From the belly of deepest Deira, down a dusty spiral staircase littered with flyers and empty cans of Pocari Sweat, we can hear the rhythmic clanging of metal on metal. It’s here, in this catacomb-like basement of Flex Gym beneath Abu Hail Road, that the UAE national bodybuilding team convenes, twice a day, to get bigger.
We find the team in intensive training for this week’s World Bodybuilding Championship. Yasser Sulaiman Qattali, an 83kg Dubai-born bodybuilder with arms like two stubbly torpedoes, greets us at the entrance to the gym. He gestures to a photograph of three almost inhumanly ripped athletes stuck to a chipboard wall near the bench press. ‘That’s me,’ says Qattali, pointing to a vaguely recognisable mass doused in gold body polish. ‘That was in Fujairah last month, my third competition and, thanks to God, I got first place. I came second last year, but this time, I rocked.’
For all of Qattali’s excitement and the very visual dedication of the team around us, as they lift absurdly oversized barbells and growl encouraging ‘yallahs’ at each other, bodybuilding isn’t top of the UAE’s sports agenda right now. ‘We haven’t got a sponsor for this event,’ says Qattali, an embarrassing fact given that this is the first time the world championships have been hosted in an Arab country. ‘We’re funding this entirely ourselves, training every day, twice a day, and holding up jobs at the same time.’
We talk to Hamed Al Refaei, another Dubai-born athlete on the team, who dayjobs as an immigration officer at Dubai airport when not at the gym. ‘Four years I’ve been a bodybuilder,’ says Refaei. ‘It’s tough, but a good sport. Everything is covered in this. You need a good workout and a complete diet.’
These bodybuilders are on strict five-meals-a-day diets. That’s eight egg whites and oatmeal for breakfast, chicken and steamed vegetables for mid-morning, a fish fillet and steamed rice for lunch, more chicken with veg for dinner, and six egg whites as an afterthought. Oh, and a slice of (surprisingly white) toast.
The discipline, Refaei tells us, is the appeal to most of this otherwise punishing lifestyle. ‘Inshallah, we can win this. But Iran and Thailand are our biggest competition. They have so many bodybuilders, whereas in the UAE it’s still put in second place as a sport.’
We’re led deeper into the gym as the team pose for our photographer. We watch Qattali straining forwards, bringing his fists almost together, which causes his biceps and neck muscles to crease alarmingly. He still, somehow, manages to grin for the camera. Afterwards, he explains that this forms the core of what a bodybuilder is trying to achieve. ‘To pose well is fundamental to bodybuilding. Before every pose, I prepare myself, my mind, for two minutes. I have to do that, otherwise my opponent will beat me, even if I have the better body.’ Sounds dramatic. ‘Symmetry is also very important,’ he continues. ‘But you get that from God. You can improve the shape of your muscle, but you’ll never change your symmetry.’
It’s hard not to warm to the team’s sense of drama about the event. Though they’re training in a dingy gym, with flickering lights and ageing motivational posters that have lost their colour, there’s a special moment as superheavyweight Anas Al Asli strains his arm like a discus thrower and baroque classical music rises up from a distant TV. It could almost be a soundtrack. ‘This is a world championship,’ says Qattali. ‘Whatever they’ve got, they spend on hotels, the venue, promotion.’
The suggestion is that this team, juggling jobs with iron-pumping, needs some investment. ‘But we continue to do this twice a day. I do it with the support of my friends, my fans. And I’m loyal to the country.’
The Men’s World Bodybuilding Championship will be held from November 3-8 at Al Ahli Club, Al Qusais. Dhs100 entry per person. The final will be held on November 7 at 4.30pm. See www.wbpsf.org.