'Chaos' Inside Arnold Sports Festival As Competitions Begin Without Spectators

Mar 5, 2020

It’s been a chaotic couple of days for the Arnold Sports Festival. First came word the expo was cancelled and spectators would be limited to a few competitions, then festival organizers said fans could come watch.

Hours later, the state laid down the law: No spectators for most events after all. The back-and-forth has left fans frustrated and confused.

Matthew Scott, a trainer from Cincinnati, was among dozens of people waiting in line at the Greater Columbus Convention Center to buy tickets Thursday morning.

“The last report is that we will have spectators, so there are actually people traveling on the road right now to be here to watch,” Scott says. “I’m about to message them now, ‘This just in: No spectators allow,’ as we’re here trying to get the tickets.”

Travis Todd came from Ashland Kentucky to watch his wife compete.

“It’s not available on TicketMasters app,” Todd says. “It was before for the Arnold NPC amateur today at noon, and now it’s saying it’s not on there.”

Todd argues that concerns over the coronavirus is overblown.

“I think more people die of the flu every year than what they’ve had cases in the United States so far,” Todd says. “And they’re not cancelling every sporting event, concert, or other gathering of people all over the United States so I don’t know why they’re doing this.”

“An Unacceptable Risk”

Inside the convention center, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Daniel Ketchell, chose the backdrop of the massive expo hall for a press conference Thursday morning. The space was largely empty save for a few workers packing up boxes.

“As you can see behind me, we have shut down the expo, which attracts the greatest mass of people,” Ketchell said. “We are taking coronavirus incredibly seriously.”

Daniel Ketchell, Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, stands in the convention center's massive expo hall.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU

Ketchell says the Arnold gave up the annual trade show – which draws a crowd of 200,000 people – willingly. But event organizers said they felt the governor and health department took things too far by banning spectators at the competitions.

“We did try to fight to allow fans to come and watch sporting events, because sporting events are going on all over Ohio right now that are not cancelled,” Ketchell said. “And I would say to those fans that I’m really sorry. This is beyond our control. This is a decision made by the department of health and we have to abide by that.”

Ketchell says usually about 4,000 spectators watch their competitions, most of whom are from the Ohio area. But he doesn’t mention the estimated 22,000 athletes at the festival, many of whom come from around the world.

Ketchell asked why spectators were allowed at the Cleveland Cavaliers game this week, which draws an average crowd of 17,000 people.

At a press conference across town, Gov. Mike DeWine defended the state’s decision to issue a public health order prohibiting spectators at all events other than the finals.

“It is different than a basketball game where people come show up stay for a few hours and leave,” DeWine said Thursday.

The governor said the health department’s order was in line with the CDC’s recent guidelines about large gatherings.

“The Arnold is a unique event,” DeWine said. “It is unique because we have people from 80 countries coming. It is unique because some of those countries of course are on the list of caution or on the list as prohibited. It’s a unique event. We have to be able to assure the safety of the people of Columbus and Ohio.”

If someone were sick at a ticketed event like a basketball game, for example, the health department would be able to find out where that person sat and track those who were nearby. The Arnold is largely general admission, making that process significantly more difficult.

“Life is full off risk. Everyone takes a risk when you go into any kind of crowd,” DeWine said. “But this is just a different risk. It’s an unacceptable risk."

Fans wait in line for tickets at the Arnold Sports Festival, despite state officials prohibiting spectators for most events.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU

Chaos In The Convention Center

Competitions began on schedule Thursday, the first day of the event. About 100 people gathered to watch, and no one checked for tickets.

“I feel like it’s chaos honestly, there’s no order to anything going on right now,” said Victoria Santarelli, who stood behind Todd in line.

Santarelli saw Ketchell walk by and chased after him.

“So is it absolutely not?” she asked.

“No,” he replied, “unless people are parents who can prove they’re parents of minors with an ID, no one is allowed. It’s beyond our control. Sorry guys, we’re probably more upset than you are.

Visibly annoyed, Santarelli returned to her friends with the bad news.

“It’s just crazy that they’re going to wait until the very last second to decide that when they have known the virus is spreading,” she said. “They could have made this decision further out.”

The Arnold Sports Festival is scheduled to last through Sunday, March 8.

No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Ohio yet, although three people are currently under investigation by the Department of Health.

The Ohio Department of Health makes the following recommendations to protect yourself from illness:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; dry hands with a clean towel or air dry hands. 
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable. 
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. 
  • Stay home when you are sick. 
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.