a half inches in diameter.
I would say the strongman of today like Mountain would beat the 2002 strongman competitors by a lot. Mountain won the 2020 Strongman competition. He has now won his last three strongman competitions in a row!
Blaine Sumner squats 1135lbs and sets an IPF record. That was very impressive.
The bodybuilding was epic. William Bonac “The Conqueror, “won his second Arnold in three years. Dexter Jackson has won five Arnold’s and I always see him at the booths. He has been competing in the Arnold main event going back to 1999.
Big Ramy is good for the sport in the sense that he keeps the “freak,” mentality alive. He competes at 300lbs and won the first ever Franco Columbu award! I think the Franco Columbu award definitely adds to the Arnold experience because now you have the champion for overall/symmetry/posing, but also a most muscular bodybuilding award as well.
Steve Kuclo won the first Arnold Brazil and he has worked for different companies over the year such as All Max and BSN. Sergio Olivia and Cedric McMillan competed and have left a mark in the bodybuilding universe.
It’s great to see the top lifters from different eras become friends with each other. I think the whole Arnold community is great like that. There are so many greats with big hearts. It was definitely a record shattering weekend.
What was the highlight of the event based on the outcomes? Any big underdog victories or “feel good” comeback stories?
BT: The only events that were open to spectators this year were the Saturday night single ticket finals. Here are the top five results for each Saturday night event:
1ST place: William Bonac
2nd place: Dexter Jackson.
3rd place: Mamdough Elssbiay
(famously known as Big Ramsey)
4th place: Stephen Kuclo
5th place: Sergio Olivia Jr.
1st place: Hafthor Bjornsson (Mountain)
2nd place: Mateusz Kieliszkowski
3rd place: Martins Licis
4th place: Jean-Francois Caron
5th place: Oleksii Novikov
WHEEL CHAIR BODYBUILDING:
1st place: Harold Kelly
2nd place: Antoni Khadraoui
3rd place: Bradley Betts
4th place: Johnny Quinn
1st place: Andre Ferguson
2nd place: Brandon Henrickson
3rd place: Steven Cao
4th place: George Brown
5th place: Carlos DeOliveira
1st place: Elisa Pecini
2nd place: Angelica Teixeira
3rd place: Janet Layug
4th place: Priscila Leimbacher
5th place: Etila Santiago Santos
Some of the other competition winners:
Men’s Bodybuilding- Fabio Rezende
Classic Physique- Faban Mayr
Men’s Physique- Drelyn Hunt
Women’s Physqiue- Ana Harias
Fitness- Amanda Ciani
Figure- Anita Davis
Masters figure- Lynn Centino
Bikini- Gabrielle Messias
Masters Bikini- Yeirfer Zerpa
Wellness- Francielle Mattos
I would say Dexter Jackson competing at fifty and coming in second was a great story. William “The Conqueror” Bonac made a comeback after placing second last year.
The wheel chair bodybuilders always have great stories.
Seeing bodybuilders like Morgan Aste evolve every year or Zerpa Yeirfer who trains and eats completely differently than her boyfriend Tiny Meeker (first and only man to ever bench press over 1,100lbs,) is quite the story.
I think the bottom line is at THIS level, YOU NEED A BIG STORY TO BE ON THIS BIG STAGE!
How would you compare the modern-day Arnold to the beginning days of the Arnold Sports Festival? In what ways are they mostly the same and in what ways are they mostly different?
BT: One day I may write a book about the Arnold Sports Festival. Right now, I will compare how they are different:
Today the Arnold is way more organized and has a lot more going on! Many things can be viewed online in advance. It’s easier to use time productively due to the high level of its organization.
Certain things have changed greatly since the Arnold first began in 1989. In the 1990s, it was way smaller and the events were contained in Veterans Memorial.
The Arnold Sports Festival emerged in 2006. I remember in 2006, they had events like Sumo Wrestling, Figure Skating and Hockey Skills competition. Today there are far more events. The Events that had the best turn out in the past, still remain.
The supplements have changed.
For example, in 2006, they had supplements like Blocker, VAULT, NitroBolic Extreme, Lumatol AC, No-Explode, Cell Mass, Beverly International and 17HD. In recent years, those supplement companies don’t go anymore.
Currently, they organize supplements in Diamond, Gold, Silver and Bronze Sponsor categories. Some of the people have changed. For instance, back in 2006 we had Little Hercules at the booths or Matt Hasselbeck from the Seattle Seahawks.
However, we have loyal stars like Paul Levesque who is famously known as Triple H. Triple H was at the first ASF event and we took a picture together! He was just awarded “The 2020 LifeTime Achievement Award,” during the 2020 Arnold Sports Festival. Congratulations Triple H!
