Franco Columbu was considered to be one of the strongest men in the world. He was a bodybuilder, powerlifter, actor, and author who won the Mr. Olympia contest twice and also the Mr. Universe, Mr. World, Mr. International, Mr. Europe and Mr. Italy contests. He held several world powerlifting records, and his website states that he achieved a bench press of 525 pounds, a squat of 655 pounds, and dead lift of 750 pounds. These are incredible lifts for a man who was only 5'5" tall and weighed only 185 pounds. On August 30, 2019, at the young age of 78, he felt sick while swimming in Sardinia. He was taken by helicopter to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Various reports give the cause of his death as drowning or a heart attack.
Early Life and Career
Columbu was born during World War II in a small mountain town in Sardinia, Italy, to parents who were shepherds. In his early years, he worked as a shepherd and a bricklayer. He started to compete as a boxer in his teens and left Italy to train in Munich and won more than 30 matches. One day after he won a fight by knockout in the first round, he couldn't remember anything about the fight. He decided that it would be safer to compete in a sport in which he just lifted weights, and he soon became one of the strongest lifters in the world.
At age 24, he met Arnold Schwarzenegger in Munich at a bodybuilding competition. He competed in the under 200 pound division, while Schwarzenegger was in the over 200 pound level. They soon became very good friends and training partners. In 1969 an American entrepreneur, Joe Weider, invited Schwarzenegger and Columbu to come and train in America for $80 a week. They found out that they needed more money than that, so they started a bricklaying and patio business called European Brick Works. However, they learned that you can't have a job and also train for competition at a high level, so they gave up their business and spent all their time training.
As Schwarzenegger rose in popularity as a film star and politician, he remained close friends with Columbu and drew him into acting as well. Columbu's most notable film was Pumping Iron, a bodybuilding documentary that helped to grow the sport, with a memorable scene where he picked up a car and moved it so somebody could park his car in that space. His other movies with Schwarzenegger included The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, and The Running Man. In 1986, Columbu served as the best man at Schwarzenegger's marriage to Maria Shriver.
Columbu also worked as a trainer for other movie stars, such as Sylvester Stallone for the Rambo and Rocky movies. Columbu was graduated from the Cleveland Chiropractic College and practiced that profession from 1977 on. He encouraged injured athletes to get back into training as soon as was reasonable after an injury. At age 65, he was appointed to the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners by the then governor — Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Price of Success
Columbu wrote several books on bodybuilding that are still in print after more than 40 years. He described how he trained with weights two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Before a Mr. Olympia competition, he felt that he was not getting enough definition, so even though every muscle in his body was already sore, he trained even harder. He said, "I did look better, but I could barely walk and I was so sore that I couldn't go to the gym for two days." He won the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title at age 35 in 1976, and again in 1981.
In 1977, at age 36, he competed in the first World’s Strongest Man competition. While leading in the refrigerator race, in which the athletes ran downhill with a refrigerator strapped on their backs, he dislocated his leg and collapsed. Doctors took more than six hours in surgery to put his muscles, tendons and ligaments back in place. After the surgery he was told that he might never be able to walk normally, but three years later, he was competing again. The courts awarded him $1 million for his injury.
Cause of Death Not Known
I have not seen Columbu's medical records and do not know the cause of his death. However, he was one of the world's strongest men, did a prodigious amount of exercise, and was in very good shape at age 78. He was reported to have died after feeling ill while swimming. It is difficult to believe that one of the world’s fittest men would drown without another cause, and the most likely event would be a heart attack.
Body builders and athletes in other strength sports are known for their use of ergogenic drugs that can make their muscles grow larger, but have unfortunate long-term side effects of heart damage. While I have no evidence that this would apply to Columbu, a disproportionate number of these strength athletes have died of heart attacks. See:
Most medical authorities today recommend that you can reduce your risk for a heart attack by preventing inflammation with an anti-inflammatory lifestyle:
• eat lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and other seeds
• restrict sugar-added foods, drinks with sugar including fruit juices, meat from mammals and processed meats, and fried foods
• try to exercise daily
• avoid being overweight
August 7, 1941 – August 30, 2019