Bodybuilding in the Middle East

Bodybuilders at the Mr Olympia competition in Amman
The organisers of Jordan’s first major bodybuilding competition say the sport is helping keep young men positive and disciplined. Anthony Pinda reports.

Muscular bronzed bodies glisten under the flashing lights, as an ecstatic crowd fills the Prince Hamzeh Hall on a cool morning in Amman.

This is the Mr Olympia Amateur bodybuilding championship, the first time the event has been held in Jordan.

For many of the supporters, it’s about more than ripped bodies and bulging muscles.

One spectator, Khalil Al Qarout, says that it’s, “about supporting each other and having close connections with fellow bodybuilders”.

“We are like brothers.”

Qarout and about 30 friends have converged on the stadium to cheer on their mentor and coach, Mohammad Al Harasis, who is competing in the under 85kg category.

They are standing high in the stadium and together they chant: “ Sis, Sis, Sis, Mohammad Al Harasis”.

“It’s important to be here because Mohammad has put so much time into helping us become athletes, so we are here to support him,” says Qarout.

Bodybuilding has been popular in Jordan since the 1980s and the country is now making its name on the world stage with top class athletes.

“This is very important for us,” says Dr Akef Taifour, the Vice President of the recently established Jordanian Bodybuilding Federation.

“Most competitors and spectators are young Jordanians that are being helped by the older generation to fight against drugs and violence,” he says. “You have to keep them busy with something that is beneficial to the mind, body and soul.”

The federation was established because bodybuilding in Jordan has become a large part of what Taifour calls the “gym culture”. He estimates there are now over “one thousand bodybuilding clubs located throughout Jordan”.

“This is the first time in Jordan we have had a mass competition with a huge number of competitors and it’s only the second time Mr Olympia has been held in the Arab World,” he says.

Also among the spectators is Amro Jalajel, who recently stepped away from the posing stage to mentor young bodybuilders at his gym in Amman.

He has four students competing in Mr Olympia.

“I give them first-hand advice based on my 12 years of experience as a bodybuilder on the best gym training techniques, nutritional information and advice about the natural supplements that they should take.”

The first and most important factor is food. “You are what you eat”, he says.

“Second is maintaining a strict sleeping pattern and of course hundreds of hours in the gym training your mind and body.”

“Our sport is about discipline and being strong in the mind. You must be this way to survive as a bodybuilder.”

He says once you become a part of the bodybuilding world, “it’s like an addiction in the blood. Believe me”.

It’s an addiction his family fully supports.

“My wife loves that I do bodybuilding. She much prefers defined abs over a flabby stomach. It makes her go crazy.”

Mr Olympia in Jordan is open to bodybuilders from Middle Eastern and north African countries including Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, UAE and Jordan.

Born in Egypt to an Egyptian father and Iraqi mother, Mo Ismail is in Amman hoping to fulfill his dream of earning his professional accreditation which will allow him to compete at several International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness events.

He has lived in the United States for most of his life but is now based in the UAE. He trains at the world renowned Gold’s Gym, for which he is also a global ambassador.

He too knows the importance of support from friends and family.

“My father bought me my first official gym membership at Gold’s Gym in Washington DC and to this day I still thank him for supporting me to where I am,” he says.

“Bodybuilding is a fantastic lifestyle, as long as you don’t go to the extreme.

“The sport has changed, there’s now multiple categories to compete in. It’s not about being huge anymore.”

“Your average person may not necessarily find old-school bodybuilding aesthetic pleasing, it’s really unattainable unless you put in endless hours of work and eat 10,000 calories per day.”

Ismail says the introduction of several new divisions allows more people to get into bodybuilding.

As a result, he believes there will be more “athletes that you can realistically aspire to be like”.