Sardinian town invokes Arnold Schwarzenegger link to give population a US boost | Italy

Ten American professionals are moving to a small town in the middle of Sardinia known for being the birthplace of a former Mr Universe who was a close friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, paying a token rent of €1 (86p) a month.

The project, called Work from Ollolai and launched by the local council in collaboration with the Sa Mata association, is aimed at boosting the population in the town, located in the mountainous Barbagia region of the Italian island.

The group will be able to live and work in Ollolai, a town of roughly 1,300 people, for as long as they want. Americans were picked for the initial phase of the project because of the town’s link to the US.

It is where Franco Columbu, a shepherd turned boxer who moved to California in the late 1960s before going on to win the Mr Europe and Mr Universe titles in 1970, was born. Columbu met Schwarzenegger at a bodybuilding competition in Germany in the mid-60s and the pair formed a lifelong friendship, with Columbu being best man at the actor and former California governor’s marriage to Maria Shriver.

The new inhabitants will live in homes supplied by the local council for just €1.

The initiative follows the successful sale of dilapidated homes for €1 launched in Ollolai a few years ago in a similar move to dozens of towns across Italy at risk of vanishing because of dwindling populations.

Other nationalities will eventually be eligible for the project, once a website dedicated to applications is established.

“Revitalising the town, improving the life of inhabitants and curbing depopulation are our objectives,” said Francesco Columbu, the mayor of Ollolai (no relation). “We believe ours is a nice place to live and work remotely, offering a lifestyle made up of nature, tranquillity, healthy food and traditions.”

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Columbu the bodybuilder also won the Mr Olympia title in 1976 and 1981, and came fifth in the first World’s Strongest Man contest in 1977. In 1978, he was named in the Guinness Book of Records for bursting a hot water bottle by blowing into it. He returned to Ollalai every summer, and died in 2019 after feeling unwell while swimming off the coast of Sardinia.

“The town is a window on the world,” said Veronica Matta, the president of the Sa Mata association. “We chose the US for the initial phase because of its link to a special person, the unforgettable Franco Columbu.”

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