Brian Oliver

Arnold Schwarzenegger made headlines around the world when he was kicked in the back on a visit to South Africa a couple of weeks ago.

The Hollywood star and former Governor of California fell but was unscathed and did not press charges after the bizarre incident at a gym near Johannesburg, where the publicity-seeking assailant screamed, “Help me! I need a Lamborghini!” while being restrained.

Schwarzenegger dismissed the attack and carried out his duties over the next couple of days at the Arnold Classic Africa event, before returning to his California home to promote the new Terminator film which, 28 years after the last one, will be released in the United States in November.

At the age of 71, Schwarzenegger is still in demand in Hollywood.

His Arnold Sports Festivals, which have promoted bodybuilding and strength sports for 30 years, are also very popular across the world; 24,000 athletes took part in the African event in Sandton.

At the end of the week, Schwarzenegger was there for the induction of two great strongmen into the South African Hall of Fame, his personal mentor Reg Park, and the 82-year-old record-breaking weightlifter Precious McKenzie.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is still hugely in demand in Hollywood ©Getty Images
Arnold Schwarzenegger is still hugely in demand in Hollywood ©Getty Images

Arnold (6ft 2in) towered over Precious (4ft 10in) by a considerable distance, but the Queen’s favourite weightlifter – who also won world titles in powerlifting in his later years – can stand tall, figuratively, in any gathering of sporting greats.

If ever a sportsman or woman deserved the Hollywood treatment, it is Precious (nobody ever calls him by his surname).

It nearly happened, too, but after a script had been written and funding was sought at Cannes, the project fell apart about seven years ago.

That is a sad loss.

There have been plenty of memorable films about real-life sporting heroes – Chariots of Fire, Cool Runnings, Eddie the Eagle, Seabiscuit, Tommy’s Honour (about the 19th-century golfer Young Tom Morris), and Pele to name a few.

Precious’ life story would make a better script than any of those.

He would have been justified in staying at home in New Zealand rather than accepting his invitation to South Africa, so appalling was the discrimination he suffered in the land of his birth when his sporting career began in the 1950s.

But he has been “home” before, having also been honoured at a South African sporting function in 2006 – and he still has family there.

It is difficult for Precious to look back fondly on his early years in apartheid South Africa.

His birth in Durban was not recorded because he was "coloured”.

When he suffered double pneumonia as an infant, a plaster cast was left on his chest for so long it burned through his skin; it was so bad his mother could see his internal organs.

His father bled to death on a riverbank after a crocodile bit off one of his legs at the thigh, leaving his alcoholic mother Christina impoverished and unable to care for Precious and his sister Gloria.

Precious McKenzie balances boxing great Muhammad Ali on his shoulders ©Precious McKenzie
Precious McKenzie balances boxing great Muhammad Ali on his shoulders ©Precious McKenzie

The inseparable young siblings lived on the streets of Pietermaritzburg, performing acrobatics or singing for a few pennies: they were illiterate until their teenage years.

Precious and Gloria were raised by a succession of cruel foster parents, one of whom scarred Precious for life with a knife attack. They were made to carry four-gallon drums of water when they were tiny children, which may have stunted their growth; their elder brother grew to 6ft.

Eventually they were taken in by a Catholic mission hundreds of miles away, where they received an education and, for Precious, encouragement in his training in gymnastics and acrobatics.

He came close to an horrific death while a teenager at the mission – he was within inches of drowning in human excrement when he fell into a cesspit and was sucked down inch by inch.

“When it was up to my chest I thought I was going to die,” said Precious.

“What a death that would have been! Worse than my father. Can you possibly imagine anything worse?

“I was saved by a strong tuft of grass at the edge of the pit. I grabbed hold of that and the other boys pulled me out.”

At 17 he took up weightlifting at a gym in Pietermaritzburg, and it soon became clear that he was a phenomenal talent.

But being the national champion at bantamweight, the best weightlifter in South Africa, counted for nothing in an apartheid regime. His skin was the wrong colour.

Not only was he overlooked for Commonwealth Games and Olympic teams, he was told he could not lift on the same platform as whites, could not travel with them, could not wear the same uniform.

Precious and his young family escaped to Britain, where he would eventually be given a passport, thanks to support from the then Sports Minister, Denis Howell.

His first Commonwealth Games gold medal came in 1966 in Kingston, Jamaica, where he famously asked Princess Anne for a dance at the post-Games party, starting a lifelong friendship with the Royal Family.

He won again in 1970 and 1974, gaining an army of fans along the way as he featured in newspapers and on television, most notably when he lifted Muhammad Ali on his shoulders at a charity dinner in London.

He even had fan mail from prisoners.

The sport was strictly amateur and for all his fame, Precious could not accept fees for his television appearances; he worked full-time and had to miss some international championships because he could not afford to travel.

But he was happy.

Fourth from left, Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger and to his right, Precious McKenzie ©Precious McKenzie
Fourth from left, Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger and to his right, Precious McKenzie ©Precious McKenzie

“I was so proud to belong to a country where my colour didn’t count, only my ability,” he said.

Precious was so popular in New Zealand, where he won his third Commonwealth gold in 1974, that he moved there, and by 1978 he was able to compete as a Kiwi in his attempt to become the first athlete in any sport to win gold at four straight Commonwealth Games.

By now he had met members of the Royal Family several times, at official functions and presentations, and was a favourite of the Queen.

When he won that fourth gold medal in Edmonton, Canada the Queen made sure she was there to see it – and sent an urgent invitation to him to attend her garden party the next day.

Among those who have been surprised by the Queen’s affection for Precious are the New Zealand All Blacks.

On two visits to Buckingham Palace while on tour in Britain, team officials were asked to pass on the Queen’s best wishes to Precious back in New Zealand.

He still lifts weights and takes classes in Auckland that are popular among the older generation.

He had radiotherapy sessions last year when he was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal chords, and recovered.

You would need a book to do justice to the achievements of this remarkable man – or a film.

So, Terminator 3 will doubtless be very entertaining when it arrives in cinemas later this year.

But I’d rather watch a Hollywood treatment of the life and times of Precious McKenzie.