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Iraqi body beautifuls flex in honor of hero Arnie
Updated: 2004-07-31 09:33

They grunted, they flexed and they posed in their tight swimming trunks in downtown Baghdad on Friday, all in honor of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder turned politician.  

It was the governor of California's 57th birthday, and thousands of miles away in blisteringly hot Baghdad members of the Arnold Classic gym celebrated too, staging what they said was the country's first postwar bodybuilding competition.

Iraqi bodybuilder Hashem Mohsin Abdul-Rasoul flexes his muscles near a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Baghdad gym named in his honor, July 30, 2004. Iraqi musclemen of all sizes turned out to celebrate Schwarzenegger's 57th birthday at the Arnold Classic gym, named in honor of their mentor, former actor and now US California governor. [Reuters]

"This is for Arnold, our hero and the greatest champion ever," announced Sabah Talib, owner of the gym and himself a former Asian bodybuilding champ, as he launched the event.

"No day could be better than on Arnold's birthday."

And so the games began.

In groups of four and five, they strutted onto a makeshift stage in the parking lot of the Arnold Classic and began flexing their physiques to an appreciative crowd of dozens.

While some had their bodies coated in the bronze oil common to professional bodybuilders, others couldn't get hold of the real thing in war-shortened Baghdad and so used a red colored ink instead that made them look badly sunburned.

Yet that didn't put anyone off as the 27 competitors in six weight classes put themselves through several punishing rounds of bicep, abdominal, back and leg flexes that were closely observed by a serious-minded panel of judges.

First in the 155 lb class came Sabah Qais Rabie, a 19-year-old Baghdadi and apprentice tailor who immediately declared he was giving that up and wanted to turn professional.

"I hope one day to represent the new Iraq in international competitions," he said, still sweating from his exertions.

Asked if Iraq might be a safer place if more young men spent their time weight-lifting and bodybuilding, he was cautious.

"I don't get involved in politics. I just like to focus on training hard and being the best I can be. But if Iraqis spend time doing sports to keep fit and healthy, that is good."


The winner in the 198 lb category was more forthcoming.

"Obviously, if young men spend as much time training as I do, then they're not going to be outside getting themselves in trouble," said Hashim Mohsin Abdul-Rasoul, his gold medal still dangling around his neck, dwarfed between his pectorals.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's Arnold Classic has kept up tight relations with the Austrian-born politician.

Last year, after changing the name to Arnold Classic from "Elegant Bodies," the gym's owner wrote to Schwarzenegger to let him know. The governor wrote an appreciative letter back, and he wrote again last week to say thanks after hearing that the gym would be holding its inaugural competition on his birthday.

Continuing the mutual appreciation, Talib, the gym owner, recently changed his son's name to Arnold. On Friday, the five-year-old bravely flexed his skinny frame to the crowd in between changeovers in the competition.

After the winners were declared -- an Egyptian diplomat even turned up to present one of the medals -- a two-tiered cake topped by a muscle-bound figurine of Arnold was cut with a kitchen knife and sparklers were lit.

It was left to the compere of the event, a hulking electronic engineer called Ziad Tarik to put it in perspective.

"These men are good representatives of the new Iraq because they are fit, strong and dedicated," the 30-year-old said. "If we had more men like that, we'd be much better off."

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