Now, here are five advantages of the Arnold TODAY and five advantages of the back in the beginning days of the ASF event:
Celebrities: Now you can see a celebrity without waiting in a three-hour line. They now have events like the Arnold Pop Culture/ or the Arnold Legends experience which didn’t exist before.
At the Arnold Pop Culture, you buy a photoshoot with a celebrity of your choice at a scheduled time. In addition, you can go to the kid’s expo and see many celebrities all at the same time and place.
The Arnold scheduled all of the Arnold Hall Of Fame abductees at the kid’s expo. This saves time and allows you to do everything else you want to do. Years ago, the option was to wait in a long line at unknown times.
Friendships: When I think of the Arnold 15 years ago, so much of everything was “Can you get me into a magazine?”
Location Organization: Everything is organized. Do you want to avoid the Saturday crowds? Head over to the kid’s expo, CrossFit, powerlifting or any event of your choice. The examples are endless.
More Booths, Fans, and Everything: Today there are over 250,000 fans and over 1000 booths.
More Competitions and Variety of Products: The products today are much more creative and interesting. There are far more competitions such as disco golf, foosball, pickle ball and over eighty others. In addition, the Arnold Expo now has three different big stages. The Arnold has figured out ways to stay fresh and evolve.
With that all said, there was nothing quite like the WPO era of bench pressing on the main Arnold stage! The equipped powerlifters and fans really miss it.
There were more celebrities in lobbies of the hotel and more night time parties. For example, years ago you could party with Bones Jones, John Cena, Carmen Electra, Ray Lewis and Hulk Hogan in the main lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel.
Since it was more of a booming magazine era period of time, I think that motivated some people. People were constantly exchanging business cards, looking to get published in every magazine or television show. My experience is that many people who were only caring about publicity didn’t last.
The mysterious factor—Before Facebook/iPhones existed, many people didn’t really know what the Arnold was! They couldn’t watch the events online or see parts of the expo online. Everything was new! The expos were also not happening all over the world at a frequent rate. The Arnold was more like a secret paradise.
It was more hardcore- The crowd was stronger and there were fewer events. The hardcore crowd perceives the addition of many events to be watering things down. They like seeing less to highlight the hardcore components of the industry. Today health is paramount and more non lifting related events makes the Arnold an event that all walks of life can enjoy.
As far as what remains consistent at the Arnold…
First, I will add at the 2020 Arnold event celebrities like Frank Shamrock, Forrest Griffin, Eddie George, Rocky Bleier, HHH and Randy Couture were major celebrity attractions. I was seeing and hanging with all of them at the 2011 Arnold! Some other ways the Arnold is the same:
- Champions are made! Doesn’t matter the year, there are always champions!
- Freaks and Models—There are freaks and models everywhere!
- Friendships that last forever—past or present, the friends you make at the Arnold are often friends for life.
- The excitement of everyone there- there is always an aura at the Arnold that you can’t get anywhere else.
- Celebrities/Pro Athletes/ Inspirations from people with disabilities.
I will also add there are more champions and more of everything today. The Arnold expands in all these areas whether it’s the disability competitions or the level of performances every single year!
With all this said, I like the new era of the Arnold. I wouldn’t go back and bring the old Arnold back. However, I might bring some old friends from the old Arnold back into the new Arnold!
What lessons have you learned about the models/ freaks/ and Arnold fans in regards to the way the event has evolved each year?
BT: I have learned that the fans often attend for life! I have so many friends who started going to the Arnold back in 1989 when it first began. They still continue to go every year! I have many older friends of the Arnold who introduce the event to their kids, nephews, grandkids or much younger friends of theirs.
Some of the older fans have their daughters work the booths or have their kids compete. The fans have a lot of respect from me for their passion and loyalty to the event. This is one of many reasons why the event grows in popularity in addition to the event expanding each year.
For the models? I have discovered many models don’t last for a long time. Some of the booths have new model searches every year. Some booths don’t return every year. There are a lot of reasons why the models don’t return. I have some model friends who have always been fans and have been going since they were little kids.
For the freaks? I have found the freaks to last! I have also found the celebrities to last. Many are fans of the event for decades to life. They might or might not return every year, but they love the Columbus gyms, the Arnold competitions and the Expo. They enjoy the friends they have made over the years and seeing the best in the world.
I have enjoyed making friends with the models, freaks and fans over the years.
What are you MOST excited about for NEXT year’s ASF?
BT: I really can’t wait for next year’s Arnold especially after this year’s adversity. There will be a magical feeling being able to know everything is back with surprises that haven’t even been thought of yet. A lot of things have been missed and having everything return with extras will make for a very special experience.
I would like to give special thanks to you Chris for the interview. I’m glad to see so much positive history was made during some of the competitions that happened during the 2020 Arnold. The historic moments will always be remembered. I can’t wait for the next Arnold! I will see you all there!