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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

FRANCO COLUMBU — Bodybuilding’s Best Friend

By now the bodybuilding community, and the wider world in general, know that Franco Columbu has died. For the non-bodybuilding fan Columbu’s name would not be immediately recognisable. His death was only news because his life-long friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, tweeted a heartfelt and moving tribute to him. For that wider audience, it was an interesting moment — an insight into Arnold’s life and personality — and then they move on. There is plenty of other news to read. For the bodybuilding fan however, especially those of us who are a little older and have long been interested in the bodybuilding world, the news was a genuine shock. I was texting my friend American Matt about it, and he said, “He wasnt just Arnold’s best friend, he was bodybuilding’s best friend”. I have to admit at that moment I thought that statement was a little trite, typically American, but thinking about it more deeply,I now realise that that is totally true! 

Big American Matt — posing with me, and making my lovely daughter Octavia look tiny!  Why is Franco so loved by the bodybuilding world? There are so many reasons! He is one of a half dozen or so bodybuilders that represent the Golden Age of bodybuilding. The sort of men who’s place in the bodybuilding world is so secure that they need only be known by single names. Arnold! Franco! Sergio! Louie! Zane! They are all giants of bodybuilding and Franco was right up there with them — pioneers — creating a whole new way of being a bodybuilder.  

Franco, Arnold, Zane and Louie. What an incredible line-up!! We admire Franco because he won against all the odds. Five foot four inches tall and not particularly blessed with great bodybuilding genetics, he nonetheless — through hard work and dedication — achieved it all in bodybuilding. Even though his height was a disadvantage on the stage, he used it to his advantage away from competition, as it allowed him to appear friendly and approachable, not threatening in the way someone like Ferrigno could sometimes look. He had amazing tenacity, coming back from a very serious injury to complete in and win his second Mr Olympia title in 1981. During the inaugural World’s Strongest Man competition in 1978, Franco fell while running with a fridge on his back, he collapsed after suffering a horrific double-joint dislocation in his left leg. Undeterred, three long years of rehabilitation ensued, culminating in Franco’s second Mr Olympia title.  

Against all the odds, Franco won the 1981 Mr Olympia contest. As with many sports people of previous eras, who’s natural ability allowed them to excel in more than one discipline or sport, Franco was not limited to being just a bodybuilder. He had enormous strength, and apart from the pure powerlifting movements, (especially the Deadlift) he loved to use his strength in everyday life too. That famous scene in Pumping Iron where he deadlifted the FIAT into a tight parking space typified his fun way of celebrating his fantastic gifts. He used to bend iron bars and could even blow-up and burst a hot-water bottle! This amazing feat requiring significant lung capacity as well as chest and abdominal strength to master. I can hardly blow up a balloon without feeling all light-headed! 

Franco lived life and used his amazing gift of strength to live it to the full!  In the many years I have been involved in the bodybuilding world, never have I read or heard anything nasty or mean coming from Franco. He has had his fair share of controversy that’s true, his second Olympia win was pretty contentious, but he never sniped back at his opponents. He was always such a lovely, generous and happy man. But mostly, we loved him for his friendship with Arnold. There are endless photos of Arnold and Franco, (Always that way round by the way, no one ever says Franco and Arnold!) and they always show two like-minded men, whether they were training or hanging out, 50 years ago or now, Arnold and Franco always had fun, always had each other’s backs, and always strived to achieve their very best. Even though they were competitors for many years, they never fell out or fought, there was no jealousy, only a delight in how well the other was doing. We all (well did) watched these two friends and felt that we would love to be their friend too! You knew an adventure would not be far away!!  

Arnold and Franco — a very special friendship.  This post is not a biography, an account of Franco’s achievements in life, it is just a tribute, an acknowledgement that I, along with countless other bodybuilders around the world, admired and even loved him, an opportunity to reflect on the type of man he was and the way that he lived his life. And it was a life well lived, to the full and with joy. He was an inspiration to us all.

Goodbye Franco, and thank you! We will all miss you!

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