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Two-time Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu tragically died on August 30. Columbu, 78, was vacationing in his native Sardinia, Italy when he suddenly became ill while swimming, and eventually he was pronounced dead at a local hospital. He now becomes the third Mr. Olympia to shuttle off this mortal coil, following the deaths of Sergio Oliva and Larry Scott in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Columbu is survived by his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Maria.
At 5’5″, Columbu is the shortest-ever Mr. Olympia, but his height didn’t stop him from carving out a giant legacy in the more than 50 years he graced the bodybuilding landscape. He listed his competitive bodyweight as being 185 pounds, but many feel that was an overstatement. Nevertheless, he was revered for his extraordinary strength: he reportedly bench pressed 525 pounds, deadlifted 750 pounds, and squatted 665 pounds.
Of all the 15 Mr. Olympias, Columbu probably had the most humble beginnings. He was born on August 7, 1941, in Ollolai, on the island of Sardinia, Italy, to parents who were shepherds—a trade Columbu transitioned into at 11. In his teens, he took up boxing but later changed direction to solely lift weights both as a powerlifter and bodybuilder.
By 1965, the 24-year-old had moved to Munich, Germany, to look for better job prospects and to further his gym aspirations. The gym he joined was managed by Albert Busek, renowned photographer, who would become president of the German bodybuilding federation and publisher of the German FLEX and Muscle & Fitness. In 1966, Arnold Schwarzenegger relocated to the same Munich gym and the two struck up an instant friendship. Columbu, Busek, and Schwarzenegger became lifelong and devoted friends, the triumvirate only being broken by the Sardinian Samson’s death.
When Joe Weider enabled Schwarzenegger to move to California in 1968, the 7-time Mr. Olympia lobbied Joe to move Columbu to California. Schwarzenegger gave Joe the impression that the 5’5” Columbu was of similar size to his own 6’2”, 240-pound self. He told the Master Blaster, “Franco can deadlift 700 pounds, he’s a magnificent specimen. He pushes me so hard he makes me better.”
Joe acquiesced and Columbu arrived stateside. After anticipating a Schwarzenegger clone, when Joe first saw Columbu, he is reputed to have said, “What happened, he got caught in the rain?”
Over the next few decades, Schwarzenegger and Columbu became bodybuilding’s best known double act, mixing fun and tomfoolery with their gym activities as they personified the Golden Era that played out during the ’70s in the hallowed ground of Gold’s Gym, Santa Monica.
Columbu began competing in bodybuilding contests in 1966 and over the next few years regularly entered the NABBA and IFBB contests. He entered his first Olympia in 1972, finishing fifth, and was runner-up in 1973. In 1974 and 1975, he won the under 200 pounds division at the Olympia but lost to over 200 pounds winner, Schwarzenegger, for the Olympia title.
With Schwarzenegger retiring in 1975, Columbu was made one of the favorites for the 1976 Olympia and he delivered. He recalls that moment: “The feeling of being announced Mr. Olympia was so incredible that at the moment of victory I jumped about three feet in the air. Then I had to take a big deep breath to think about what I had done. What I had done was get to the top, top, top, top!”
In 1977, Columbu entered The World’s Strongest Man contest. One of the lifts involved transporting a refrigerator on his back. Unfortunately, Columbu tripped and dislocated his left kneecap. Despite the injury, he finished fifth but it kept him out of bodybuilding competition until 1981.
1977 was also the year Columbu attained his qualifications as a chiropractor, which became his profession upon retirement from bodybuilding in 1981. In 1979, he authored Weight Training and Bodybuilding: A Complete Guide for Young Athletes.
Columbu returned to competition at the 1981 Mr. Olympia, which was being promoted by Schwarzenegger in Columbus, Ohio. He won, but the decision caused a storm of controversy, as the general view was that Danny Padilla or Tom Platz should have beaten him. It was to be his last contest, and it’s a pity that such an effervescent character should call it a day on such a sour note.
As we remember a great champion, it is fitting that we leave the last word to his best friend. Schwarzenegger concluded his published eulogy as follows:
“I am devastated today. But I am also so, so grateful for the 54 years of friendship and joy we shared. The pumps, the chess games, the construction work, the meals, the pranks, the life lessons – we did it all together. We grew and we learned and we loved. My life was more fun, more colorful, and more complete because of you.
“I love you Franco. I will always remember the joy you brought to my life, the advices you gave me, and the twinkle in your eye that never disappeared. You were my best friend.