The sight of a foreign journalist’s camera incited a frenzy of flexing and shouting beneath yellowed posters of present-day bodybuilding favorites, such as Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman. And, of course, Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Abdul Hadiqubadi, 27, has a day job with a U.N. agency and pays about $6 in monthly dues to work out when he has free time. He says it is a small price to work out alongside some of Afghanistan’s best bodybuilders.
“There are bigger gyms,” he said, “but this is the best. All the champions and top trainers lift here.”
Surging violence in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces has not slowed the sport’s growth.
As president of the National Bodybuilding Federation, Mr. Hotak travels the country to meet other coaches, hold workshops and organize competitions, and says there may be more than 550 gyms across Afghanistan.
With such a robust following, doesn’t the government help fund and develop the sport? Mr. Hotak shakes his head and laughs.
“Iran and Pakistan are well-equipped. If we can’t have as much as them, we at least shouldn’t be far worse off. But we get nothing from [the government],” Mr. Hotak said. Still, a framed photo of him shaking hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai hangs in his office.
Over the past 70 years Afghanistan has participated in 12 Olympic Games, but has never qualified in weightlifting — a record Mr. Hotak attributes to a lack of sponsorship, even compared to the country’s neighbors.
Afghanistan’s iron men are not holding their breath for state funding while a war rages in the provinces.
But they are convinced that new weight machines, training expertise and even glossy posters would be on the way if bodybuilding’s most famous champion only knew of his fans on the other side of the world.
“We know everything about him. We want him to know something about us, the poor bodybuilders of Afghanistan.”