KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a dank, malodorous building at the Soviet-built sports complex in central Kabul, five young Afghan men in bikini bottoms grimaced and flexed their triceps on an octagonal stage in front of a couple hundred onlookers.
"Let's change the music," said a voice on a loudspeaker, and the crowd cheered as dance music started blasting from the speakers. The steely-faced competitors finally grinned, and shifted their poses.
This was the Mr. Afghanistan bodybuilding contest -- Kabul City (East) regionals. The games were no small event: Four hundred and twenty challengers had shown up for this round alone; a lucky 27 of them would progress to the national competition in mid-May.
In a packed tent just outside, competitors for other weight divisions prepared themselves for the stage -- ripping off the last few bicep curls and coating their bodies up to their necks in a dark, claylike substance that gave their skin a sleek, uniform look. (The result, for the lighter-skinned athletes, was a bizarre turtleneck effect.)
"I was so small when I was a kid, so I always dreamed of being fit and strong," said a 23-year-old competitor named Namgialay, as he stood proudly with his first-place trophy for the 55-kilogram division. "I love doing this, it's my favorite sport. I've won this competition four of the last five years, but I'm still not ready for the international games yet. Maybe next year."
Bodybuilding has a long, prominent place in modern Afghan history. During the Soviet times, when international heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger defined corporal prowess, weightlifting was one activity Afghans could use to defiantly challenge their Russian occupiers.
The activity did not come to a halt during the culturally dark 1990s, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The events were just smaller, less jovial, and all the men were required to wear long pants.
"The Taliban used to come and laugh at us when we struck our poses," said Khyal Ahmad, a 28-year-old member of the national team who had come to watch, and even through a layer of clothing was obviously one of the strongest people at the gym. "After the Taliban left," he said, "the pants came off."
"Now we have more than 170 clubs in Kabul," said Khwaja Mohammad Fardin Abassi, the vice president of the body building federation, as he flexed a bicep through his blue tweed suit to punctuate the point.
Off to the side of the tent, a scrawny 16-year-old boy stood with some friends, staring at the muscular men around him.
"Aren't they so strong?" the boy, Habibullah Noori, marveled. "One day I want to be a champion, too. Everybody thinks Afghanistan is not strong, and not good at sports. I want to show the world."
Not everyone's ambitions were so high-minded.
"I truly believe the fundamentals of all sports is bodybuilding," Abassi said. "We've worked very hard at the federation to encourage young people to go to the gym: he can stay out of trouble, he'll be healthy, and he will always look good, and he will get a nice girlfriend. Even when he's wearing a shirt, he will impress the girls."
Police take their position alongside a giant picture of Afghan national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, on the roof of police headquarters in Kabul on May 7, 2012. The United States has freed up to 20 detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan over the past two years in an effort to promote reconciliation with insurgent groups, the US embassy said. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)
An Afghan youth looks out from an intricately carved truck window at a police checkpoint in Kabul on May 7, 2012. Afghan forces are ready to take responsibility for security in 2013, the defence ministry said on May 7, reacting to a pledge to withdraw French troops early by president-elect Francois Hollande. Hollande made a campaign promise to pull French soldiers out of Afghanistan this year, ending his country's combat role two years earlier than NATO's carefully crafted plan to hand security control to Afghans by 2014. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages)
|@ ISAFmedia : AP reports: Afghan Govt forces will thwart any attacks mounted by Taliban. http://t.co/qDEtWRsI #ANSFCanDo|
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U.S. servicemen inside of a plane before their departure to Afghanistan from the U.S. transit center Manas, 30 km outside the Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, on March 27, 2012. A planned withdrawal of US and coalition forces by the end of 2014 hinges on building up Afghan army and police, but the surge in 'fratricidal' attacks threatens to undermine that strategy, with strained relations between NATO troops and Afghan forces marked by distrust and cultural clashes. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/GettyImages)
An Afghan boy walks with his cow at sunset in Mazar-i Sharif, capital of the Balkh province on April 9, 2012. Agriculture has traditionally driven the Central Asian nation's economy, with wheat and cereal production being mainstays and quality fruits, especially pomegranates, apricots, grapes, melons, and mullberries being exported to many countries. (QAIS USYAN/AFP/GettyImages)
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on May 3, 2012. Karzai hailed a new pact with the United States but warned that tough negotiations on Washington's military presence in his war-torn country after 2014 still lay ahead. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)
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|@ cbrangel : As we begin our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we honor the 1,828 heroic Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice.http://1.usa.gov/IywJn3|