So, which of these gentlemen is shaping up to be the next Prime Minister but one?

Eye witness: Mr Universe - Arnie is our hero, say contestants.
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The Independent Online

The governor of California was invited, but was otherwise engaged. Despite the absence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 2003 Mr Universe competition proceeded as usual yesterday, taking place neither in Sun City nor Las Vegas, but in the more homely setting of the Wyre Forest Glades Arena, Kidderminster's premier leisure centre.

This year, though, there was an extra buzz to the annual muscle-fest, entered by more than 200 men and women from around the world - the Miss Universe competition also took place - and supported by some 2,000 spectators. Mr Schwarzenegger, who must now reveal some hitherto well-hidden political muscle, once tweaked his biceps sufficiently to win the amateur Mr Universe title in 1967. In a biography that would make an interesting entry into Dod's Parliamentary Companion, he then secured the professional title three years in a row, from 1968 to 1970.

It could never happen here, of course; we have all sneered in the past few days. But what if, right here in Kidderminster, on a stage next door to the squash courts and indoor swimming pool, we were looking at our potential political leaders? Sean Connery, occasional champion of the SNP, is a past entrant, though he failed to impress.

Backstage, hamstrings were receiving a last-minute stretch, sweat was being wiped away with paint rollers and nerves were steadied with a swig of Chardonnay. There was also widespread admiration for Mr Schwarzenegger, notwithstanding the groping and alleged injudicious comments about Hitler. "I met him once and he is something of a hero to me," said Gilles Bellehumeur from Canada. "He was a real inspiration. His victory is good, because it shows that bodybuilding is not just about the arm but also about the head."

Corrie Bufton, from Newcastle, felt Mr Schwarzenegger should be given the benefit of the doubt. "There's one or two things that he probably shouldn't have done," he admitted. "But he came from a backyard stable in Austria and succeeded in probably the most disciplined sport there is."

Few in the bodybuilding community will have a word said against California's new governor, for he is widely credited with enhancing the sport's profile. "If it wasn't for him we wouldn't have bodybuilding as we know it," said Lionel Goldsworthy, a competitor from Illogan in Cornwall. "Until he came along there was no money and no prestige."

The women, too, tended to feel that Mr Schwarzenegger's contribution to bodybuilding was broadly positive. Lisa Mann, a competitor from Larne, declared: "I'm pleased for him. You have to be so dedicated in this sport, you must learn so much about diet and your body, you have to use your brain. It's not just to do with standing up there in a bikini."

On stage, the pre-judging was methodically working through the competitors, inviting them to perform short routines to background music that ranged from the Star Wars theme to "Nessun Dorma". Then they were called forward to show off their "abdominals and thighs" and, finally, "to produce their most muscular pose". Looking on was Jim Charles, event organiser, judge and spokesman for the National Amateur Body Builders' Association (Nabba).

The ultimate winners, he said, would be a mixture of "elephant and greyhound," adding that "it helps if they are good looking". Mr Charles regularly invites Mr Schwarzenegger to the event that set him on the road to success. Mr Charles, in fact, judged the youthful Arnie. "He was an 18-year-old from Austria and I was a 26-year-old international judge. He couldn't speak any English but it's been really something to watch him progress."

While Mr Charles believes politics is low on the bodybuilders' agenda, he does see parallels: "You have be to really driven, and rather selfish at the expense of your family life and friends to succeed," he said. "You must have something about you."

Mr Goldsworthy also preferred to take the long view: "There are people that live in the gym but there's more to life than lifting weights. I'm sure every subject comes up in the gym over the course of the year and everyone likes to solve the world's problems over the health juice. But I don't think it matters who you put into government. They can only do what they can with the resources they have."