Kabul’s Real Strongmen: A Bodybuilding Craze in Afghanistan

Kabuls Real Strongmen: A Bodybuilding Craze in Afghanistan

It’s just past 9 a.m. and people are already filing into Kabul’s Park Cinema. The venue’s usual fare — shoot-em-up Bollywood matinees — may be popular, but they can’t compete with the display of homegrown muscle that makes up the annual Mr. Afghanistan pageant.

Backstage, bodybuilders from all over the country crank out push-ups and curl dumbbells for a last-second pump as groupies slap them down with oil and bark encouragement. Armed guards scan the main room for troublemakers, as VIPs take their seats in the front row and a standing-room gallery of at least 1,500 people pulses to the reggaeton hit, “Gasolina.”

Whether or not it’s achieved national pastime status, body building has become a craze in Afghanistan. On the drab streets of the capital it’s impossible to miss billboards of a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger and current champions such as Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman, all smiles and biceps. The Afghan National Bodybuilding Federation reports that more than 1,000 gyms nationwide are affiliated, some even in hotbeds of insurgency. The co-winner of the 2006 Mr. Afghanistan title, Aziz Ahmad Nikyar, is a native of Helmand, where Taliban militants battle coalition forces to keep their grip on the world’s largest source of opium poppy.

The father of Afghan bodybuilding is Bawar Khan Hotak, until recently the head of the bodybuilding federation and a hulk in his own right. Mr. Hotak, a former wrestler with a hefty jawline and hands to match, says he and his friends fashioned derelict Soviet tank parts into weight machines during the 1990s, filling oil drums with cement to make barbells. “We wanted to build something for children here who had nothing to feel good about,” he says. “And of course, we loved to exercise ourselves.”

During the Taliban days, he took part in a bodybuilding competition he had helped arrange at Ghazi Stadium, then a public execution site. One of the rules imposed by authorities was that no shorts could be worn. Still, spectators were so impressed with his showmanship that some threw coins as a sign of their approval. The gesture amounted to idol worship in the eyes of the ultra-conservatives regime, he says, and resulted in a brief stint in jail for him. But his taste for the sport only grew with time. Months after the Taliban fled, Hotak opened Gold’s Gym in Kabul, naming it after the original in Venice, Calif., where his hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had trained in the cult bodybuilding film Pumping Iron.

Many others have followed Hotak’s lead. Zubair Mohsin, a former city champion, has about 400 regulars who pay $5 a month to work out at his neighborhood gym, Ariana Power. The place stays packed well past 9 p.m., with a smoke-belching generator to cope with the rolling blackouts. Most are teenagers who talk earnestly about lifting weights as an alternative recreation to doing drugs. They say the financial demands of competitive bodybuilding — for protein powder, personal trainers and steroids, which trainers admit are readily available — are too high. But in recent years a new crop of Afghan talent has competed abroad in places such as Singapore, Bahrain and as far as Korea, winning several medals last April at the South Asian bodybuilding championships in Varanasi, India. Last fall, a small women’s contest was held in Kabul, billed as a “weightlifting” event to keep it Afghan-appropriate.

The cash-strapped government has little to spare to promote the sport. And, as with much in Afghanistan, politics also gets in the way. The annual Mr. Kabul contest was held last month in a skeleton format due to a funding shortage and a dispute between bodybuilding and Olympic committee officials over the use of limited resources. Mr. Mohsin explained that the Mr. Kabul designation itself was also scrapped because past winners had received harassment from jealous rivals. “Unfortunately, this is Afghanistan,” he says. “No one can do this for money, because there isn’t any. But there’s a lot of pride at stake, and everyone knows your name if you do well.”

In another testament to the resilience of Afghan bodybuilding, this year’s Mr. Afghanistan, Shuqrullah Shakili, hails from Musa Qala, a desert outpost in Helmand province that until late 2007 was fully controlled by the Taliban. He won a tense contest last week that lasted over five hours, interrupted by two power outages, scuffles between rival entourages and a second-place contestant who refused to leave the stage until the judges changed their mind. The top prize — a polyester tracksuit and a gold plastic trophy — won’t allow Mr. Shakili to quit his day job as a mechanic. But he will get to compete in the next Asian championships in August in Iran, and his billboard appeal could attract private sponsorships.

Shakili has certainly made a name for himself. Even though be beat one of their fellow Kabulis, Wahid Arab, in a showdown to win the overall title, dozens of fans rushed the stage to have their pictures hugging the new champ. None seemed to mind getting smeared with tanning cream.
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