Meet Franco Columbu, Former Mr. Olympia And Friend Of Arnold Schwarzenegger
Franco Columbu came from a family of rural Italian shepherds, but became an international star after winning multiple Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles.
As far as bodybuilders go, Franco Columbu was never the biggest man on the scene. When he placed fifth in the inaugural World’s Strongest Man competition in 1977, the top four competitors weighed him by at least 100 pounds.
However, the Italian bodybuilder’s name is among the most prominent in the world of bodybuilding, perhaps second only to a man he considered a friend: the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two met at a competition in Munich in 1965 and became such good friends that Columbu served as Schwarzenegger’s best man at his wedding to Maria Shriver in 1986.
Throughout his life, Columbus served many roles – shepherd, mason, boxer, bodybuilder, movie star – proving that there was much more to the man than his muscles.
Franco Columbu tragically died after he said he felt unwell while swimming off the coast of San Teodoro, Sardinia. But while Columbus himself is dead, his legacy lives on.
This is the life of Franco Columbu, one of the strongest men in history.
How Franco Columbu turned from a shepherd to a bodybuilder
Francesco Maria Columbu was born on August 7, 1941, to Antonio Columbu and Maria Grazia Sedda, shepherds living in the small mountain village of Ollolai in Sardinia.
Although looking at the man he grew into might make it hard to believe, Columbus was actually quite a small, weak child—one who often got into fights as a child for the sake of fun, even when he got more hits than he was getting.
As The New York Times reported after Columbu’s death, the bodybuilder said in a 1982 interview, “I’ve always been thin. Until the age of 11, I was beaten a lot. Then one day, I started beating people. No one could touch me.”
He grew up herding sheep and throwing bricks in his mountainous homeland, but spent most of his free time at the gym – a 10-mile bike ride from his home – where he trained as a boxer, dreaming of glory and stars. Columb’s early wins saw him leave Italy to train in Munich and he won 30 fights before retiring from the sport.
“Boxing is very hard on your face and your head,” Columbu said of his departure. Instead, he began to focus his efforts on weightlifting and bodybuilding – and in 1965, he met another famous bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he would form a lifelong friendship.
The lifelong friendship of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu
In a Medium post after Franco Columbu’s death, bodybuilder, actor and former politician Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote to his friend: “From the moment we met in Munich, you were my partner in crime. We pushed each other, we raced each other and we laughed every moment along the way.”
“When I finally got to America, I was alone. I had left behind my family, my country, my whole life,” he continued. “So when I asked Joe Weider to bring you to train with me, it was because I knew I wasn’t the same without my best friend. I could thrive without money, without my parents, but I couldn’t thrive without you.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger eventually went on to have a successful career in film and politics, but his friend Columbu was never far away. In fact, the two were famously featured in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, a bodybuilding film that features a scene in which Columbu lifts a machine. The film also featured other strong men like Lou Ferrigno, who once played the Hulk, and Mike Katz.
However, Beyond Pumping Iron, Columbu also had cameo roles in Schwarzenegger’s classic films Terminator, Predator, The Running Man and Conan the Barbarian.
His movie stardom never reached Schwarzenegger’s heights, but Columbu continued to play small roles well into his 70s, with his last film role in 2015’s One More Round.
Off-screen, Schwarzenegger and Columbu continued to compete in bodybuilding competitions, most notably the Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe contests—the former saw Schwarzenegger, the “Austrian Oak,” taking the title seven times and Columbu taking the title twice in 1976 and 1981.
After his death, Columbu also received public praise from another Hollywood star, Sylvester Stallone, whom he trained in preparation for his role as the titular Rocky Balboa in Rocky.
“The biggest and strongest bodybuilder I ever met has passed away … He taught me many things that I have applied throughout my life,” the actor said in a tweet. We will never have such a man again.”
How did Franco Columbus die?
In his later years, Columbus often worked as a licensed chiropractor and wrote a series of fitness books in addition to a memoir. In 2006, then-governor Schwarzenegger appointed him to the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners, and three years later, he was the recipient of the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award.
Then, in 2019, the 78-year-old Columbu, then a longtime resident of California, returned to his native Sardinia for vacation. However, as the Associated Press reported, Columbu’s journey home ended in unfortunate circumstances.
Several media reported different causes of death, with some saying that Columbus drowned in the ocean and others simply citing that he had an “accident at sea” while swimming. Both the AP and the New York Times, however, only wrote that Columbus fell ill while swimming in the ocean, just off the coast of San Teodoro Beach, on August 30, 2019.
From there, he was taken to John Paul II Hospital in the nearby city of Olbia, where he died, just 23 days after his 78th birthday.
Like Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, Columbu is often credited as one of the men responsible for helping bring the sport of bodybuilding into the mainstream. His presence on and off stage was undeniable and relatives remember him as a kind soul and an inspiration.
“I love you Franco,” wrote Schwarzenegger. “I will always remember the joy you brought into my life, the advice you gave me and the twinkle in your eye that never went away. You were my best friend.”
After learning about the life of champion bodybuilder Franco Columbu, read the story of “Killer” Sally McNeil and the events that led her to kill her husband. Or, for another legendary figure from modern history, read about Betty Brosmer, the pinup star with the “impossible” waist.