Building better bodies ... naturally

The world of bodybuilding, with its enormous biceps, rippling pecs and well-defined six-packs, has long been tainted by the association with illegal supplements. So a competition that promotes the drug-free pursuit of a sculpted body makes perfect sense, Mitya Underwood writes

 Walid Yari works out with help from Bassem El Jawhari , the Middle East president of the International Natural Bodybuilding Association. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Anita Mazar may be tall, pretty and blonde, but underneath the glamorous exterior is a tough woman.

She has a vice-like handshake and barely breaks a sweat when lifting a 75kg weight.

This weekend she will be showing off how strong she really is when she becomes one of the first women to compete at the inaugural International Natural Bodybuilding Association-Middle East competition.

It is the first event in the country that includes women, and also the first billed as a natural event, meaning its competitors are free from any steroids or other illegal supplements.

“The reputation of bodybuilding goes hand in hand with the use of steroids and illegal supplements,” says Bassem El Jawhari, the INBA regional representative. “We are trying to change that and get people to think about the sport and us [bodybuilders] in a different way.

“I want young people to know that they can achieve certain goals if they eat healthy and work hard. It’s a lot about science and understanding your body and food, what it does to your body. If you understand this, you can achieve your goal.”

Bassem expects the competitors to have been training for three or four months, working out twice a day for at least an hour at a time.

For most athletes, the last few days before the competition are the hardest.

This week Anita, 28, from Serbia, is surviving on little more than three to six litres of distilled water a day and only protein-based foods. She cannot eat sugar, salt or any types of carbohydrates.

She will have dry beef jerky for breakfast and red meat or fish for lunch and dinner, as well as large quantities of Omega 3 and multivitamins.

“I don’t enjoy the discipline but it’s just for one week,” she says. “There’s no sugar to burn so your muscles can’t grow. In the last couple of days I will look much, much thinner.

“Because you’re having no sugar you’re totally deflated and having cold sweats. The only thing you can do is light cardio, you’re barely working.”

On competition day, months of strict dieting and exercise comes to an abrupt end before the competitors even step on stage.

“On the day I’ll be very, very, very happy. I get to eat Nutella, lots of it. Snickers bars, Nutella, everything. When you eat it, immediately all the sugar comes inside the muscles and your brain is exploding.”

Anita will be one of about 30 women taking part in the competition. Her costumes include a gold two-piece swimsuit worn with very, very high heels, and a bright reddish-orange sports top worn with small black shorts and bright-coloured shoes

Training and fitness comes naturally to the Fitness First fitness manager. She began working out when she was a teenager, and has been practising real aikido, a martial art developed in Serbia that mixes aikido, jujutsu and judo, and Brazilian jiu jitsu for 10 years.

When she was 23 and still studying at the Belgrade Criminal and Police Academy she took part in Survivor Srbija; Philippines, the second season of the Serbian version of the hit US television series. Unfortunately she had to leave after three weeks when she broke a leg in an immunity challenge.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” she says. “I was the strongest female in my tribe Ga’dang. It was a challenge and we were fighting on a thin log. I came off it and hit my leg on the way down, and it broke.”

On returning to Serbia she continued studying from home while her leg healed. As part of her duties she shadowed VIPs including the wife and daughter of the president at the time on official visits in their home country.

After graduating she moved to Dubai and has been wanting to compete ever since.

Bassem, from Lebanon, started trying to bring the INBA to the Middle East more than a year ago.

He travelled to the US to meet INBA officials and prove he was able to maintain its high standards, especially when it came to its anti-doping policy.

He also needed to get approval and support from the Dubai Sports Council and the Emirates Body Building Federation before going back to these agencies to seek permission to host this weekend's competition, which includes 10 divisions, such as Bikini Diva and Mr Beach Body.

Male competitors must wear solid-colour posing suits and women must wear solid-colour two-piece outfits free of any jewels. Bikinis, thongs or G-strings are not allowed.

“The clothing must be decent, this has been discussed,” Bassem says.

While this year’s event is mixed, Bassem hopes to organise a women’s-only event next year to open up the competition to more women, particularly Emiratis.

“I have spoken to women and they said there are some ladies who would be really interested. There would be no men competing, judging or in the audience.”

Dubai will also host the INBA World Championships next year, hosting 250 athletes from 54 countries.

“There is a real need for this kind of sport here,” Bassem says. “A lot of people would like to compete but they don’t because there isn’t the opportunity.

“They can’t compete with the guys that use a lot of steroids. It’s either you use illegal substances or you just can’t compete. This was why we wanted to set up here. We want young people to see you don’t need to take substances to bodybuild.”

While a competition may be described as natural, if competitors are not tested there is no way of knowing whether the event is drug-free or not.

On Friday evening all athletes mist submit a urine sample for testing. The winner's samples will be sent to INBA Global to be tested by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Anyone caught cheating will be stripped of their win, and the results made public.

Bassem, Anita and Walid Yari, an Emirati competitor, all agree that steroid use in the UAE is high. In some gyms they have seen used syringes in the bins and littering the ground outside.

“I would go to the gym with someone and he will improve in a way that is unbelievable” says Walid, 28. “He will laugh at me and say ‘you will stay the same man, don’t you want to grow?’.

“Maybe from the outside it looks beautiful, but I don’t know what’s happening inside.”

Walid, a power engineer, started bulking up in the gym as a young teenager to defend himself against school bullies.

Now he is something of a celebrity on the local bodybuilding scene and has 130,000 followers on his Instagram account @WalidYari.

“It started when some kids were bullying me. I wanted to do this to protect myself.

“I started playing football and going to the gym. Then we had a push-up competition, I was doing maybe 50, non stop. The other kids did seven or 10.

“I discovered I had good genetics and a lot of personal trainers encouraged me to try to do something with myself. I started to watch YouTube and googling how I would build my body. I didn’t know I would reach such a level.”

Walid, who has a 30-inch waist, works out every day and watches everything he eats. He rarely indulges in junk food for fear of undoing his hard work.

“If I eat a burger I worry I’ll lose a pack, then I would be angry at myself.

“Of course I will be sad if I don’t win, but I will try to swallow it and accept it.”

The winners of the competition will qualify to enter the Natural Olympia contest in San Diego next month.